Tag Archive | God’s love

7th Sunday of Easter, 2016

7th Sunday of Easter, year C (preached 5/8/16)

first reading:  Acts 16:16-34

Psalm 97

second reading:  Revelation 22:12-14, 16-17, 20-21

gospel reading:  John 17:20-26


Our readings for this seventh Sunday of Easter give us a theme of the power of God:  the power of healing and authority, the power of eternity and the power of unity.

In the reading from Revelation we see God’s power over all time – the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end” of all things.

In the gospel we hear Jesus’ prayer to the Father that the believers be ONE, indeed ARE one, through the unity that exists between the Father and the Son.  There is amazing power in this unity – because Jesus tells us that through this unity, WE also have unity with God – we are in God and God is in us – so that the world may know Jesus and his love.  Wow.

And we see God’s power certainly in our first reading from Acts, where I’ve been spending most of my preaching time this Easter season.  This story is filled to the brim with good stuff!  It shows us the power of God to heal, to save and to put other gods to shame.

We start off with the slave-girl.  Not only is she physically enslaved, but she’s also mentally held by a not-so-holy spirit.  For days she pestered Paul and Silas, calling them slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.”

Now, for us this might seem a high compliment, except “her proclamation, true as it was, proceeded not from faith but… constituted a provocation.”¹  The not-so-holy spirit was saying, “Come and get me, I DARE you.”  After “many days” of this Paul took the bait, showed God’s power and sent the spirit packing.

But Paul’s act of healing and demonstrating God’s power over the spirit was not without consequences. The girl’s owners lost the income she brought them and they were furious.  Paul and Silas were dragged in front of the authorities on trumped up charges, not give a chance to defend themselves, beaten and thrown in prison.

But that didn’t stop them from continuing to praise God.  Even after the jailer had shackled their feet, they sang hymns and prayed.  THEN God showed God’s power again.  First, God drove out the not-so-holy spirit.  Now God was going to show the Roman authorities who was boss.

About midnight the foundation of the prison shook and the doors and chains were undone.  That act showed God’s brute power, but it wasn’t enough – the next act would be one of compassion and grace.

The jailer, who had shackled Paul and Silas, was going to commit suicide – the desperate act of a soldier who thought he lost all his prisoners.  But Paul stops him.  Paul saves the man who had him bound.  The prisoner sets the JAILER free.  There is no revenge here, only a profound act of grace.

Because the point of the earthquake wasn’t to let them run, it wasn’t to flee to freedom.  It was for them to STAY and show who really had the power – and that was God – the One with true power, not the ones with little keys to the tiny locks in the cheap prison.

And the point of saving the jailer’s life wasn’t so that he could simply keep breathing, it was so that he could be truly saved by the power of Jesus’ life.  Then, the one who once had bound them became their student and nurse – caring for their bodies and tending their wounds.  It’s an amazing story that doesn’t actually end here.  In the verses to come the authorities that put Paul and Silas in prison in the first place end up giving them a public apology!

From healing to beating to prison to freeing to saving to tending – it’s all about who really has the power.

There are demonstrations of power that the world understands, but also power that the world cannot comprehend on its own.  The slave owners only knew the power of exploitation and the dollar.  The authorities only knew the power of the crowd.  The jailer only knew the power of chains.

It is the mission of God in Jesus, to use US – you and me – to show the world there is another way. Another kind of power.  The power of God to heal and love.

I hope, as we read stories like this of so long ago, that we can see ourselves.

  • WE are the slave-girl bound – physically and psychologically – that needs healing of our sicknesses.
  • WE are the slave owners, who enjoy profit or a more comfortable life on the backs of others who are exploited in unfair labor practices around the world.
  • WE are the authorities, who all too often judge others solely on their religion or country of origin or hearsay.
  • WE are the jailer, who, just doing what he needs to survive, is driven to desperation and despair at the thought of failure.
  • WE are Paul and Silas, condemned unjustly by those around us, who won’t even give us a chance to say our piece.

IMG_2087 (2)We are them ALL.  And TO them all – you and me – God brings God’s power.  But this power isn’t a fist to crush or chains to bind. God’s power is much greater – the power to heal and love.

