|Posted by Baltimore Lutheran Campus Ministry on May 9, 2017 at 12:15 AM||comments (2)|
1 Peter 2:19-25
It’s Good Shepherd Sunday- a time when pastors talk about Jesus’ desire to protect and lead us in this life. To call us back when we’re going astray and keep us on the pathways that lead to life. The one who carries us on his shoulders when we have been beat up by the world. It’s a nice thing to get to preach on, a comforting reality. And I’ve got a great story about how stupid sheep can be and how I, as a 21-year old with no livestock experience, had to rescue a sheep stuck in a fence in the middle of downtown Philadelphia. But as much as that would be fun, there’s been something getting in the way for me this week.
And it’s not anything going on in the world, although that is a place where we desperately need a Good Shepherd to guide us and protect us. This week it’s some words in our Bible that have been getting in the way- those words we hear from 1 Peter today. Because they have been used in horrible ways that betray the love of Jesus for all people.
Now, we try to sanitize them a bit by leaving off the first verse which says, “slaves, accept the authority of your masters with all deference, not only those who are kind and gentle but also those who are harsh.” This is who the passage is actually spoken to and we know the violence that was done with those words. We know they were used to encourage those who were imprisoned to be obedient and subservient in a system that was never God’s will for them. And I think the church knows better than to publicly speak words which have been used to justify evil toward our brothers and sisters.
But the words we hear this morning are not much better. Did you hear them?
For it is to your credit if, being aware of God, you endure pain while suffering unjustly. If you endure when you do right and suffer for it, you have God’s approval. For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps.
And I will tell you that I struggle to read these words in my Bible, because they seem to justify abuse and encourage submission to it rather than resistance. And not to endure suffering for courageously following Jesus and taking the punishment that you knew would result. This passage encourages Christians to endure suffering that comes as a result of just living your life in a situation where you don’t have much power.
And although I can’t find anything that will explain away these words that seem to fly in the face of Jesus’ loving intentions for our lives, it has helped to understand the community to which Peter wrote this letter.
Peter lived in a society where Christians seemed suspicious and dangerous, subversive to the way things were. Their equality among themselves, their sharing with each other, their ultimate allegiance to God rather than the emperor- these are things that didn’t sit well with the world around them. So Christians were seen as a threat and the world would take any excuse to do away with these Jesus followers. So Peter is writing to a community of Christians struggling to survive and hold onto their true identity in Christ.
And it seems like that community was made up of mostly folks who weren’t the rich and powerful. Many of them were servants and they lived at a time where there wasn’t much of any chance of overturning the social order and staying alive at the same time. And if they, as a persecuted minority, tried to overturn the social structure, they were likely to be killed and the Christian community would be destroyed.
So, Peter was writing to try and encourage the church in the midst of the unjust world they lived in and help them continue to be the church and pass on the faith to future generations. Just before our passage, Peter reminds the church of the truth that they stand in- that they were a people made free in Christ. And they get to make a choice about how they will use that freedom- for good or for evil. So, in these in-between times, where they knew the equality and freedom of God’s kingdom but couldn’t live into it, Peter encourages the church to keep holding fast to faith in Jesus and following as best they’re able.
And that meant refusing to return abuse for abuse. It meant refusing to threaten or harm others when they treated them badly. It meant being loving even when evil was done to them. This is the way of Christ. And, as Peter says, by doing right when you have no earthly reason to, you might silence the ignorance of the foolish.
Peter wanted to give his church the power to do the one thing they could- choose to follow in the footsteps of Christ in a situation they couldn’t change. To use their good conduct to witness to Jesus and shame those who would treat them harshly. To resist the abuse by refusing to let it overtake their soul. And to identify their suffering with the suffering of Jesus to find enough strength to carry on. Because there are some moments where the only alternative is to endure.
And in those moments when we’re barely holding on, knowing that Jesus suffers beside us and has gone before us is a thing that saves us. But just because Jesus stands besides us doesn’t mean we stay stuck in abuse.
Because we are living in a different moment from Peter’s. We are privileged to be living in a moment where abuse is understood for what it is- utterly against God’s intention for anyone and something to be resisted rather than endured. Identifying our suffering with Jesus’ should never be a reason to stay trapped in a situation where God’s abundant, beautiful life is clouded out by abuse.
