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5th Sunday after Pentecost, 2017

5th Sunday after Pentecost, year A, preached 7/9/17

first reading:  Zechariah 9:9-12

Psalm 145:8-14

second reading:  Romans 7:15-25a

gospel reading:  Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30


The last verses of our gospel reading contain a much loved saying of Jesus.

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

Problem is, in a society that’s become modern and mechanized, we can lose sight of one of the main images of this saying.

We “get” that Jesus wants to give us tired people rest.  Lord, most of us LONG for rest.  But the image of the yoke is lost on most of us.

The word “yoke” is unfamiliar to many outside of old farming circles.  I’m not even sure how many farmers, at least in the United States, use yokes anymore.  And we certainly don’t use the word in everyday conversation.  But we miss SO much of Jesus’ message here when we skip over the meaning of the word “yoke.”

A “yoke” is a wooden frame, usually consisting of a bar with a collar-like piece at either end for attaching to the necks of a pair of draft animals, so that they can be worked as a team, OR a frame fitting over a person’s shoulders for carrying buckets at either end.

Either for human or draft animal, a yoke is basically a strong beam that you carry across your shoulders, that helps balance heavy weight.

The thing about yokes is that while they might make work easier, the work they help you do is neither easy or light. If draft animals or persons are using a yoke, there is certainly heavy lifting or pulling involved.

When we remind ourselves of what a “yoke” is the phrases “take my yoke upon you,” and “my yoke is easy and my burden is light” are better understood.  Because often when we think of faith in Jesus, we have an expectation of “NO burden.”

We look at verses like these and think that Jesus is telling us to expect an easy life.  “Light burdens” means smooth sailing, right?

Then when we hit rough patches, or if our life is FILLED with daily struggle we do one of two things:  1) we question our faith – “maybe I’m not believing enough,” or 2) we question God – “THIS is light?  Thanks for nothing Jesus.”

But Jesus isn’t offering us smooth sailing here.  He’s not giving us some magic baptismal spell to take our problems away;  not some pop psychology that tells us “don’t worry be happy” (which is NOT the same as true important psychological treatment).  He is not giving us the prosperity gospel which falsely claims that if we just do “a” “b” and “c” then God will bless us and we’ll overcome all our struggles.

What Jesus IS giving us the the way to CARRY our burdens – not make them disappear.

My view of this passage was forever changed when it was spoken to a dear friend at his ordination.  These verses are often read during the ordination of a pastor, as they are presented with a stole around their necks.

Just weeks before his ordination, my husband and I attended the funeral of our friend’s newborn son, who died during delivery.  When the bishop placed the stole on his shoulders and said, “For my yoke is easy and my burden is light,” we ALL cried, even the bishop.

When we look at my friend’s grief and these verses, we might think God is playing some kind of cruel joke. What about that situation was easy and light?  What about any of our burdens is easy or light?

And we’re brought back to the responses I mentioned a few moments ago – to question how good our faith is, or what kind of God we have.  But it’s NOT a question of our faith being good enough, or God’s love being great enough.

You and I both know that there is no such thing as perfect faith – if there was, then Jesus died for nothing. And you and I both know that God’s love is greater than we will ever be able to understand or fell.

I hope and pray that WHEN we question – because we ALL do – that we are brought back to that yoke – the way our burdens are carried – Christ’s yoke.  And that yoke is the CROSS.

The strong beam he carried for you and me, was the beam from which he was hung.

To “take my yoke upon you” means, for me, that the crossbeam that bore Christ is the yoke that holds you and me in his love and comfort and rest.

The yoke that he carried, becomes the yoke that saves you and me from ultimate hopelessness, loneliness, and despair.

The burdens in our lives, the things that make us weary to our bones, are the things Jesus wants to carry for us. Because of Jesus’ yoke, we are not left to carry the burdens alone.  As we carry our burdens, Jesus is carrying us.

And when he talks to us about easiness and lightness, he’s not talking about a smooth sailing, don’t-worry-be-happy life.  He’s telling us that he’s “got this,” he is with us, carrying us through.  It’s light, because we don’t bear the burdens alone.  We can rest, because we don’t bear the burdens alone.