God’s power is the power to bring life from death – healing and saving through a CROSS.  That’s greater than any power on earth I know of.  More than any judge or police officer – more than any boss or politician – more than any president or king.

This God, OUR God, who has power over death itself, chooses to love you and me in ALL the roles – sinner and saint – in ALL the times of our lives.

The power of the cross, the power of love that overcomes death, is with us always.  So may we be bold in our mission to show and share that power and love with all the other sinners and saints that “cross” our path.

AMEN.


¹Acts: Augsburg Commentary on the New Testament.  Gerhard Krodel.  Augsburg Publishing House, Minneapolis; 1986, p. 308.

Fourth Sunday in Lent, 2016

Fourth Sunday in Lent, year C, 2016 (preached 3/6/16)

First reading:  Joshua 5:9-12

Psalm 32

Second Reading:  2 Corinthians 5:16-21

Gospel Reading:  Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32


This is one of the best loved of all the parables of Jesus.  Even non-Christians have heard of the story of the Prodigal Son.

It seems like a simple story, but it’s really SO much deeper.  None of these three characters are ideal. We’ve got a son who won’t grow up, an angry son who grumbles all day, and a father who wouldn’t know tough love if it hit him in the face.

Jesus tells this story because the Pharisees and scribes were grumbling about the lowlife with whom he was associating.  They don’t think Jesus should be eating with “sinners.”  In response, Jesus tells them parables about being lost, then found, and the rejoicing that comes with the finding.

Makes sense when put simply – but it’s really NOT that simple.

I’ll be honest with you.  I identify with the elder son.  And I think Jesus meant for the Pharisees and scribes to do so as well, because the comparison is very clear.  They didn’t think Jesus should be eating with those who clearly didn’t deserve him.  So Jesus tells a story about a father who throws a FEAST for a child who clearly didn’t deserve HIM.

Jesus eating with sinners.  The father feasting with an undeserving son.

Rembrandt, 1662-1669

Rembrandt, 1662-1669

Again, back to describing these characters:  one is selfish, immature and wasteful; one is rigid, unforgiving, angry and bitter; and one loves with no boundaries or discipline.  WE are the children, and God is the father.

Jesus is telling us that THIS is how God operates with us – God loves recklessly and forgives foolishly. THIS is the love of God.  It knows no bounds.  It doesn’t abide by human rules of what is proper or “good.”

God’s love accepts those of us who try our best and those of us who don’t try at all.  God’s love embraces those of us who sweat for the Church and those who have abused the Church.  God’s love prepares a feast for the lifelong faithful and for deathbed confessors.  God’s love makes no earthly sense.

It IS reckless and foolish.  There is no sense of fairness or right and wrong.  And thank God for that!

The father’s only actions in this parable are to forgive, show mercy and REJOICE.

And while we, (or at least “I”), grumble at the unfairness of it all like the elder son, God is forgiving US of THAT sin – the sin of wanting to be judge – thinking we can tell God who is “deserving” of God’s love and rejoicing.  How arrogant and presumptuous!

prodigal son - elder son clip artMost of us look at this parable and see the CLEAR obvious sin of the younger son, but because most of us identify with the elder son, we fail to see HIS sin.

Sure, the elder son did all the right things, but he was angry and bitter, even lashing out at his father at the unfairness of it all.  He refuses to attend the feast and greet his brother – and he rebukes his own father.  He does all the right things, but his attitude is rigid and unforgiving.  And he is more than a little jealous.  “Why didn’t you let me have a party?”

The father forgives them both.

The father could’ve said to the elder son, “Look, I’m in charge and if I want to throw your brother a party then I’ll throw him a party.  Now get in there!”

Instead he says, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.  But we HAD to celebrate and rejoice…”

The father even tries to repair the relationship between the brothers.  When the elder son refers to the younger son as “this son of yours,” the father changes it to “this brother of YOURS.”  The father wants them all to be reconciled – a theme in our second reading where St. Paul calls us to a “ministry of reconciliation” – not only to God, but to one another.¹

From a human perspective we get jealous and think that somehow love is a finite thing and that a loved one giving another love will somehow mean less for us.  And you know, sometimes with human beings that happens because of sin.  But it is not so with God.

God loves me more intensely, more personally, than I’ll ever know.  Yet God loves all of you the SAME way.  God’s love for me doesn’t mean there’s any less for you; God’s love for you doesn’t mean there’s any less for me.

