Tag Archive | Matthew

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.



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.


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

2nd Sunday of Advent, 2016

2nd Sunday of Advent, year A, preached 12/4/16

first reading:  Isaiah 11:1-10

Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19

second reading:  Romans 15:4-13

gospel reading:  Matthew 3:1-12

Way back when I was in seminary, my dear friend, Violet, preached a sermon whose main point has stayed with me for over 20 years now.

She began her sermon by talking about “four letter words,” and their power.  She got a few chuckles, including from me, because Lord knows there have been times in my life when nothing else seems to fit a situation except a four letter word or two.

But then Violet shocked all of us, when she said the four letter word she was think of – the four letter word that hold such great power is… HOPE.  HOPE wasn’t even in the top ten list of four letter words I was thinking of!

What Violet was illustrating is exactly what our readings today also show us – that in the midst of very trying, practically impossible circumstances, HOPE is the power that gets us through.

hope1In our first reading we have a vision of hope despite a bleak reality.  The prophet imagines the shoot coming out of the dead stump of Jesse – King David’s line will be restored, and what a wonderful time that will be.  The peaceable kingdom as it’s popularly called.  The wolf and the lamb, the leopard and the kid, the calf and the lion, the cow and the bear, all living together; little children playing with snakes – no more pain or destruction.

Our psalm is a prayer of hope for an earthly king who will bring justice, who shall “defend the needy” and “rescue the poor and crush the oppressor.”  A prayer that under this king “the righteous flourish” and “there shall be abundance of peace.”

Our second reading from Romans speaks it plainly.  St. Paul even uses hope as a blessing:  “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.”

He wrote these words to a community with struggles from within and without.  The Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians were having a hard time accepting one another.  It wouldn’t be the first time a church has suffered from factions within.

Yet, in the midst of their division, Paul reminds them that the scriptures were given to us so that “we might have hope,” and that our God is a “God of hope.”  His wish for those in the Roman church, is that these competing factions “welcome one another” and “abound in hope.”

The hope in the gospel is less clear.  When we look at the surface of it we see a lot of judgment.  John the Baptist calling the religious leaders poisonous snakes, and warnings about the wheat and the chaff.  I see hope here in John’s warning for the big shots not to be presumptuous.  We are ALL called to repentance.  No one is better than another.

You and I have as much right (or NO right) to God as the richest tycoon or the holiest saint.  I don’t know about you, but that gives me a LOT of hope.  Through faith, through repentance, through our baptism into Jesus, I, a poor penitent sinner receive grace and mercy.  Our pedigree or social station has no bearing on whether we are “good enough” or NOT “good enough” for the kingdom of heaven.

When confronted with the times, it would have been easy for our biblical writers and prophets to despair.  And certainly in the Bible there are those moments – and sometimes the moments last for DECADES.  But despair does NOT prevail.

HOPE is a four letter word in the face of despair.  Instead of capitulating or simple cursing our circumstances, hope speaks a TRUTH to those circumstances.  Hope looks at reality and says, “Yes, I acknowledge you, but I will not give IN to you.”  THIS is the power that hope has – the power to carry us.


When seen this way, hope is one of the ultimate acts of defiance.  Hope is resistance.  Hope gives us strength to carry on and to ACT.  This is what we mean when we say hope is a four letter word.

We look at the growing darkness around us.  Winter is fast approaching.  The solstice is in a few weeks, when we will experience the “shortest” or “darkest” day of the whole year.  Into this darkness comes the child of hope.  The one of whom John the Baptist spoke – more powerful than him, or any one of us.

This hope is THE light that shines in the darkness, THE light the darkness cannot overcome.

THIS hope, gives US hope.  This hope lifts us up when we are weak and breathes in us the power of the Holy Spirit. This hope gives us hope even when we know we will fail.  This hope gives us the strength to even work for a thing that we know we will never see.  This hope has given people through the centuries courage to stand up against all odds – martyrs, prophets, teachers – all regular believers who had hope.

It’s so easy to find that perfect four letter word to curse.  But for God, the perfect four letter word is word that actually brings energy and passion and a vision for justice and righteousness – the peaceable kingdom, the righteous king, the ability to “with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

How could the people in the prophet Isaiah’s time have imagined a new king from the dead line of David?  How could the psalmist dare imagine a king who would defend the poor and needy?  How could Paul possibly think the Jewish and Gentile Christians would find a way to live together?

How can we, you and I, find a way to make it through all the challenges that come OUR way from within and without?

We see the coming baby in the manger, the savior on the cross, the risen Lord for US – and we have HOPE.