“Take my yoke upon you,” is to cling to Jesus on the cross, to stop trying to carry our burdens all by ourselves.  To give our burdens over, as much as we humanly can, because God knows we sometimes, even self-destructively, cling to our pain.

Jesus sees us as we struggle, and says, “Come to me.”  Our yoke – the burdens we carry – is forever bound to his through our baptism.

Come to him, take the yoke of his cross, and lay all your burdens there.  Allow Jesus to carry them, and carry you, so that you may have rest.

AMEN.

 

5th Sunday of Easter, 2017

5th Sunday of Easter, year A, preached 5/14/17

first reading:  Acts 7:55-60

Psalm 31:1-5,15-16

second reading:  1 Peter 2:2-10

gospel reading:  John 14:1-14

*Today we were celebrating the Rite of Confirmation.  I have only used the confirmand’s first initial to protect her privacy.


“Like newborn infants, long for the pure spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow into salvation…  let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood… a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people…  Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.”

Our second reading for this morning about sums up our journey of faith, and I think it’s a perfect reading for today, as we celebrate S’s confirmation.

“Like newborn infants…”  That’s how all of us come to God, regardless of how old we were when we came to the font for Holy Baptism.  Whether we were five months old, or five years, or twenty five – we all come to God as newborns – with nothing to offer for ourselves.

Newborns are completely helpless, and will die if left to themselves.  They are utterly dependent on others for food, cleanliness, and protection.  Just like the tiniest baby, are you and I before God.  We can’t do anything to make ourselves worthy, can’t ever be good enough.

Our motives even when we do the right thing are often complicated instead of altruistic.  Someone hurts us and we can’t or won’t forgive, we screw up and we can’t forgive ourselves.  We’re a violent people: there is violence in our homes, prisons are filled with stories of violence, and the need for armies is a testimony to our collective urge to fight instead of make peace.

None of this is worthy of God.  So, we come to God helpless.  Beggars, looking for a bit of mercy.  And God gives us everything.  More than we could ever could’ve dreamed.

In our baptism we are made a “chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation – God’s own people.”

S – on November 11, 2001, Pastor “P” splashed the Water and the Word on you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit – and in that act you were sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever.

It doesn’t mean that you, or the rest of us as the Church, are perfect.  Far from it.  To be “chosen,” “royal,” and “holy” isn’t a weapon we use against others, it doesn’t make us better than anyone else – it’s not a sign of OUR worth, but of God’s grace and love.

All we can do is live our lives in a way that says “thank you” for being made into “God’s people,” and the mercy we have received through Jesus Christ.

How do we do that?  Well, the liturgy for the Rite of Confirmation gives us all a good place to start.  As S will affirm in a few moments, it would be good for all of us to reflect upon how WE are continuing in the covenant God made with US in Holy Baptism:

  • “To live among God’s faithful people,
  • to hear God’s Word and share in his supper,
  • to proclaim the good news of God in Christ through word and deed,
  • to serve all people following the example of our Lord Jesus, and
  • to strive for justice and peace in all the earth.”¹

What all that really boils down to is what Jesus said were the two most important commands – to love God and to love neighbor.

As I said, none of us are perfect.  We fail as individuals and as Church.  But it doesn’t mean we stop trying.  And not only do we fail – we doubt and struggle with faith.  And let me make it clear that struggling with our faith or doubting, is NOT the same as failing.

Failing is when we know we’ve done something wrong.  Doubt and struggle are natural parts of faith that are not a sign of failure, but are actually signs of STRENGTH.  

There are positive and negative things about only having one student in confirmation class.  The negatives might seem pretty obvious.  But the positive is that I think S and I have had some good conversations about doubt and struggle.  She has shared with me some of hers, and I have shared with her some of mine.

S, I admire your ability to be as open with me as you have about your questions.  And I hope you KEEP asking questions, because it means you’re actually thinking about your faith.  Not blindly following. Doubt and struggle are ways we “grow into salvation” and in many other parts of life too.

It doesn’t mean we always get the answers, we’re not God after all – and the struggles and doubts can get really frustrating – but God can take it.  The most important thing we need to do for ourselves is to keep talking to God, and to keep hearing the Word and sharing the supper.  Because when we all wrestle, struggle or doubt, the worst thing we can do with God, or with any person or group, is to stop talking, to separate ourselves.