And that love is with us no matter how well we’ve done, or how far we’ve fallen.  This may not seem fair, but it’s a glorious thing.  Because each one of us has times in our lives when we fall, when we fail – when we KNOW we have done wrong.  We feel small, humiliated, weak.  Each one of us has had times when WE are the younger son.

And we have been like the elder son – rigid, perhaps even jaded by events in our lives, only looking at the world with eyes of judgment instead of love and grace.

And in BOTH these times thank God that we are welcomed back by God with arms that embrace instead of reject us.

The world can be cruel, but God is not.  God is love.

Heaven rejoices whenever we, as we sing in our Lenten gospel verse “return to the your God”² again and again and again.  Every time we confess, every time we petition for God’s mercy, there is rejoicing in heaven.

Thank you Lord, for loving us foolishly and recklessly, when it makes no “earthly” sense to do so; thank you that there’s enough of your love to go around for us all; and thank you for loving us SO much that you rejoice whenever we return to you.  Please teach US to rejoice in your gifts of love and mercy, and in the gift you give us of each other.

AMEN.


¹Matthew 5:24, plus many other texts that speak of our need to forgive one another as God has forgiven us.

²Joel 2:13 – each week our congregation sings a verse from the Bible to introduce the gospel reading.  In Lent, we sing this verse.

 

law and gospel

As I shared in a post last week, for part of my Lenten discipline this year I’m taking time for personal devotional reading each day.  Specifically I’m focusing on  Daily Readings from Luther’s Writings, selected and edited by Barbara Owen, published by Augsburg (Minneapolis) in 1993.  As I was reading this morning, I came across the following entry and was instantly drawn in (it’s found on p. 98).

“The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.”  John 1:17

“It is proper that the Law and God’s Commandments provide me with the correct directives for life; they supply me with abundant information about righteousness and eternal life.  The Law is a sermon which points me to life, and it is essential to remember this instruction.  But it must be borne in mind that the Law does not give me life.  It resembles a hand which directs me to the right road… Thus the Law serves to indicate the will of God, and it leads us to a realization that we cannot keep it.  It also acquaints us with human nature, with its capabilities, and with its limitations.  The Law was given to us for the revelation of sin; but it does not have the power to save us from sin and rid us of it.” Luther’s Works, Sermons on the Gospel of St. John (1537-40) LW 22, 143-44

Law and Gospel

We talk a lot about “Law and Gospel” especially in the Lutheran branch of Christianity.  It’s an eye-opening way to look at Scripture, a profound way to orient our thinking and believing, and it is the foundation of my preaching. Clergy use the phrase frequently, but I wonder how good we are at actually explaining it to people.  As I read the above passage from Luther slowly and quietly this morning, it struck me that a lot of the chaos that exists in our culture and in our lives is there because we have lost sight of the distinction between law and gospel – because we think one can give us the other.  

Basically, VERY basically, the Law is that which convicts us, while the Gospel is that which saves us. The Law is the rules, the Gospel is the love.  Some incorrectly reach the conclusion that the Law is the Old Testament, while the Gospel is the New Testament (to be clear, there’s plenty of gospel in the Old, and a boat load of law in the New).

It’s a huge part of our cultural psyche that we’re self-sufficient and independent.  We pull ourselves up by our boot straps. We’re told that we’re rewarded justly for the effort we put into something.  Behave, play by the rules, work hard – and we’ll get what we deserve.  This thinking filters down to our lives as individuals as well.  We worship at the altar of “merit.”  We work hard to “deserve,” “earn” and “justify” the benefits of our hard work.  It seems natural then, that we apply this cultural worship with our religious faith.  Now, there are many faiths which DO focus on how our actions impact both our earthly and eternal fates – but Christianity is NOT one of them.

Christianity tells us that there is nothing we can do to earn our salvation; our salvation comes through Christ’s sacrifice only.  And that can be hard to swallow.  There is a huge chasm between the “do it yourself” culture and Christian faith which says, “you can’t.”  Many have tried to bridge this chasm by blurring the distinction between law and gospel, believing that somehow our actions DO impact on our salvation.  Others live with a certain contradiction – saying “Jesus saves,” while also saying that if a person behaves a certain way they aren’t saved.  Luther’s quote above is very helpful, because it doesn’t negate the power of the Law.  But it puts the power of the Law in its proper place.  I want to highlight a few key words (at least key for me):

The Law is a sermon which points me to life, and it is essential to remember this instruction.  But it must be borne in mind that the Law does not give me life… The Law was given to us for the revelation of sin; but it does not have the power to save us from sin and rid us of it.