Because we have a Good Shepherd who is calling out to us by name. And that name is always beloved. Jesus calls out to us to remind us that we are treasured ones made with a purpose. Jesus calls out to those facing abuse and to all the rest of us who have forgotten our names. Who have gotten used to the names the world calls us. Who have gotten used to being named by the work we do, the work we fail to do or the times we have messed up. And hearing that name again is something I need to hear often.
Every night, my 5-year old and I bless each other by making the sign of the cross on each other’s foreheads and saying, “Hannah, you are a beloved child of God.” “Mommy, you are a beloved child of God.” And, because my daughter has the gospel message deep in her soul, she asked us to add something to that. Now every night we also remind each other, “Mommy, Hannah, God loves you even when you make mistakes.” It is a blessed reminder to hear every night.
Because Jesus doesn’t just call to us to make us feel good. He calls us in order to lead us out. Out from the places where sheep get trapped or attacked. Out from the places where sheep are threatened. For those who are abused, that leading out sometimes happens through hands like ours- by recognizing and helping children, spouses and the elderly who are abused by those who profess to love them. Or when we advocate for migrant farm workers and others who are abused in their jobs.
And thanks be to God, Jesus also leads us out from the places where wayward sheep wander because they get distracted or want to go their own way. To lead us out from the things that attack us and into the green pastures and beside the still waters.
And Jesus leads us out by going before us. Like one who makes tracks in the snow for us to follow- to know exactly where to put our feet, to make the road easier for us and ensure that we won’t get lost. He leads us out by teaching us the good ways that lead to life.
By teaching us to forgive those who don’t deserve it. By teaching us welcome the stranger even when we fear them. By teaching us to love in the face of evil. And teaching us how to suffer, if we must, for the sake of working for justice and love for our brothers and sisters.
Jesus walks the road ahead of us- walking through the dangers before us so that he can be the one to bring us through. So that he can bring us to life abundant. And thanks be to God for that.
|Posted by Baltimore Lutheran Campus Ministry on May 2, 2017 at 12:00 AM||comments (0)|
“We had hoped. . . “ That’s what the followers of Jesus said as they walked back to Emmaus. They were walking slowly- the way you do when you’ve got nothing to look forward to where you’re headed. We had hoped that this would turn out differently, they said to each other. And when a stranger starts to walk the road with them and asks them why their steps are so slow, these two say, “we bet all our hope on Jesus and we don’t know what to do next.”
We had hoped Jesus was the one that was going to save our people and overthrow the Roman government. We had hoped he was the one to bring change or at least bring some judgment on those who were making life miserable for us. We didn’t expect to be walking back from the place of his death with nothing to show for it. We had hoped that this wasn’t the end. But it’s been 3 days and Jesus isn’t coming back to us. He isn’t showing up. And we’re about done with this hope thing.
And I bet a lot of us know that same feeling. Some days we just don’t have the strength to hope anymore. Some days we’re walking back home after our loved one has died saying, “we had hoped that our prayers would be answered. That we would be rejoicing instead of crying.” We had hoped that we would find a job before the bills came due. We had hoped that justice would finally come rather than life continuing on as it always has.
And sometimes, as unholy as it sounds to us, we lose hope in Jesus showing up. Because we had hoped that following Jesus was going to suddenly make things different. Make it better. But we’re walking around with all the mess still in front of us. And we don’t have much trust that things are going to change. Because Jesus is great and that’s why we trusted him and followed him. But we don’t see him right here with us, right now, which is where we need him to be. We aren’t seeing the change that we hoped Jesus would bring. And there may be days when we just don’t have much strength to hold onto faith anymore.
Anybody know what that’s like? When we just stop thinking any good is coming to us. When we stop trying. We just start walking aimlessly back to our lives. Going through the motions. That’s right where these travelers are when a stranger comes along to walk the road with them. But instead of walking in their despair with them, he starts talking about Scripture. Making all those Scriptures that they scratched their head about make sense. (Wouldn’t you like that!) And making the Scriptures come alive- as if they were speaking right to the hearts of these two Jesus followers. This stranger spoke with words so powerful that he made the love and hope of God into something alive and active. Something that changed how they were walking. Something that spoke to their soul and revived them.
They were being changed on the road and they barely noticed when they actually got to where they were going. And then they didn’t want the moment to end, so they invited this stranger in for a meal, since it was getting dark. You’ve shared life with us on the road, they say. Come share a meal with us, now. And maybe you can keep sharing this hope of God with us. Because we need it.