This is why Confirmation is not the end of our Christian education journey, or faith journey, but really is just the beginning.

The questions don’t end, they just change as we go through life, and sometimes questions we “think” we found the answers to come back around again.

Because we really are just “newborn infants” longing…  Faith is never a destination – only a journey.

Welcome to this new part of your journey S.  We, and most importantly GOD, are walking along with you.

AMEN.


¹Lutheran Book of Worship, p. 201

3rd Sunday of Easter, 2017

3rd Sunday of Easter, year A, preached 4/30/17

first reading:  Acts 2:14a, 36-41

Psalm 116:1-4, 12-19

second reading:  1 Peter 1:17-23


There are times in our lives when we’ve all faced disappointment.  Deep disappointment.  Sometimes that disappointment is also accompanied by a loss of hope.  I think I can safely assume that most of us also have gone through periods of hopelessness.  I know I have.

Disappointment and hopelessness can lead to profound grief over what “could have been.”  But grief can also lead to disappointment and hopelessness.  Grief can be the cause or the result.

For our disciples this morning, grief was the cause.  This was just a few days after the crucifixion.  They had lost Jesus.  They had been in Jerusalem, where just the week before Jesus had entered triumphantly to “Hosanna’s.”  A week before, filled with hope.

Now they were leaving, filled with grief.  And this grief wasn’t only for the loss of a teacher.  This was grief for what they had hoped Jesus would bring to their people.  As they would tell the “stranger” walking with them, “we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.”

They “had” hoped.  Hope in the past tense.  Hope gone.  They were grieving the loss of Jesus, but they were also grieving the loss of hope.

I can only imagine their disappointment.  Their teacher dead, hopes crushed.  The believers hiding and dispersed. I’m sure they felt like God had abandoned them.  They obviously thought there was no reason for them to stay in the holy city.  And so they were walking away in grief.

Pastor Robert Hoch of Baltimore writes, “There are some walks that are longer than others – not because of the miles or even because of the landscape, but because of the burdens…”¹  And into this journey, which Pastor Hoch refers to as a “walk of hopes in shambles” comes a stranger.

They were “talking and discussing” and this man they didn’t recognize asks them a question:  “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?”

One of the disciples, named Cleopas, basically says, “What rock have you been hiding under?  How could you NOT know?”  To which Jesus basically answers, “Then tell me.”

And Cleopas does.  Cleopas pours his heart out to Jesus the stranger.  Most telling is his account of the empty tomb.  He and his companion know about the women finding it empty, they know about the “vision of angels who said that he was alive,” but it seems they couldn’t bring themselves to believe it.

Then it’s Jesus’ turn to talk.  First we need to understand that when he calls them “foolish” – what he really means is “thoughtless.”  He isn’t calling them stupid or rejecting them.  He’s pointing out that their hearts have been “slow” – they’re not connecting the dots.  So he does it for them.

The Word proclaims the word.  Jesus “interpreted to them the things about himself…”  Then after the Word proclaimed the word, Cleopas and his companion implored the stranger Jesus to stay with them. They were living the gospel of Christ – loving their neighbor by showing hospitality.

Then in the breaking of the bread they saw the stranger for who he was.

Grief turned to joy!  Hopelessness to purpose!  Disappointment to mission!  Back to Jerusalem they go to share their experience!

All along, even when they were disappointed and hopeless and filled with grief, and even in their confusion, the Savior was with them.  They just didn’t realize it.

Their words are telling.  And they tell us where WE can find the Lord when WE feel lost, disappointed, hopeless, confused or grieving.

Their hearts were “burning” while Jesus preached, and then recognized him in the “breaking of the bread.”  How Lutheran of them!  This is “CHURCH” for us – where the Word is preached and the sacraments are administered.²

Often when we hit rough patches in our lives, when nothing seems to be going right, when we feel hurt or betrayed or abandoned, when it seems to be one thing after another, we might doubt God’s presence or even existence.  Or we might not doubt God’s presence but doubt God’s LOVE for us while we’re deep in our troubles.