We NEED the Law; the law holds a very important place for us because it guides us in life and faith.  It holds up the ideal to us of community and individual life.  As Luther described, the Law is the hand which directs us.  And because the Law is the ideal, its function is to show us where/when/how/who we have failed.

The Law does not give me life – it does not have the power to save me from sin.

The Law guides my life, shows me where/when/how/who I’ve sinned, but can’t save me from it.  That function belongs the the GOSPEL.  The Gospel proclaims God’s love for us even while we sin.  The Gospel tells us that through Jesus sin and death have no power over us.  The Gospel tell us that precisely because of our inability to keep the Law, Jesus died and rose again for us.  The Gospel proclaims God’s love and grace in both the Old and New Testaments.  The Gospel is also the very person of Jesus Christ. Without the Law, the Gospel means nothing – we have no need of it.  Without the Gospel, we are utterly condemned by the Law.  They each have their place in our lives, but it’s dangerous to confuse them. When we do we can become selfish, not caring about our actions, thinking “anything goes” – or we shut doors on people, hurting them with our judgments; also hurting ourselves, when we’re left wondering if we’re good enough, if we’ve done enough, if we’ve believed enough for God to save us.

The Law is certainly an indispensable part of the word of God, but the Gospel has the LAST word.

4th Sunday after the Epiphany,2016

4th Sunday after the Epiphany, year C, 2016 (preached 1/31/16)

first reading:  Jeremiah 1:4-10

Psalm 71:1-6

second reading:  1 Corinthians 13:1-13

gospel reading:  Luke 4:21-30


Our second reading for today is so famous that if we’re not careful we could daydream right through it.

il_570xN.206733546

The LOVE chapter.  It’s become a standard reading at weddings as counsel on how spouses should treat one another.

But St. Paul wasn’t writing this “love chapter” to newlywed couples.  He was writing this to a broken community – a community that was broken, fighting, fractured.  The Corinthians were in trouble.  Paul was telling them how to work through their disagreements and jostling for power so they didn’t destroy themselves.

This reading isn’t about romantic love at all.  It’s about a state of being.  It’s about how we live our lives.  This kind of love isn’t directed at an individual, it’s something we have in ourselves that flows out of us.  For while I’ve said over and over that “love” is a verb, “love” is also a quality that we exude.

And love isn’t something we can manufacture ourselves.  When the pastor preached at my wedding, (not on this reading – we chose something different), he was clear to tell my husband and I that any kind of love we think we can “make” is a pitiful kind of love.

REAL love doesn’t come from us at all, it only flows through us to others.  Real love comes from God.  

  • In 1 John 4:7 we read, “Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God; and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God.”
  • The gospel of John tells us the reason Jesus was born among us was love.  “For God so loved the world…”
  • And Jesus gives us the new command to carry this love that comes from God through him – to one another.  “A new command I give you:  Love one another.  As I have loved you, so you must also love one another” (John 13:34).

And not only that, but this – Jesus also calls us to love our enemies!  We like to forget this inconvenient teaching, but it’s part of the sermon on the mount in Matthew 5:44,46 – “But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you… For if you love those who lo e you what reward to you have?  Do not even the tax collectors do the same?”  The Corinthians were certainly dealing with enemies outside of, and even within, their community.

So, like I said, this chapter has very little to do with romantic love, and everything to do with how we conduct ourselves – our demeanor, our personality.  It is meant for each one of us as believers.  St. Paul wrote this for you and me and all who follow Jesus.  It speaks the truth about how we are to BE in the world as believers, and part of that is how we treat one another.

And St. Paul is wise here, because he not only tells us what love looks like, he tells us what love does NOT look like. First, what love IS:  it is

  1. patient,
  2. kind,
  3. rejoicing in truth
  4. bears,
  5. believes,
  6. hopes, and
  7. endures all things.
  8. It is also eternal because it “never ends.”