And “when Jesus was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them.” Doing just what he had done so often with his followers. On the hillside when 5,000 gathered. At the table with his friends before his death. And at so many normal meals with friends, strangers and enemies. And in that moment they recognized Jesus. He was here, with them. He was here, living out the same stories he had before his death. Speaking the same hope. Challenging them to trust God’s work and be a part of it. Jesus was still with them!
Their hearts are so filled up and ready for the life in front of them that they wondered why they didn’t recognize Jesus sooner! They said, “were not our hearts burning within us when he talked to us on the road?” And those burning hearts send them right out the door- even though it’s dark outside- because they can’t sit still with their hearts on fire! They run back in the middle of the night to tell their friends, “we have seen the Lord!”
That’s how I tell the story every single week to my college students at Towson. Every single week. It’s become my students’ favorite part of Tuesday night dinners, which is our main gathering at Towson. (And I’ve told it enough that my students have FINALLY gotten into their heads that these disciples are not going to Amadeus or Damascus or another place.) And the reason we tell this story over and over again is because we trust that this is not just a story of two travelers 2,000 years ago- this is our story. Our story of how Jesus keeps showing up to us.
Every week we tell the story and remind each other that we are these two followers on the road. And sometimes a stranger walks the road with us. And in those moments when we recognize Jesus right beside us, we get to run back in the middle of the night to our friends to say, “I have seen the Lord!” So after this story each week, we share the moments of God’s presence in our lives. Sometimes they are small things, like a glimpse of the flowers in spring that point us back to the God who brings life or a peace that came over us in the midst of painful times. And the presence of Jesus does even bigger things- from being given the strength to begin healing from an eating disorder to God putting a student with medical training in the right place at the right moment to care for someone who needed immediate help. And just this week one of our students talked about the courage that God gave her to intervene in a sexual assault on campus last week.
So every week we Jesus folk get together, we share the good news that Jesus keeps showing up. He comes in was we don’t always recognize, we don’t always understand at first, but he keeps showing up to walk the road with us.
And we do this every single week because sometimes we know we are, like Jesus tells the travelers, “foolish and slow of heart to believe” all that God has already told us through the stories in our Bible. Sometimes we are foolish and slow of heart to believe our neighbors who have testified to God’s presence in their lives. Sometimes we have been “foolish and slow of heart to believe” when Jesus has come up alongside us and walked the way with us. So we desperately need to be reminded that Jesus walking with us isn’t just a reality for the two followers on the road, it’s the reality for us, too. Over and over again.
And I’ve got to tell you- every week when I tell this story, I think that I’m going to be met with silence. But I’m not. Ever. And there are some weeks when I need to stop the conversation if we’re ever going to make it to our topic for the night!
Because Jesus keeps showing up to walk the road with us! When our hope is hanging on by a thread, Jesus comes to revive our souls and give us enough strength to keep walking. And to remind us that there is nothing in life that we walk through alone, no matter how painful.
When reading Scripture has just become going through the motions, Jesus will pull up beside us to make them into living realities instead of just words. He will help know our God’s relentless desire to love us and have us know God’s love in return. He will remind us of the incredible work God has been up to throughout our Scriptures: forgiving enemies, bringing justice for those who long for it and welcoming the outsider- so that we can have the strength to follow in God’s paths.
And Jesus, who never seems to turn down an invitation to sit down at the table and share a meal, will keep being known to us around the table, too. He will pull up a chair beside us when we share meals with those who don’t always get an invitation and with those we disagree with. Jesus will keep showing up to make our food enough- to fill up our bellies and our souls.
And most surely Jesus comes in the meal we share as God’s family together, at this altar. He promises that all of us weary travelers will meet him here and he’ll keep giving us the bread that sustains us.
We are those travelers on the road and Jesus keeps showing up to us. But do you know what happened when the two recognized Jesus? He vanishes from their sight. And they have nothing to hold onto. Except the holy bread that he gave them. Scriptures that are opened to them. And hearts that are revived. And this is enough to send them out to follow him in his forgiving, justice-bringing, enemy loving work in the world.
They don’t have proof to hold onto that will make all the world believe. But they have their stories. They have their hope and their courage to live their lives in the way of Jesus. They have hearts set on fire for God. They have their eyes open to a world where life conquers death, where love defeats evil, and where Jesus shows up for them in their despair.