This is precisely when we need to be reminded that we are NOT alone, that God not only exists but is indeed “with us” – Emmanuel – in the midst of all our mess.  And “church” is the best way we have to get that reminder.

Church – where we hear the Word proclaimed, the uncompromising unconditional love of Jesus who gave his life for us, not because our lives are great, but precisely because they are NOT.

Church – where we receive the sacraments of love – the covenants – that God has made with us. Baptism, when we are marked with the cross of Christ forever; and Holy Communion, when we receive the new covenant in Christ’s blood.

God gives us the gift of Jesus and Jesus gives us the gift of the Word and Sacraments, so that our hearts might burn too, and realize his presence with us.

Mosaic, 6th century

The Emmaus road is a hard road to walk for any of us – but even there, especially there, Jesus shows us that he is with us, just as he was with Cleopas and the unnamed companion.

It’s true that sometimes Jesus feels like a stranger to us.  We feel alone – hopeless and grieving.  But even when we don’t see him he is there.  Even when we don’t recognize him he is holding us.

And while the Church isn’t always perfect, indeed is NEVER perfect, the Church is still the place “where two or three are gathered”³ that Jesus promises to be.

Where we are reminded explicitly that God loves us and is with us no matter what.

Where we are reminded that our hope is ETERNAL life, but also that God holds us and walks with us in THIS life too.

This is our Easter hope.  Alleluia.

AMEN.


¹source:  Working Preacher commentary for Easter 3, year A, 2017, at WorkingPreacher.org

²Augsburg Confession, article 5

³Matthew 18:20

Third Sunday in Lent, 2017

3rd Sunday in Lent, year A, preached 3/19/17

first reading:  Exodus 17:1-7

Psalm 95

second reading:  Romans 5:1-11

gospel reading:  John 4:5-42


Have you ever boasted in suffering?  I mean, really.

I don’t know ONE person, even Jesus himself, who when suffering, has said, “Boy am I glad to be going through this! Look at me everybody – I’m suffering and ain’t it grand!”

The Israelites in our first reading certainly weren’t boasting in their suffering.  In fact, they were a whiny bunch.  The Lord had brought them out of bondage, but that wasn’t enough.  The Lord had given them manna from heaven to eat, and THAT wasn’t enough.  You’d think after all that they would trust that God would somehow take care of their thirst, but no.  They bitterly complained, so that Moses was afraid for his life!  No boasting there.

And there was no boasting from the Samaritan woman at the well either.  It’s clear from Jesus that she has seen her share of suffering.  Whether her reputation was sullied by questionable behavior, or whether she suffered as a childless widow being passed as a possession from brother to brother, her life wasn’t easy.  She’s got no time for boasting about anything.  She’s going about her daily business, trying to survive.

Boasting about suffering?  I don’t think so.  But at first glance that’s what it seems we’re expected to do in our second reading.  And not only that, there’s the part where St. Paul seems to tell us that suffering is GOOD for us – it produces endurance, then character, then hope.

So is the line of thought, boast in your suffering because suffering is good for you, because it will make you stronger and give you hope?

One could argue that surviving suffering makes us stronger, sure – but to have that give us hope?  It seems illogical and cruel.

I’ve never really liked our second reading for today because it’s been used to glorify suffering.  Masters have used it against slaves; abusers against those they abuse; the sick asked to be glad for their sickness.  It’s one of those verses that, when taken out of context, can cause all kinds of unnecessary pain and suffering for people.

But if St. Paul isn’t telling us to just lay down in our suffering – take it and be glad for it – what IS he telling us?

Well, because St. Paul is often quite wordy, a man whose thoughts often went in circles rather than straight lines we have to read SLOWLY.  And sometimes it even helps to draw pictures!*

Through Jesus Christ we are justified and have peace and grace.  This gives us hope – the hope we have of sharing the glory of God.  THIS is our starting point for EVERYTHING.

Now… it is because of this hope, that we can even begin to boast in our suffering.

You notice these verses begin with hope and end with hope – with suffering in between.  This hope, the hope which justification and peace and grace give us, carries us through suffering.