What love is NOT:  it is not

  1. envious
  2. boastful,
  3. arrogant,
  4. rude,
  5. insistent,
  6. irritable,
  7. resentful,
  8. or rejoicing in wrongdoing.

This is hard work.  Love is hard work.  It is a commitment that goes beyond hugs and kisses, candy hearts and Hallmark cards.

  • Try being patient with a three year old whose new mantra is “Mommy, Mommy, Mommy, Mommy…”
  • Try not being irritable when you’ve had a horrible night’s sleep and a full day of things to do ahead of you.
  • Try not being envious of your neighbor as they fly off on their next vacation while you’re just trying to pay your monthly bills.
  • Try being kind when you have to spend the next two hours with someone who grates on your last nerve.

THIS is what St. Paul is talking about.  This is how you and I are called to live and conduct ourselves with our loved ones and NOT loved ones.

Actually it’s impossible.  Jesus is the ideal for 1 Corinthians 13, you and I are just poor imitations.  It’s a perfect example of Lutheran theology’s “saint and sinner.”  We try, we fail, we try again, we fail, we try again, and so on and so on – with our only fuel for going on being God’s forgiveness – God’s love.

So why love?  Why work so hard to let the love that is in us flow out?  Why try at something when we know we’ll never be perfect at it?  Because, although we know we’ll never love perfectly, love gives our lives meaning, purpose and shape.  It DEFINES us.

It defines us because love is the eternal thing that binds us to God and one another.

All the trappings with which we surround ourselves, even the gifts that God has given us to serve – these are only temporary comforts, successes and talents.

St. Paul opens and closes this chapter with reminding us that our earthly power and success and talent are just just noisy and clumsy without love, and that one day all those things will pass away, just like us.  All our earthly gifts will end.  Love will not.  It is only love that carries on – the love from God through Jesus to you and me, and from you and me to each other.

So why love?  Because there is really no other way for us to BE.

It’s work, and it’s painful sometimes – to love does mean to grieve – but the alternative is living death.

Creation came from love, Jesus came from love – Jesus IS love – and Jesus calls us to love.  It’s as simple, and as complicated, as that.

Love is the hardest, but as St. Paul wrote, it’s also the “greatest.”

AMEN.

 

4th Sunday of Advent, 2015

4th Sunday of Advent, year C, 2015 (preached 12/20/15)

first reading:  Micah 5:2-5a

psalm:  Luke 1:46b-55

second reading:  Hebrews 10:5-10

gospel reading:  Luke 1:39-45


Church of the Visitation, Israel, photograph by Deror Avi

Church of the Visitation, Ein Karem, Israel, photo by Deror Avi

Today’s psalm and gospel readings are part of the same story, what we call “The Visitation.”  Shortly after Mary became pregnant, she went to spend time with her cousin Elizabeth, who was also pregnant.

We learn earlier in Luke’s gospel that Elizabeth was about 6 months pregnant when Mary’s visit took place, while Mary was still very early on in her pregnancy. One author I read commented that The Visitation is a wonderful human interest story, but that its primary function is theological.  I disagree.

I think it’s a wonderful human interest story PRECISELY because it tells us a great deal theologically.  And I think it makes an amazing theological statement PRECISELY because it’s intimately involved in humanity.  I don’t separate human interest and theology.  Not only that, I don’t think GOD does either.

So, what is so profound about The Visitation?  WHY is it such a good human interest AND theological story?

The human part is pretty clear.

Mary had been visited by an angel, who told her she would conceive and bear a son even though she was still a virgin. Elizabeth, who was beyond normal childbearing age and up till then childless, was having an “unexpected” pregnancy herself, after an angel appeared to her husband Zechariah announcing that their child would be born.

Both women had concerns and fears I’m sure.  We read earlier that Mary was perplexed and pondering.  Her condition was not easily explained – and in that time and place an out of marriage pregnancy could be a deadly scandal.

For Elizabeth, the concerns and fears might also have been deadly.  Many women died in childbirth, and for older women the odds were even greater.  As thrilled as she was to be pregnant, I’m sure Elizabeth was also frightened for herself.

So we have two women with very unexpected pregnancies that were announced by ANGELS.  That makes for a definite human interest story.  Not only that, but for a religious book that is dominated by men, here the men are unseen and unheard, except for a little leaping in the womb.