This is what our risen Jesus does. Over and over again. May we train our eyes to recognize him when he comes and then run back to testify to our friends, “Truly I have seen the Lord!”
|Posted by Baltimore Lutheran Campus Ministry on October 11, 2016 at 11:30 AM||comments (0)|
Sermon on Luke 17:11-19
Ok, so I never much like this story of the 10 lepers who were healed and the one who returnd to Jesus to say thank you. Not because it's a bad story, but because I think it’s easy and too moralistic to really struggle with. And I like Jesus stories that make you struggle. this is one where you ust nod your head. “Jesus wants you to say thank you” seems too simplistic a message, even though it’s something I tell my daughter most nights when she complains about saying grace before dinner. This message is something we already know, even though we don’t do it. And frankly, Jesus sounds a little like a mother pulling a guilt-trip- “what, I healed 10 and only one can be bothered to come back and say “thank you?” The story is fine but it doesn’t really inspire. Guilt never does.
And I struggle with the story because every single leper was healed. All 10 of them. They do exactly what Jesus tells them too. They run right to the priest when Jesus tells them too. And frankly, this is an act of faith. Can you imagine living with a disease that cut you off from your entire community? Your whole life is gone. And the only way to escape this reality is to suddenly be healed and then get the approval of the priest that you are actually clean.
So, when Jesus tells these folks that they are healed, they have to go walking off to the priest without any assurance that healing will come. They have hope, but no proof. And all 10 of them go and do exactly what Jesus tells them. And that’s more faith than I always have. And in the midst of this faithful walking, their skin changes. Their fingers and toes are restored. They are healed. They are restored to their families, their work, their lives. I can’t imagine there was a single man with leprosy that wasn’t thrilled. Their restoration was so important they couldn’t wait to have it proved true. So they kept on running to the priest.
But one stops. He looks at his hands and feet restored and he starts shouting. Starts yelling, “Thank you Jesus!” Starts dancing with those restored feet and thanking God with a voice loud enough for the whole town to hear. And he let everyone know that God is up to some stuff in him. Instead of yelling “unclean, unclean” as lepers were supposed to go around saying so no one would accidentally touch him, he yelled, “God has healed me!” so loud that people came to stare.
And when he gets to Jesus, he falls down on the ground and bows- the way you would honor someone far above you in power. This Samaritan- this outcast even among the outcast lepers- bows to Jesus as the one who has the power to bring healing and restore life. He notices God’s power in Jesus can’t stay away from this one who changes the future.
And Jesus says, “This one, this Samaritan, this man with leprosy- this man who you had written off as not worth anything- this is the man who saw the power of God at work in me. He can see the truth of who I am and what I came to this world to do. This man recognizes and praises and stays close to me. Oh, how I wish all my people would do this!” Because “Love that springs from gratitude is the essence of faith.”
And then he tells this 10th man- “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.” Go back to your life a changed man and live like that for the rest of your life.
But those words, “your faith has made you well” or “your faith has saved you” always stick with me. Because Jesus says that a lot. To the woman anointing his feet, the woman with a hemorrhage, and the blind beggar. And I always think that leads us down a slippery slope- that only those who have enough faith in Jesus get healed. And that’s not my experience.
And even more than that- I don’t think the leprosy just came back for the other 9 because they didn’t say thank you. Just because they didn’t have the same faith as the 10th man. So what does Jesus mean? How does this faith save this 10th man? How does it make him any more whole than the other 9 who were healed?
Well, I don’t think that this saving means what we often assume- that he got into heaven because he noticed Jesus. I assume he did, but I don’t think that’s what Jesus is talking about. I don’t think Jesus healed the other 9 to test them and then tell them they weren’t getting into heaven because they didn’t say thank you.
The one who returned to Jesus saw that this wasn’t just an awesome miracle, but the beginning of a new life in Jesus. He noticed the miracle for what it was- the in-breaking of God’s kingdom. He saw with kingdom eyes. He had his eyes turned to what God was doing in the world.
He was saved- or made whole- by being welcomed into a life lived in the kingdom of God. From that day forward, this Samaritan man lived his whole life enveloped in the reality that God is in charge.
He lived his life knowing that God works good in the most desperate circumstances. He knows that God chooses him in love even when no one else would. He lives his life looking into the world and seeing God’s good intention for it. And knows that God can and will work for the life of the world. Even when it seems impossible. All 10 got the miracle of healing , only one got the life spent with Jesus, the thing that made him whole
Now, I visited the Religious Fundamentalism class at Towson this week to answer questions and someone asked why God doesn’t show up the same way God did before and speak so clearly anymore. I said that I think it’s really a matter of us not looking into the world with the same eyes. Of us looking into the world like the 9 lepers instead of the 10th. Of seeing only the miracle and missing the one who brings it. We tend to explain away miracles using science rather than letting science point us to the mystery and beauty that is God at work.