In fact, Paul is saying something quite extraordinary to all those who think faith is the cure-all for everything – those who would argue that as Christians we should be happy all the time or something is wrong or lacking in our faith. Paul acknowledges the reality of suffering in life, EVEN for those who have faith.  It is THIS hope which allows us to boast, even in suffering.

You see, the boasting isn’t in the suffering itself, as if suffering were some wonderful thing – the boasting is in knowing that our suffering doesn’t separate us from God.  Even when we suffer, God is still close to us.  Even when we suffer, we are still able to have hope through Jesus Christ.  Now that IS something to boast about.

The hope given to us through our justification in our Lord Jesus Christ – the peace and grace we have “obtained” through him – give us hope and keep us in hope through all the trials that come our way, because hope does not disappoint us.

So the boasting isn’t some prideful “tooting my own horn” at my trials.  It isn’t some martyr complex, LOOKING for suffering.  It isn’t some formula by which we are KEPT in suffering and told to like it.

It’s being held firm in Jesus’ love for us, knowing he is with us through our suffering.  It’s that Jesus gives us the endurance and character to make it through, even when we’re not sure how we can make it another day.

This endurance and character is even the permission we have to stand against that which brings us suffering!  Those who deal in injustice COUNT ON us not getting this part of it – what a shock when we do.  When we stand up to bullies and say, “Because Jesus loves me I can say ‘no more!'”

“For while we were still weak,” St. Paul writes…  “while we still were sinners Christ died for us.”  “While we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son…”

This is where it begins.  This is the foundation.  “While we were still weak… sinners… enemies… we were reconciled…”

THIS is our justification through Jesus.  THIS is the justification, the reconciliation that brings us peace and the “grace in which we stand.”

When St. Paul writes about boasting in suffering he means that even in our suffering we still have Jesus, and Jesus will be with us through it.

So we aren’t expected to say, “Guess what?  I have cancer!  Isn’t that great!”  What we can say is, “I have cancer.  But even though I have cancer I know that God loves me and Jesus died for me and is with me to help me through this. Thank God!”

There is a HUGE difference between the two.  We could never say the first, but we are blessed to say the latter.

AMEN.


*My attempt to draw out Paul’s thinking  

First Sunday in Lent, 2017

First Sunday in Lent, year A (preached 3/5/17)

first reading:  Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7

Psalm 32

second reading:  Romans 5:12-19

Matthew 4:1-11


I’ve never liked the story of the “Fall.”  It holds up an ugly mirror for me, and for us all.  One commentator I was listening to this week said he didn’t like calling this event the “Fall” because that makes it easier to let ourselves off the hook.  We see it as a one-time event rather than as a story unfolding throughout time, that includes US, indeed is fundamentally about US.

He preferred to call this a story about our ongoing rebellion against God.  THIS is the ugly mirror.

We are all Adam – following someone else’s actions without much thought, then blaming our behavior on that person.

We are all Eve – led astray by grand promises, without examining if they’re even feasible.  And then again, blaming our behavior on someone else.

This story is a mess of ugliness.  But it doesn’t start out that way.

Biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann writes that in verses 15-17 a perfect order is set up by God.  In verse 15 human beings are given work to do – a vocation – to “till” and “keep” the garden.  In verse 16 we are given permit.  God gives the man and woman permission to “freely eat.”  And in verse 17 there is prohibition – the one thing they cannot do.

Brueggemann states, “These three verses together provide a remarkable statement of anthropology. Human beings before God are characterized by vocation, permission and prohibition…. Any two of them without the third is surely to pervert life.”¹

Our rebellion comes about when we think we can have a healthy relationship with God while neglecting any of the three.

Each of us is given a vocation in this life.  It may not be our “job” necessarily – vocation is more than just what we do to make a living.  Vocation is what we do with our life.  How we go about operating in the world.  The kind of person we are in and out of the specific jobs we’ve been given.

For Adam and Eve, their vocation was to “till,” to work the land, but it was also to “keep,” or care for it, which is more than simply plowing the fields.

And each of us is given tremendous freedom by God in our lives – permission.  We are not puppets.  God is not some puppeteer manipulating us like marionettes.  The man and woman were permitted to eat from any tree in the garden, and free to “till” and “keep” the garden however they wanted.