This story is all about the women – and of course about God.

Intertwined with the human story of the women is the story of GOD – God choosing to become part of human history.  That’s the whole point of Christmas after all, isn’t it?  God taking on our flesh – our flesh holding God.

God chooses not only to preside OVER human history, but to become PART of it, to step into our lives.

And by choosing to do so, God makes Godself part of every moment, the good and the bad, the joy and sorrow, success and failure.  When God became one of us in Jesus, God became a part of Mary and Elizabeth’s joys and fears – and even their grief – OUR grief.

It struck me, as I prayed and pondered these passages, that the story of The Visitation isn’t only about two pregnant women – it’s also the story of two women who would bury their children.

Elizabeth and Mary would know the joy of motherhood, but also its unimaginable grief with the death of their sons.

As I reminded (one of our parishioners) when I visited with her on Friday – we need to remember that Christmas isn’t just the story of the happy baby – it’s the story of the baby who would die.  The joy of this moment of visitation is colored by our knowledge that John would be beheaded and Jesus crucified.

God through Jesus CHOOSES to become a part of this mess we call life.

Not just the line from the popular song, “God is watching us, from a distance.”  NO.  God is NOT just watching us from a distance, God is WITH us.  God knows it all, experiences it all, WITH us.

This is the gift of Christmas.  It’s not happy or sappy.  It’s not “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,” or “Holly Jolly Christmas.”  It’s not about inflatable snowmen, or Santas, or mistletoe.  It’s more like “In the Bleak Midwinter,” and “the hopes and fears of all the years.”

It’s a couple with no place to stay.  A young woman with her husband, forced to give birth away from their family and friends – in a BARN.  It’s not about fancy nurseries and cribs – it’s a feed box filled with straw.  It’s what Mary sings in her song – that God has come to lift up those who are lowly and hungry – to bring MERCY.

Our culture puts a lot of pressure on Christmas to be happy and sappy, because our culture doesn’t want to deal with life’s underside.

People would much rather fight an imaginary “war on Christmas,” than look at their own shortcomings in loving their neighbors and themselves and God.

People don’t want to connect Christmas with Good Friday, but when we don’t connect the two – then the consumerism and the inflatable snowmen win.  When we don’t connect Christmas with Good Friday we feel guilt over our grief and/or sadness because we feel it doesn’t belong, that there is something wrong with US.  When we don’t connect Christmas with Good Friday then all we celebrate is a baby and we stay lost in our sin.

We need Good Friday to be part of Christmas if Christmas is to have any depth, any real meaning in our faith.

God CHOOSING in love to be with us in all our moments from life to death is a profound theological truth.

It tells us that God loves us, strengthens us and carries us no matter where we are.

It tells us that God understands our fears, our grief and our anxieties.

So, as we approach Friday, some of us with joy and celebration, some with sadness, grief, or anxieties and fears, let us remember that God holds it all, and is WITH us through it all.

Emmanuel has come.

AMEN.

17th Sunday after Pentecost, 2015

17th Sunday after Pentecost, year B, 2015 (preached 9/20/15)

first reading:  Jeremiah 11:18-20

Psalm 54

second reading:  James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a

gospel reading:  Mark 9:30-37


When I was growing up I often heard the phrase, “Children are to be seen and not heard.”  Usually this was said to me because I had appeared to someone to overstep my bounds.

I always hated that phrase.  As a child I felt like it shushed me – shut me out of the conversation.  As an adult I know phrases like that are all about de-valuing.  As a child, my opinion didn’t count.

I know the adults around me loved me, and they didn’t consciously mean me harm, but they counted my thoughts and words as UNWORTHY.

But at least my presence was acknowledged and valued.  In the ancient world in which Jesus walked and preached, children were NOTHING.  Forget about “seen and not heard,” they weren’t even supposed to be “seen.”  Children had no status, and were viewed as little more than property.

Now, even since my childhood, the place of children in our society is much greater.  One could argue that we’ve become “child-centric.”  It seems for parents now, that the world revolves around our children.  Our lives are planned around their activities and needs.