And one of the practices of the Christian community- the stuff we’ve been talking about on Tuesday nights- is to teach us to look into the world with kingdom eyes. To expect God to be at work. To remind each other of such work. To celebrate it and run out to tell about it. To come back to Jesus in those moments with thanksgiving and love. To let those moments of return and praise change us. Save us. Make us whole.
Seeing with kingdom eyes means seeing God at work within the small coincidences and miraculous moments in life. And seeing in those moments a power so far beyond ourselves- a power so good and gracious and beautiful that it could only be named God, . Of relationships healed. Of peace coming in the midst of painful anxiety. Of being put in the right place at the right time to be able to do God’s healing work. Of recognizing the sacred when everyone around us only saw ordinary life.
God will continue to heal and fight for life- that’s God’s nature. But we have the gift of being like the 10th leper- of recognizing God at work. Of sharing it. Of celebrating it. Of living our lives out of the knowledge that God is at work in this world and that we get to get up and go be a part of that work, too.
|Posted by Baltimore Lutheran Campus Ministry on October 4, 2016 at 12:20 AM||comments (0)|
“Increase our faith!” I don’t know if we usually use these words, but I bet that many of us have prayed for God to make us strong enough for something that seems way more than we’re capable of. Increase our faith, God, we ask, even if we’re not sure we fully believe God will show up, because we know how strong we are on our own and it’s not going to be enough.
And the disciples today have just heard Jesus tell them, “It would be better for you if a millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea than for you to cause one of these little ones to stumble.” If we say the wrong thing or act out of step with Jesus’ leading and it causes another Christian to sin, then woe to us. We’re supposed to guard the faith of our brothers and sisters in Christ- especially those new or weak in the faith- and do everything in our power to encourage them in the good ways. And shame on us if we let our own conduct drag another person down. We’re supposed to be good all the time!
And then Jesus says that when our a fellow follower of Jesus acts out of line with God’s calling- you know, by being greedy or unjust or by hating their enemies- then we need to call them on it. We need to do that even when we are not perfect ourselves. We correct them with a whole, whole lot of humility and we don’t’ rejoice in it, but we do need to risk speaking up for the sake of our neighbors connection to Jesus. Which seems so utterly impossible much of the time.
And then, when our brothers and sisters change their ways and ask forgiveness, we need to forgive them, no questions asked. And we need to keep forgiving them if they mess up 7 times a day. Every day!
These are really high expectations for us and we’re probably already looking for the loopholes. So it makes sense that the disciples are begging for more faith! We don’t think we’re up to the task much of the time and they didn’t either.
In the Greek, those words, “increase our faith” are more accurately, “Add faith to us!” You know, “Could you just give us an injection to make us strong enough to trust you, Jesus? Give us the confidence to just do the ridiculous stuff you ask us to without caring what other people say about us. Add faith to us!”
Because I don’t know about you, but I rarely think that I have enough faith or enough trust in God to do ALL the crazy things that Jesus asks. Or even half of them. I would love to be one of those people who is always sure of themselves and confident in where God is calling me and then bold enough to actually do it.
So it would be great if Jesus was a kind and gentle God in answering this request. Yes, of course. It’s totally my fault. I forgot to give you your faith injection. But that’s not how it worked, even for the disciples. And that’s probably a good thing. Because if Jesus worked like that, we’d have a reason to whine and complain that we missed out on our dose of faith and take that as an excuse to do nothing.
But Jesus says, “Nope. You don’t get any more. Even the tiny bit of faith you already have is more powerful than you can imagine. I can use your tiny faith to uproot trees and plant them in the sea. OK- so that’s a pretty weird statement and I don’t think that Jesus really had plans for an underwater forest. But Jesus is trying to say that he can work in and through us in we can’t imagine or predict or explain. If we step out on faith, He can make us more powerful than we thought, more brave than we know ourselves to be and he can even bring healing through us. We don’t need MORE faith, we just need to use what we have.
Jesus is telling us that we don’t get to wait around until we FEEL like doing what Jesus calls us to. We don’t get to wait around until we FEEL like we’re good enough or strong enough. Sometimes we hold onto skepticism and worry so tightly that we can’t even imagine jumping in with 2 feet to this thing called faith. And that holds us back from God working through us to do awesome stuff. Like god did through Mother Teresa.