Ash Wednesday, 2015

Ash Wednesday, 2015 (preached 2/18/15)

first reading: Joel 2:1-2, 12-17

Psalm 51:1-17

second reading:  2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10

gospel reading:  Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

“We entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.”  St. Paul’s words to the Corinthians give us the theme of this Ash Wednesday, and for the season of Lent.

So how do we begin?

The prophet Joel tells us, “Blow the trumpet sanctify a fast; call a solemn assembly; gather the people…”  and the words we will use in our gospel acclamation until Easter – “Return to the Lord your God for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love…”

We have a solemn assembly this evening. God’s people are gathered. And this gathering begins our journey of reconciliation, of returning.

In tonight’s exhortation, which we will hear in a few minutes, we are summoned to the special disciplines of Lent – repentance, fasting, prayer and works of love.

These are ways we return and are reconciled anew.

repentanceRepentance.   Turning around.  Turning away from sin.  We don’t talk much about repentance. It’s certainly not fashionable to say, “I’m sorry.”

Political careers and personal relationships have been ruined because of the stubborn refusal to say, “I was wrong. I’m sorry.”

There is the popular phrase, “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.” I don’t know who came up with that, but it’s a LIE, plain and simple.  The truth is, love means having to say you’re sorry – A LOT.

We’re imperfect human beings, you and I, and we inevitably do or say things that hurt others.  And it’s hard to admit when we’ve made mistakes, and when we love, cover-ups and denials only compound the hurt – they never help.

When we love and we’ve hurt, we repent and ask our beloved for forgiveness. And if we do this in our earthly relationships, how much more do we need to do this with God?

fasting1We also don’t talk about fasting much, unless of course it’s a diet that we think will help us be more beautiful or fit or healthy.  There’s nothing wrong with that, but that’s not what spiritual fasting is.

Fasting is about denying oneself without the expectation of worldly benefit, and it’s NOT just about food.

Fasting is about sacrifice, giving up just a little piece of ourselves so we might experience just a tiny fraction of what Jesus gave up for us.

We have become too accustomed I think, to getting what we want when we want it – spending money we don’t have on things we don’t really need.

Fasting teaches us that it IS possible to go without, to wait, to have patience – whether it’s fasting from meals, or a specific food, and even better, fasting from unhealthy behaviors that teach us to have more respect for our bodies or for others.

Durer's praying hands

Durer’s praying hands

Prayer is something we DO talk about, but I wonder sometimes if we’re just giving it lip service.

How do we talk to God? I would guess that we are pretty good at asking God for stuff, even if it’s important stuff, like our health, or to take care of our loved ones.

But it’s easy to neglect praying for the needs of “others” – and by others I mean those we don’t know and will never know.  The hungry, those without adequate shelter (especially in this frigid weather), those of our brothers and sisters whose lives are being threatened for their faith…

And it’s easy to neglect prayers of thanks, especially if we’ve been feeling burdened.  It’s also easy to make prayer a ONE-SIDED conversation, not listening for how God is trying to speak to us.  Communication is important in maintaining and strengthening our human relationships.

We need to tell the special people in our lives on a regular basis that we are thankful for them; ask for what we need from them; respond when they need something from us; and listen when they speak.  It’s possible to have relationships without these things, but not deep meaningful relationships. And so it is in our relationship with God.

1366626254_186157Works of love, or to use the old word, ALMSGIVING, is the fourth of our Lenten disciplines.

We get nervous sometimes in Lutheran circles when talking about works of love because we don’t want people to confuse them with works that get us brownie points in heaven.

But that doesn’t mean that works aren’t important to faith. Good works, works of love, are ways we give thanks to God for our salvation, not ways we earn it.

One of the ways we show our love for God is to love our neighbors – both friends and enemies – in word and deed.  Jesus gave over his whole life for you and me, surely we can give a bit of ourselves to help our neighbors.

These four disciplines of Lent – repentance, fasting, prayer and works of love – help us to reconcile and return to the Lord our God.

It is a time to re-fresh, restore, and re-focus on our relationship to the One who gave us life and loves each one of us here.

For while Lent is a solemn time, the whole point of the solemnity is to draw ever nearer to God – to experience more our NEED for God, and the depth of God’s love for us.

Lent helps us make sure our journey to the cross of Good Friday is not without reflection on our sin which necessitated Jesus’ sacrifice, but also on his LOVE and forgiveness, which was his sole purpose.

Our journey to the cross of Good Friday is also a reflection on how we RESPOND to his great eternal sacrifice.

How do we say thank you for a gift we can never reciprocate? For a love we can never return in kind?


***I don’t talk about the imposition of ashes in this sermon.  If you’re needing/desiring a more “ash” related message, feel free to look at my sermon from last year by clicking here.