Sometimes, I must say, their desires supercede our values.  Worship and faith community life take a back seat too often to sports or clubs.  Or when our need to have our kids think we’re cool us takes precedence over common sense – like parents who allow their kids to have alcohol at a party at their house.

So in our child-centric culture, Jesus’ act in our gospel reading today can lose its punch.

Remember the status of children in the world in which he lived.  Nobodies.  Nothings.

He uses a child to illustrate his point – that the one who wants to be first must be last – must be a SERVANT (the Greek equivalent of a waiter).

The disciples were oblivious to almost everything that Jesus was trying to them.  He was preaching about suffering.  They were arguing about who was the greatest.  Jesus, as with everything else he said and did TURNED THINGS UPSIDE DOWN.

“You want to be great?  Then be last.  Do you need a visual for what that looks like?  Take this worthless child, and welcome him or her IN MY NAME.”

If we look at this reading too quickly we think it’s just a quaint picture of Jesus telling the disciples that children are important.  We need to get back to the SHOCK the disciples must have felt at that moment.

They still wouldn’t get it, not until after the resurrection.  After all, don’t we say, “hindsight is 20/20.”  But we, brothers and sisters, have the advantage that they didn’t.  We can ONLY read this knowing what came after.

So Jesus tells us to welcome the worthless, the nobodies, the powerless.  Ok, so he doesn’t directly command us to do so, but he baits us.

“Whoever welcomes such a person in my name welcomes ME – and whoever welcomes me… welcomes the one who sent me.”

When we welcome the worthless, we welcome Jesus, and when we welcome Jesus we welcome God who sent Jesus into the world for you and me.

Who among us doesn’t want to welcome Jesus?  Who doesn’t want to welcome God?

Well, since we’re gathered HERE, in this place this morning, my guess is that most of us DO want to welcome Jesus and God – into our community, and into our hearts.

So what does that look like?  What does Jesus putting a child in his arms THEN, look like for us NOW

I’ll talk about who the “children” are, but first I want us to focus on ourselves as welcomers – and then bring it back to the children.

Number one, ego has no place among us.  Let there be no arguments among believers about who is the greatest.  There is only ONE greatest, and he washed his friends’ ugly dirty feet on Maundy Thursday, and died on a cross as a despised criminal on Good Friday.

Two, Judgment also has no place among us.  If we want to welcome Jesus among us we welcome ALL those who society as deemed unworthy – the nobodies, the worthless.  If we want to welcome Jesus among us, we welcome those who WE also have deemed unworthy – because for as much as I might say judgment has no place, we still do it, me included.

It’s sin – this compulsion we have to look down on others, to rate ourselves as better than some.  We’re bound to it. We can only confess it, and cling to Jesus’ grace for us, unworthy as WE are.

Because, in the end, that is OUR relationship with Jesus.  In the end, WE are that child Jesus took in his arms.  WE are the nobodies, the unworthy, the worthless.  In bondage to sin, unable to free ourselves.

None of us like to think of ourselves in that way, but there it is.  Between what we have done, and what we have left undone, we’ve got nothing to bring to God.  We’ve got NO case for deserving GOD’S welcome to US.  We’re guilty.   We may not look like it.  Our worthlessness may be hidden by nice clothes or a fancy car.  But we can’t hide it from God.

It’s a radical, shocking thing this love of God.

We have received tremendous immeasurable grace from Jesus – grace that takes us from hell to heaven, grace that welcomes us and gives us the courage AND humility to welcome others.

This is the life Jesus has given us.  His love breaks down every wall our sin puts up.  His love calls us to love others, and welcome them into this wonderful broken community of grace.

We welcome because Jesus welcomes us.  We welcome, knowing that as we do, we welcome God.  And it starts and ends with God’s shocking grace.

AMEN.

9th Sunday after Pentecost, 2015

9th Sunday after Pentecost, year B, 2015 (preached 7/26/15)

first reading:  2 Kings 4:42-44

Psalm 145:10-18

second reading:  Ephesians 3:14-21

gospel reading:  John 6:1-21


Miracles are awesome things.  To benefit from something completely unexpected, to witness or be the beneficiary of an unexplained blessing is an awesome thing.

I wish we could see more miracles.  I wish we could see better the miracles that are taking place all around us every day.  Miracles are awesome.  Feeding 5,000 people with just a few loaves and fish certainly constitutes a miracle. But the miracle is NOT the point.