So- about 10 years ago, the Catholic Church published some new letters of Mother Teresa (now Saint Teresa of Calcutta.) that she wrote to some priests who served as her spiritual guides. And they showed that she struggled with her faith ever since she began her work in India. She couldn’t feel God’s presence with her and struggled to have the faith to pray. She couldn’t feel the comfort of faith or the love of God like she hoped. Her letters showed her crying out with the disciples, “increase my faith!”
But even though she felt her faith was weak, she was still convinced that God needed her to continue her work of mercy. So she cared for the dying, bandaged those with leprosy, took the lowest place, and welcomed those who came to her looking for the light of Jesus and the hope to go on. Her faith may not have been as strong as she hoped, but it was strong enough to hold her up and keep her doing God’s work. And God worked through that simple, faithful work to uproot mulberry trees right and left- to change heart and minds and bring them closer to the God she followed. This is what even a weak faith is capable of when we start to use it.
So how do WE make use of the little faith we have, especially on days when it’s hanging on by a thread? I don’t think it’s rocket science. We do what Mother Teresa did- we just do the stuff Jesus teaches us to do. Like putting our safety and our reputation on the line for the sake of bringing the healing and hope Jesus promises. And giving and giving to our neighbors in need. And trusting that the words of Jesus are our guide in life, even if it cramps our style.
Because this evening Jesus is kind of taking us by the collar and reminding us, “You have enough faith. Trust me. We got this. Do the stuff I call you to and trust that I’m walking with you every step of the way. Because in everything scary that I ask you to do, I will walk beside you.”
And when we do all this, Jesus tells us, we don’t get gold stars. We don’t get a thank you for doing all God asks of us. We don’t get loved more. Which seems unfair. But it’s only because God’s love for us will never, never depend on how good we are at doing what Jesus did. And there’s not a day that goes by that I’m not grateful that we’re not getting a grade in this following Jesus thing. God’s love is just one of those things that we get no matter what. God’s love keeps picking us up and calling us back to start again.
But the thing about using this faith of ours is that sometimes God will work through our acts of faith- even the small ones- to uproot mulberry trees and plant them in the sea. And man- what a glorious things to get to watch! To watch the power of God work through our hands that we know aren’t that strong. To watch the work we do bring life, and health and justice. For our care or our welcome of someone help them understand that they are adored by the Creator of the world. That is the reward of living by faith- to watch God’s power work through us.
|Posted by Baltimore Lutheran Campus Ministry on September 19, 2016 at 2:00 PM||comments (0)|
Jesus once told his disciples, “The reason I speak to them in parables is that “seeing they do not perceive, and hearing they do not understand.” And that sounds about right with this one. For 2,000 year, people have been scratching their heads, trying to make sense of a story about a man who cooks the books to save his own skin, loses the boss’ money by only looking out for himself and then his boss congratulates him for how clever he was.
So, what is Jesus up to in this parable? Listen to it again.
There was a millionaire who hired a man to be in charge of his money. Let’s call him this money manager Bill- it makes telling the story a lot easier. It so happens that this millionaire earned much of his money by making loans to those who didn’t have as much- to regular people like us. And Bill was in charge of writing up those debts.
But the money wasn’t flowing like that millionaire wanted and he suspected that Bill was doing something funny with the profits. So he tells Bill that his days are numbered. But life moved a little slower back then and Bill didn’t have to clean his desk out quite yet. So he had some time to consider his next move. Bill lived in an economy where there weren’t many jobs. If he lost this job as manager, he’d be forced to do manual labor or he’d be out begging on the streets. He wasn’t nearly as strong as his neighbors (they worked outside all day while he counted money!) and he was simply too proud to beg. There were no options left for Bill if this job ended.
No option except to trust the community to care for him. But Bill knew that communities don’t tend to care much for loan officers when they’re all in debt. So, he decided to be the best loan officer there was. He called his neighbors in and chopped their debts in half before the millionaire had time to figure out what was going on.
And when it came time to fire Bill, the millionaire came into town and heard cheering crowds before he could even get to Bill’s house. All the people that owed him money were thanking him for cutting their debts, for making it so they actually had a chance to pay off their debts and be free! Everybody loved the millionaire. And he knew at that moment that he could be the man everyone loved or he could have his money back. And he chose well. And Bill kept his job. And the people thanked God.