And we all live with prohibition.  There are certain things which are not good for us or for the community. We all need boundaries to keep us safe.  We all know the prohibition faced by Adam and Eve.  That’s where we almost always focus our attention – on what they could NOT do.

When we go against the grain of our vocation, when we abuse our freedom, when we neglect to follow boundaries – we find trouble – SIN.

That certainly happened for the man and the woman.  Their rebellion against God’s prohibition caused disruption even in their freedom and vocation.  Instead of following their vocation to “keep” the garden, they tore up plants to make coverings for themselves.  Instead of enjoying their freedom, in verse 8 they’re hiding from God because of their nakedness.

What tempted them?  We can never know Adam’s motives, but for Eve it was knowledge and power.  “You will be like God, knowing good and evil.”

Those seem like good things to me, but the truth remains that the act crossed a boundary they were not allowed to cross.  They had a relationship of trust and obedience with God, and now the trust and obedience were crushed.

Brueggemann writes, “They had wanted knowledge rather than trust.  And now they have it.  They now know more than they could have wanted to know.  And there is no place to run.”²

Have you ever done something, and the second you’ve done it, you regret it?  I know I have.  And I can imagine that’s how Adam and Eve felt, but there was no going back.

Adam and Eve committed no “special” sin that caused God to send them out of the garden.  Their sin was not unlike sin that you and I are tempted with every day.  And like them, we lose.  We act in ways that do NOT reflect God to whom we belong.

We betray our vocation as Christians every time we put someone or something before God, every time we pass by a person who needs help, every time we harbor negative thoughts about any race or class of person who God created.

God has given us permission to enjoy creation and our fellow creatures.  But often we are just lazy.  Not only that, we also abuse our freedom through our mistreatment of creation AND our fellow creatures.

And none of us like rules.  Any kind of prohibition makes us bristle.  We don’t like being told what we cannot do. Never mind that most of the time prohibitions are there for our safety and for the safety of others.

In the Ash Wednesday liturgy we are each invited to special repentance, fasting, prayer and works of love – the discipline of Lent.  Today’s reading from Genesis invites us to see in Adam and Eve’s rebellion, our own rebellion.

Adam and Eve call us to reflect upon the ways in which we rebel against the vocation, permission and prohibition that characterize our relationship with God.  And to repent.  Not to point blame.  But to stand naked before God and say, “I’m sorry.  I confess.”

And then we experience a new and amazing freedom.  A freedom so profound it defies words – but the closest word we have to describe it is – GRACE.

Amen.

Adam and Eve, by Deeda

Adam and Eve, by Deeda


¹Genesis.  Interpretation:  A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching.  Walter Brueggemann.  John Knox Press, Atlanta; 1982, p. 46

²ibid, p. 49.

7th Sunday after the Epiphany, 2017

7th Sunday after the Epiphany, year A (preached 2/19/17)

first reading:  Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18

Psalm 119:33-40

second reading: 1 Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23

gospel reading:  Matthew 5:38-48


For the past four weeks we have been making our way through chapter five of the gospel of Matthew – the beginning of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.  We end the chapter today with what seems like some really impossible guidance.

This is one of the reasons why instead of just reading the Bible “cold,” it’s important to take the time to look at the context and then prayerfully consider what a passage or passages can mean for us in the here and now.  Because passages like this have been used (or rather ABUSED) to tell communities or individuals who are oppressed that they should just “take it.”

“Do not resist an evildoer,” turn the other cheek, “give your cloak,” can all be twisted when taken out of context.

Now, we could do a fascinating Bible study on what Jesus’ statement actually meant for the people to whom he was talking, but suffice it to say, Jesus did NOT mean to roll over and play dead.

The English, “Do not resist an evildoer,” is actually not a good translation.  Matthew scholar Robert H. Smith says, “The meaning is actually very close to Paul’s ‘Repay no one evil for evil’ (Rom. 12:17).”¹  I mean, Jesus confronted and resisted evil and evildoers all the time in his earthly ministry!

What Jesus is saying here is that we shouldn’t resort to violence or take revenge against evildoers. Believe it or not, giving the other cheek, the cloak, and going an extra mile were SUBVERSIVE acts in that time and place.  They were acts that would cause shame and embarrassment and even negative consequences to those on the receiving end.  They WERE in fact forms of resistance.