In fact, St. John makes this abundantly clear.  When the crowd wanted to make the miracle the point, Jesus left them.  He withdrew.  Went away.  Got lost.

The crowd saw the miracle and wanted to make Jesus a king.  It’s understandable.  We do it too.  We encounter a person who we perceive as having great power, especially great power to “get things done” and we want to put them in charge.

We all get caught up in signs and wonders.  The crowd, which probably included some VERY hungry people, wanted to exalt Jesus for what he had done for them.  We often want to elevate people who have done or will do good things for us.

But we need to pay attention here, because the crowd was WRONG.  They want to crown Jesus a king because he performed a great miracle.  They completely miss the point.  The outward miracle is NOT the point.  The outward sign was really nothing.

The miracle, or sign, was only a guidepost to seeing Jesus’ true purpose – to love us and save us from our sins.

Jesus never called himself a king, at least not a king of “this world.”  Kings send soldiers into battle to die for them. Jesus put HIMSELF on the front line in the battle and HE died so that WE could live.

When Pilate asked Jesus if he was a king, Jesus would only answer, “If you say so.” Jesus was no king. He called himself a shepherd – the GOOD shepherd, who lays down his life for his sheep.

The point is not to be an earthly king for those people – or for us.  Jesus doesn’t want to be a political leader, or the ruler of any political party or nation.  And we need to listen.  Those who would like to think of America as a “Christian nation” especially need to listen.

Forget the fact that our own founding fathers never intended us to be a “Christian nation” – we see in our gospel for today that JESUS doesn’t intend that and wouldn’t like it either.  When the crowd was going to try to force that on him, what did he do?  He withdrew from them.  Like I said before, he got lost.  Made himself scarce.

On of my seminary professors,  the late Dr. Robert Kysar, stated in his commentary on John,

“The intent to make Jesus king is an ill-founded enthusiasm of the moment… Jesus will have none of this and flees from the crowd.  This kind of political kingship stands in contrast to the true kingship of Jesus.”**

Unfortunately the people, including Jesus’ own disciples, wouldn’t understand this until well after the fact. Until after Jesus had been put to death and rose again.

So what then is the point?  The point is – the sign, the miracle, is a guidepost, NOT the destination.

Jesus doesn’t want to be king of the Jews or the Gentiles, or America, or Germany, or Nigeria or any other nation we could name.

  • The point is – Jesus wants to be king in our HEARTS.
  • The point is Jesus wants us to know God’s love.
  • The point is that our sins starve us and we can do nothing to fill our souls.
  • The point is that we can bring nothing to the table – we come to God as beggars with empty arms.

But at Jesus’ table of grace we are fed till we are overflowing, not just with loaves and fish, but with his body and blood – his very life.

Making him a king for the miracle of the feeding would have actually belittled who he was, and IS.  He is not a miracle worker.  He is the Savior.

Jesus couldn’t care less about the “faith” or religion of a nation.  Political structures of any kind are meaningless to the creator of heaven and earth.  What Jesus does care about is the faith of YOU and ME.

What does it matter if we are a “Christian nation,” or have a national religion, if we as individual Christians stand by while people are abused, murdered, oppressed and hungry?  Jesus has no aspirations to rule America.  What he wants is to rule ME, and YOU.

What Jesus wants is to be SO infused in our hearts, minds and souls that everything we say and do becomes a reflection of his love to others.  What Jesus wants is for us to turn to him, with our empty hearts, arms and bellies, and be made full with HIM.

What Jesus wants is what our writer from Ephesians wants,

“that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love.  That (we) may have the power to comprehend… what is the breadth and length and height and depth… to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that we may be filled with all the fullness of God.”

Filling bellies is a neat miracle.  But being filled with the love of God, being rooted in God’s love – THAT is the best miracle of all.

It may not be as flashy, but it takes us from hell to heaven, from lost to saved, from wandering to ROOTED – rooted forever in the love of God that knows no breadth or length or height or depth.  Wow. 

THAT is THE miracle.  THAT is the destination.  Thanks be to God!

AMEN.


**Robert Kysar,  Augsburg Commentary on the New Testament:  John.  Minneapolis, MN, Augsburg Publishing House, p. 92-93.