Archives

First Sunday of Advent, 2017

First Sunday of Advent, year B, 12/3/17

First reading:  Isaiah 64:1-9

Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19

Second Reading:  1 Corinthians 13-9

Gospel Reading:  Mark 13:24-37


To be quite honest, I was hoping to be done with the “end of the world” readings.  This past month leading up to Christ the King Sunday is SUPPOSED to be “end of the world,” because it’s the end of the Church year, but now we’re in Advent.  But once again, Jesus is confronting us with “the end.”

We should be on our way to Bethlehem, not Jerusalem.  We are four weeks away from Jesus’ birth, and this passage is two days away from Jesus’ death.

I was railing against this earlier in the week, when my husband reminded  me that EVERY Advent 1 we begin at the end.  I had forgotten.

Maybe it’s because world and national events have been especially difficult lately, that I was really hoping for a break.

The worst hurricane season on record, the devastation to the Caribbean, Texas, Florida, and especially Puerto Rico.  The fires in the West which have destroyed the lives of thousands, even in they escaped physically unharmed.

Terrorist attacks in Barcelona, Iraq, Afghanistan, Nigeria, Yemen, Somalia, Philippines, Pakistan, England, and New York City, where we lost one of our own townspeople.

Horrifying gun violence on our streets and in Las Vegas and Texas.  Civil unrest in Charlottesville and wherever racism rears its ugly head.

I don’t want more “end of the world,” I want a cuddly baby.  But we’re not getting one.  At least not today.

Perhaps we read from near the end of Mark on this first Sunday of Advent because the messages Jesus gives is appropriate.

Jesus stresses “keep alert,” or “keep awake” 3 times in the last 3 verses, with good reason.

I think what Jesus is trying to tell us, is that if we don’t slow down and pay attention – when he DOES come, we’ll miss him.

Now, we could talk about keeping alert for the darkening sun and moon and for the falling stars.  We could talk about the “‘Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory” and the angels.

Many preachers and people of faith focus on the apocalyptic parts of the passage to make predictions about when the end will come.  The people who were the first to read (or hear) Mark’s gospel certainly could relate.

For them, the destruction of the Temple was current events, and the persecution of Christians meant more than having to say “happy holidays” – it meant death.

For them, Jesus’ declaration, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away,” was in the tradition of the greatest prophets, calling the people back to faith.

But what do these words mean for us, thousands of years on from the time Jesus shared them with the original disciples?

The key for “the END” for us is in verse 32:  “About that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.”

We aren’t called to stand on street corners holding signs “the end is near.”  We certainly aren’t called to make predictions of the end.  We aren’t called to separate ourselves from society, sell all that we own, and wait on some mountain like a doomsday cult.

Jesus calls us to “keep alert” and “keep awake” not only for the end of all things (as if we could miss the sun going dark and stars falling from the sky!), but for how to live our lives UNTIL that day.

“It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch.”

Jesus is not physically with us right now, but he has left us – his slaves, his servants, his disciples – in charge – each with our own work.

What does that mean?  What IS our work?  And how do we “keep awake and alert” until our master returns?

Our work, brothers and sisters, is to live faithful lives every day – to go about our business, loving God and neighbor in word and deed, until he comes again – whenever that may be.If we have a job, we go to work and are diligent in our working – whether we’re a grocery clerk, a cashier, a teacher, a business executive, or congressman.

If we have a job, or we’re in school, retired, and even if we don’t get around much anymore, our work includes serving our neighbor in Jesus’ name.

It means being kind to those who we see are struggling – sitting with the new kid in school, or the one who has no friends.  Reassuring the mom in Target whose little one is having a meltdown.  At this time of the year especially, being kind to those working in the retail industry.

Remembering those who might be dreading Christmas because of poverty or broken family relationships.

When we remember what Jesus told us in last week’s gospel – that whatever we do to the least of these, we do to him – then loving our neighbor in word and deed is the best way we can keep awake, and be alert when the master comes.

Because in reality, the master is with us all the time, is here even now as we look into the faces of each other.

Are we awake to this – or are we sleepwalking through our days?

Because keeping awake doesn’t just mean looking for the stars to fall from the sky – it also means feeding the hungry, welcoming the stranger, being a shoulder to cry on, and praying for our enemies.

It’s kind of exhausting honestly.  Kind of why I wanted our gospel today to be warm and fuzzy.

But instead, it’s a good reminder that Advent isn’t just about the baby Jesus – but also about baby Lisa, baby Ellen, baby Michael, baby Vivian, baby Tom (mentioning those present by name) – and ALL of God’s children.

AMEN.

 

Advertisements

11th Sunday after Pentecost, 2017

11th Sunday after Pentecost, year A, preached 8/20/17

first reading:  Isaiah 56:1, 6-8

Psalm 67

second reading:  Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32

gospel reading:  Matthew 15:10-28


There have been very few times since I began preaching that I have felt compelled to speak directly to current events.  But the events of the past week, starting just over a week ago in Charlottesville, have been disturbing.  Shocking to some, but not to others.