Ghandi and Martin Luther King Jr. even cited the Sermon on the Mount as a strong influence in their practices of nonviolent civil disobedience.  Again, what Jesus means is for us not to take revenge, and not violently respond to violence.

When we see evil around us – which Jesus would define as NON-love of neighbor – he makes it clear in other parts of the gospel that we ARE to act, to serve and love the “least of these” (Matt. 25).  NOT to act is a sin.

Speaking of love, that’s where Jesus is going next.

In the first part of the passage, he tells us not to be violent or take revenge.  But not taking revenge isn’t good enough.  We’re to do more than not hate.  We’re to do more than not take revenge.  We’re to “love [our] enemies and pray for those who persecute [us].”  In fact, this is the FIRST time the word “love” appears in the gospel of Matthew, so it must be important.

And why this call to love – even to love our enemies?  Jesus says, “So that you may be children of your Father in heaven.”  As scholar Robert Smith writes, “Here is the first reason for loving:  so that you may be like God, reflect the essential being of God, display kinship with God.  Like parent, like child.”²

It goes back to what I preached weeks ago on the Beatitudes – what we do is a reflection of who we are and who we are is reflected in what we do.  We love because we belong to God who IS love.  And because we are God’s children we love.

But Jesus does give us a challenge here that’s for sure.  It’s not just about loving our loved ones.  It’s not about returning kindness to those who have been kind to us.  “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you…”

Again, this doesn’t mean rolling over and playing dead with those who would want to hurt us.  It doesn’t mean we stay with abusers, or put our heads down when we see injustice being done.  It IS possible to love someone, or some group, without getting sucked into their dysfunction.  It IS possible to love someone while truly hating some of the things they do.

How do we know it’s possible?  Because Jesus did it, and continues to do it.  As he was on the cross praying, “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they’re doing,”(Luke 23:34) he was praying for the people around him then – and for you and me now.

How many times I wonder, does Jesus see me and shake his head in sorrow and frustration, and yet he still loves me. As Christians we believe God should rightly hate and condemn us – that we are sinful – and yet what we receive is love and grace.

The reality though, is that this is probably THE hardest thing Jesus asks us to do.  The whole Sermon on the Mount feels impossible.  And perhaps for regular folks like you and me it IS.  But the old standard Lutheran answer of, “We can’t do it, Jesus has done it for us.  Praise God!” seems like a cop out here.

It IS true that we are saved from our sin of failure.  But too often we can’t even be accused of trying. Let’s not fall into the habit of using grace as an excuse to be lazy.  If we call ourselves disciples of Jesus our lives should be centered around following him as closely as we can, knowing that his grace is for us when we fall.

We are living in a world right now where this preaching of Jesus – this SERMON – speaks volumes to us as believers.

If, through our baptism, we believe we are called to be “workers in the kingdom of God,”³ then we’ve got a lot of work to do.  To be creative and faithful in standing against injustice and evil, while at the same time loving and praying for those who might even seek to do us harm.

May we take Jesus’ sermon to heart, and follow where his preaching leads us.

AMEN.

sermon on the mount, Laura James

sermon on the mount, Laura James


¹Matthew, Augsburg Commentary on the New Testament.  Augsburg Publishing House, Minneapolis.  Robert H. Smith. p. 102

2 ibid, p. 104

³From the liturgy of the Sacrament of Holy Baptism, Lutheran Book of Worship

5th Sunday after the Epiphany, 2017

5th Sunday after the Epiphany, year A (preached 2/5/17)

first reading:  Isaiah 58:1-12

Psalm 112:1-9

second reading:  1 Corinthians 2:1-16

gospel reading:  Matthew 5:13-20


Sometimes preachers look at the readings for the coming Sunday and pray, “Oh God, what am I going to say?”  Other weeks we look at the readings and pray, “You’re speaking to me in a million ways Lord.  Help me choose!”  This is one of THOSE weeks.

Each of our readings today are wonderful – challenging to be sure, but also filled with amazing imagery, and profound truths.  This week I have been especially drawn to the prophet Isaiah.