The Holy Innocents, Martyrs

The Holy Innocents, Martyrs, ABC, 2014 (preached December 28, 2014)

first reading:  Jeremiah 31:15-17

Psalm:  124

second reading:  1 Peter 4:12-19

gospel reading:  Matthew 2:13-18

***Note:  I was substitute preaching for a colleague at a neighboring congregation, so I was not preaching to my regular folks.  Also, the commemoration of the Holy Innocents is December 28th, and when Dec. 28th falls on a Sunday its appointed readings take precedence over the regular ones for the first Sunday of Christmas.

What a depressing day.  Right after we welcome the baby in the manger, right after we can finally sing all our favorite Christmas carols, we are confronted with the slaughter of innocent children.

This commemoration of the Church brings up all kinds of questions that are ultimately unanswerable – and way too much to deal with in one sermon.  And those questions bring up others that are equally unanswerable.  How could God allow those little children to be senselessly murdered?  How come God didn’t stop Herod?  Why do bad things happen to good people?  Why are innocent people sometimes punished while the guilty go free?

We can answer these questions in part, but not completely.  I have often said that I have a long list of questions I want to ask God when I get to heaven, and those are some of them.  There are parts that can be answered though, and it’s important that we talk about that.

Each of us has been given incredible freedom as human beings made in God’s likeness.  We are not puppets to be manipulated, we are God’s children, individuals with limited, but still amazing will and power.

The freedom that God gives us at birth is a wonderful thing.  It empowers us to shape our own future, and we have tremendous abilities and opportunities to help others.  There are countless examples of our human capacity to be kind, generous, and giving to one another.

But this freedom can also be abused.  We are given the freedom to do good, but along with that comes the freedom to act and make choices that may hurt or devastate others.

We may have countless examples of human kindness but we also unfortunately have countless examples of human cruelty.

It’s not lost on me that even as we remember the slaughter of all those innocent children by Herod, there are hundreds of parents in Pakistan who will never stop grieving their children who were murdered by religious extremists just a few weeks ago.

There are families torn apart by domestic violence, kids being bullied and degraded in schools, racism, sexism, classism, and all the other “isms” that just never seem to fade away.

All this violence and hatred I believe can be traced back to the sin of covetousness.  Envy.  Greed.  The desire for power over others – to want the power that someone else has.  Whether it’s power manifested through owning land, money, possessions, or influence over people – it’s intoxicating, it’s addictive, and it’s dangerous.

There’s a good reason that we have one or two commandments (depending on how you number them) that speak directly to coveting – wanting what someone else has.  And this was Herod’s problem.  Herod’s sin.  He had power and he didn’t want to give it up or share it.  He was even willing to slaughter children to keep it.

He saw Jesus as a threat, and since he didn’t know who or where Jesus was he just killed all the children in Jesus’ age bracket.  Nice guy.

And we read the quote from Jeremiah in Matthew that there was wailing and loud lamentation – Rachel weeping for her children, because they were no more.

If there is any value to be found in the death of the children, both then and now, we find it in the phrase, “she refused to be consoled/comforted.”  Rachel, a symbol of motherhood, a symbol of Israel, refused to accept the evil.  Too many times when we see evil, we are too content to let it happen, too content to let it win.  Either we think we have no power, or we’re too tired from fighting it.

But grief and anger are powerful.  The human spirit is powerful, and the Holy Spirit working within and through us is unstoppable.  It is part of our baptismal calling as workers in the kingdom in the name of the holy child, Jesus Christ, to stand against the Herods of the world, to refuse to be consoled, or lulled into complacency.

This commemoration of the Church also reminds us that life and death are intimately connected.  That joy and suffering exist side by side.  That Christmas and Good Friday are bound together.

It may not be a happy thing to remember.  It may not give us all those nice warm fuzzy feelings we like to have at Christmas.  But thankfully our faith goes beyond warm and fuzzy – our faith is down and dirty.  Our faith is REAL.

Our faith does not deny pain, it does not deny suffering, it does not deny evil.  Our faith denies none of those things – it CONFRONTS them.  It meets them head-on, and ultimately defeats them on the cross.

The cross itself was pain, suffering and evil – Jesus all wrapped up in and nailed to the ugly sin that is the worst of our human nature.  But the light shines in the darkness.

We look at the events of 2,000 years ago, and know that evil and death did not have the last word.  It won the battle but it did NOT win the war.  And the same is true in our day and age.

Pain, suffering, evil and death impact our lives regularly.  But it is GOD who ultimately triumphs – NOT pain, or suffering or evil or death.  They do NOT have the last word for us either.

They impact us, but they do not define us.  WE are defined by the God who journeys with us through the dark valleys.  WE are defined by the Savior who claims us in baptism and makes us his children forever.  WE are defined by a cross whose intention was cruelty and death, but whose final outcome was love and life.