I don’t want to talk about politics, but I DO want to talk about Jesus.

The most disgusting picture and comment I saw this past week came from a woman, who describes herself as a Christian.

She posted a picture of the protesters from last Friday night, the protesters who were carrying torches, and yelling things like, “Jews will not replace us,” “blood and soil,” and “one people, one nation, end immigration,” and the caption she added to this picture was, “Let your light so shine before others that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.”

If that sounds familiar to you, they are Jesus’ words from Matthew 5:16 – part of our baptismal liturgy.

I saw this and was left speechless, and quite frankly sick to my stomach.

So I want to talk about Jesus.  I want to talk about Jesus, and the prophet Isaiah, and St. Paul.

And I want to begin by thanking whatever move of the Holy Spirit was at work in creating the lectionary, and for these readings before us today, that seem giftwrapped for a “time such as this.” (Esther 4:14)

A time when people feel free to openly speak hate about other religions, ethnic groups and races.  A time when some say we should just stay out of it.

The word of the Lord from the prophet Isaiah, St. Paul, and Jesus himself will have none of this.

“Thus says the Lord:  Maintain justice, and do what is right.”

The Hebrew word translated “maintain” also means to “keep” or “guard.”  Keep it, tend it – guard justice – do what is right.  And by “right” the Lord doesn’t mean just what’s right for me – the Lord means do what IS RIGHT.  That means we are called to see beyond our individual interests, beyond our small circle, to do what is best, or right, for everyone.

And then what comes next.  The Lord certainly must have surprised not only Isaiah, but all of Israel.  God tells them they will not be the only ones gathered into God’s presence.

“The foreigners who join themselves to the LORD… I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer; for my house shall be called a house of prayer for ALL peoples…  I will gather others… besides those already gathered.”

Oh wow.  You mean it’s possible for God to love people outside our little circle?  People who don’t look like us or act like us, or come from where we’re from?

God’s answer – YES.  Which is a very good things for you and me.

In our gospel reading Jesus is confronted by a Canaanite woman.  Some people have twisted Jesus’ words to mean that calling her a “dog” meant condemning those who don’t believe in him.  He gives harsh treatment to this woman. Problem for the “twisters” is that he’s treating her harshly because she isn’t Jewish.

So if we were to place ourselves in this interchange – along with every other person who wasn’t born a Jew – WE are the dogs.

Jesus was a Jew – born of a Jewish mother, circumcised as a Jew, raised as  Jew, was condemned a Jew, died a Jew, and was buried according to Jewish law and ritual.

WE – all of us who were not born Jews and not part of the “irrevocable” promise GOD made to Abraham and his descendants – are the outsiders.

As St. Paul writes, “God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew.  The gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable.”  God does not break promises – not to the Jewish people, and not to you or me in our baptism.  People may break covenants, but God does NOT.

We are outsiders, only brought into God’s presence – God’s holy mountain – through the grace and mercy of Jesus Christ.

So how could a Christian speak hatred, not just at Jews, or blacks or Muslims, or immigrants, but to ANYONE?  It should be completely out of character.

As Jesus says in our gospel reading:  “What comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and THIS is what defiles.  For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness and slander.  These are what defile a person…”

A person who has evil intentions towards another – who harbors or speaks hatred – which is a form of false witness and slander – is a defiled person.

So let’s talk about Jesus, let’s talk about Isaiah and St. Paul.  Let’s look at our readings for today and say clearly and without reservation that the belief of white supremacy or racial purity and all that it entails:  racism, anti-Semitism, hatred and discrimination of other religions and ethnicities, intolerance of other cultures – is SIN.  Plain and simple.

These things have no place in a religion whose Lord and Savior commands us to “love your neighbor,”(John 13:34) and even to “love your enemies”(Matt. 5:44).

We may not be overtly hateful like that woman who posted that picture.  But it IS part of our bondage to sin to divide ourselves at times into “us” and “them,” uncomfortable as it is to acknowledge.

So when we recognize these darker parts of ourselves, which we all have, it is our calling to confess and try again.

In the words we know so well from 1 John 1:9:  “If we confess our sins, God who is faithful and just will forgive our sins, and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”

Or in the words of Maya Angelou:  “Do the best you can until you know better.  Then when you know better, do better.”

Or, “Thus says the Lord… do what is right.”

My manuscript says, “Amen” here, but I feel the need to add something.  I hope that my words today not only help us to examine ourselves, but also give us something to say when we’re confronted with hate around us.  So many times we get caught tongue-tied when surprised with a shocking comment or behavior.

I hope that we leave here a little more confident and prepared to meet hate and respond to it as people of faith, who follow Jesus, the Lord of love, as we sang in our opening hymn, “The King of LOVE, my shepherd is, whose goodness faileth never…”

Now I’ll say – AMEN.

 

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.