In our reading from Isaiah today the people have been through a tremendous ordeal.  They have been oppressed and conquered.  They’ve been in exile, are “home” now – physically restored.  But something is still not right.

“Yet day after day they seek me and delight to know my ways… they ask of me righteous judgments, they delight to draw near to God.”

They are fasting as the Lord requires, they’re doing all the “right” things, but they’re not seeing any “results” from their fasting.  Why?  Something is missing.

“Why do we fast, but you do not see?  Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?”  Through Isaiah, God tells them.  God tells them that their relationship with God is made up of more than just their individual actions towards God.  Through Isaiah, God tells the people that they can’t have blinders on, only looking to heaven, and be faithful.

And as the prophets often are when speaking for God – Isaiah is blunt – not so kind.

I read part of verse 2 a moment ago, but let me read the whole verse:  “Yet day after day they seek me and delight to know my ways, AS IF they were a nation the practiced righteousness and did not forsake the ordinance of their God…”  OUCH.

And there’s more.  The people ask plainly, “Why do we fast, but you do not see?  Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?”

I think we have all asked these questions at times in OUR lives.  I know I have.  Times when we pray and plead for God to help us or to give us a sign that we haven’t been abandoned.  Times when we feel like we’re doing all the right things but we’re still not getting anywhere.

I’m not saying that God’s answer to us in every time of OUR questioning is the same answer that God gives here, but I believe it’s worth looking at.  Because when the people pose these questions, Isaiah DOES give them an answer, and perhaps it’s not the one they wanted to hear.

“Look, you serve your OWN interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers.  Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist.”

God tells the people that they may be following the rule that tells them to fast, but they’re going about it all wrong.  God tells them to look in a mirror and watch themselves – to see that as long as they perform this outward action to God, but mistreat one another, the action isn’t faithful.

Simply bowing one’s head and putting on sackcloth and ashes aren’t enough.  Going to church and praying on Sunday then going to work and being unkind on Monday isn’t going to cut it.  It’s not that God didn’t see their fast – God DID see how they were treating each other, so the fast meant nothing.

What’s the saying?  “Don’t just talk the talk, walk the walk.”  In powerful words God then tells them what a FAITHFUL fast looks like.  It’s a powerful litany.

THIS is the fast:

  • “to loose the bonds of injustice
  • to undo the thongs of the yoke,
  • to let the oppressed go free, and
  • to break every yoke –
  • Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and
  • bring the homeless poor into your house;
  • when you see the naked, to cover them, and
  • not to hide yourself from your own kin…
  • remove the yoke from among you,
  • the pointing of the finger,
  • the speaking of evil…
  • offer your food to the hungry and
  • satisfy the needs of the afflicted…”

It’s not that God didn’t see their fast.  God also saw how they were treating each other, and mistreating each other, but also ignoring each other’s needs.

Last week, I preached about how in the Beatitudes Jesus blesses us for who we are and what we do.  That who we are is reflected in what we do, and what we do is a reflection of who we are.  This is what God through Isaiah is saying to the people here too.  Our faith is more that just coming to church and praying, or saying our prayers at night before we go to sleep.

As Lutherans sometimes we fall into the trap of thinking that because we don’t have to earn our salvation, because Jesus has gone SO over the top in loving and rescuing us, we can be lazy in loving our neighbor.  Isaiah – and Jesus, especially in today’s gospel – tell us that our actions towards our neighbors, near and far, DO matter to God.

The fast that God wants from us, the fast that God sees and loves – is the giving of ourselves, in God’s name, in serving one another.

Then there are wonderful promises.  The images that Isaiah paints are profound and beautiful.

  • “Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and
  • your healing shall spring up quickly…
  • you shall call and the LORD will answer…
  • Your light shall rise in the darkness and
  • your gloom be like the noonday.  
  • The LORD will… satisfy your needs in parched places, and
  • make your bones strong; and
  • you shall be like a watered garden,
  • like a spring of water, whose waters never fail…
  • Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt;
  • you shall raise up the foundations of  many generations;
  • you shall be called the repairer of the breach,
  • the restorer of streets to live in.”

I’ve got nothing to add to that.

AMEN.