THAT brothers and sisters – the life and love of Jesus for you and me, has the ABSOLUTE last word – both now and forever.



23rd Sunday after Pentecost, 2014

23rd Sunday after Pentecost, year A, 2014 (preached Nov. 16, 2014)

first reading:  Zephaniah 1:7, 12-18

Psalm 90:1-8

second reading:  1 Thessalonians 5:1-11

gospel reading:  Matthew 25:14-30

The parable told in our gospel reading today is one that Jesus uses to illustrate the kingdom of heaven.  It’s part of a series of three parables in which Jesus tells the disciples about the end times.

A master left to go on a long trip.  While he was gone, he entrusted his slaves with huge amounts of his money.  Two of them made more money than they had been given by the master.  They had been put in charge of a lot, and took the risk of investing it.

When they made more than they were originally given, the master gave them even more responsibility, and the great honor of entering into their master’s joy.

But the third didn’t do anything.  He was scared.  Afraid of what the master would do to him if he tried to invest even just one talent, and then lost it.

I certainly understand that fear.  I might have even been tempted to do the same thing myself.  Fear motivated that slave to dig a hole and bury the money.  Kind of like stuffing your mattress with thousands of dollars.  Now the money would be secure.  And so was he, or so he thought.

We may be surprised to discover that the master is NOT pleased by the action (or inaction) of this slave, and shocked at the fate of this one who had so protected the master’s treasure.

I have never liked this parable, simply because I mostly identify with the slave who did nothing, who risked nothing, but lost nothing.  Isn’t it better to have done nothing than to have lost it all?

The master’s response makes little sense if we look at the story superficially.  But, we know that parables cannot be read superficially.  With a parable, what you see is NOT what you get – – because what we get is much deeper and multi-layered.  So we cannot assume that Jesus is simply talking about money, or shrewd financial planning.

In fact, he’s not talking about money at all – he’s talking about something much more important – discipleship.

He’s talking about being children of the light and of the day, as St. Paul wrote in our second reading.  Jesus is talking about what it means to be a child of God, entrusted through our baptism with the responsibility of being a disciple, and making disciples.

We ARE disciples, and we MAKE disciples.  That is our calling.

And to BE and MAKE disciples requires taking risks – putting ourselves out there – taking chances, letting our lights shine.

But I think a lot of people approach discipleship like the third slave.  Either out of fear, or embarrassment, or even laziness we DO nothing, risk nothing, for Jesus.

Our response to the One who suffered and was buried in the tomb for us, is to bury our heads in the dirt, fade into the background, refusing to leave our comfort zones.

Honestly, how can that be our response to the One who has given us everything?  When we think about it this way, perhaps the master’s response to the third slave makes more sense.

In baptism, Jesus gives us the gift of life, then it is our response, our call, to spend the rest of our lives giving it back to him.  As we say in our offertory prayer, “we offer with joy and thanksgiving what you have first given us – our selves, our time, and our possessions…”

But, we’re still left wondering how much we have to do.  What is the baseline for not ending up being thrown into the outer darkness?  What’s the difference between getting a passing grade at discipleship and flunking out?  How much is enough?  How much do we have to do for Jesus?

How many people do we have to bring to the faith?  What are the percentages?  What will be enough for us to enter into the master’s joy?  To quote the old Whitney Houston song, “How will I know if he really loves me?”

On the surface this reading is NOT good news – because it’s all works.  It’s about earning the master’s favor.  It’s about producing or being thrown out.

That’s not a gospel I can preach.  Thank God, I don’t have to.

Once again, we have to look below the surface.

Because it’s not so much that salvation comes to the slaves through the amount of money they earn – for they’re each given different amounts and they earn different amounts – but their reward is the same.  The punishment comes to the one who does nothing, not one thing, takes no risks whatsoever to grow the talent – indeed acts as if the talent, the treasure, doesn’t even exist.

With God, success isn’t measured by the greatness of the profit, success comes in BEING who we ARE – again, as St. Paul writes “children of the light and children of the day.”

Jesus tells us in Matthew 5:15 that we don’t light a candle and hide it under a basket, and in the next verse which we say in our baptismal liturgy, “Let your light so shine before others…”

We are disciples, and we make disciples – we are children of the light so that light can shine before others.

How do we know if what we do is enough?  How do we know if we’ve entered into the master’s joy?  How will I know if he really loves me?

You and I only have to look at the cross and remember who we are.

In the end, it’s really impossible to “do nothing” because our baptism does everything.

Our very existence as baptized children of light and of the day shines the light of God in the darkest places of the earth.  And THAT is good news – not just for us, but for the whole world.