The story sounds a little different from this side, doesn’t it? I think we get stuck looking at things from the top down, just like we do in life too often. We see this man cheating his boss. We see him being dishonest in his work. We see a man looking out for his own skin above everything else. And we tend to miss the fact that the people that needed forgiveness got it. The people that needed to be set free from their debt were set free. Bill was welcomed into the community and learned its value. The millionaire who needed to be set free from his greed was set free. And what happened in the end was good for everyone. There was freedom and healing and joy.
And that sounds a whole lot like the kingdom Jesus has promised to bring among us- a time when the wounded are healed, the sinful are forgiven, the lonely are welcomed into community, and the powerful are brought low enough that they can sit at the table with their brothers and sisters. Jesus preaches about a world turned upside down, a world where peace and love and forgiveness win out. And somehow, our friend Bill played a part in bringing that kingdom. He used his wealth to create community and set people free. He was dishonest and he had all the wrong motives and yet he still did the work of God’s kingdom. And that is good news.
So, Jesus says, if someone looking out for their own skin can do kingdom work with their money, then why aren’t we, God’s own chosen and beloved ones, doing even more of that? Why aren’t we better at forgiving debts recklessly for those that need it? Why aren’t we better at setting those who are imprisoned by greed free so that they may trust God? Why aren’t we Christian people as good as Bill at using our wealth (and for the sake of those poor in cash right now- wealth also includes our health, our time and our privileges) to do the work of the kingdom?
So, this evening Jesus is commanding us- that whole “You cannot serve God and wealth” is pretty strong language- he’s commanding us to use our wealth to invest in those things that proclaim the goodness of God. To forgive the debts of those who have no hope of paying them- whether it’s a debt of money or a debt of guilt. To invest our energy in bringing homes and food for those who live without them and healing to those who are sick. To use our time and privilege to provide a place of welcome for those left out. Jesus tells us to do all this to reflect his love to those who have stopped hoping in a God that cares about them.
And Jesus tells us- apparently- to start doing all this even if our motives stink. Even if our heart hasn’t been overcome with a warm, fuzzy Jesus feeling. To do all this even when we’re only serving others because we don’t want to look like a jerk or sharing our money to get something out of the deal. Because- even though this doesn’t seem right and seems super inauthentic and not Jesus- like- apparently even crappy motives can bring us closer to the kingdom of God.
You see, when Bill started reducing those debts and doing the work of God, even out of terrible motives, his life changed. He saw a new vision of how things could be. He had new friends. He had a new sense of what was really important. Despite his selfish motives, he was transformed. And he did God’s work despite the crappy state of his heart. And isn’t that good news for those of us who feel like we’re in the same position? Who have hearts that aren’t quite as good as we would hope. Who wish we loved better or wanted to do good a little more than we do. Isn’t it good news for all of us who don’t trust God all that much even though we wish we did?
It is an amazing relief to know that we get to start doing good even before we feel like it and that God says it still works when we do! It still works to bring God’s kingdom and it still works to change us. You see, Jesus knows well that that when we invest our time and our money somewhere, our heart will eventually follow. So we can start being clever about using our wealth for the sake of doing Jesus stuff- setting people free and celebrating the ones who feel rejected. We can use our wealth to welcome home those who feel lost, to speak truth to the powerful and greedy, and to bring healing and abundance to those desperate for it. And when we keep doing that, our heart will start to love those things. And our heart will start to love and trust the God who brings those things. And then, that beautiful kingdom of God comes to us, too.
|Posted by Baltimore Lutheran Campus Ministry on September 12, 2016 at 10:10 AM||comments (0)|
As Alex and I were getting ready for our Tuesday night dinner discussion, I asked her the question that we would ask our students later- what’s the first thing that came to mind about what Jesus did on earth. And she asked, “Is it bad that the first thing I think about is that he ate with prostitutes?”
It didn’t seem to be a bad thing for Jesus- he was known for hanging out with tax collectors (known for cheating people and for working with the ruling Roman powers) and sinners, which included women with a reputation. He was known for hanging out with the folks who were considered unacceptable because of who they were or what they had done. All of these folks had been hearing Jesus’ gracious words, they’d been seeing his miracles. They’d been noticing that he didn’t mind being around people like themselves and they started to come closer to hear what he had to say. And Jesus was thrilled to share a meal with them. And share life with them.
And of course, the religious folk weren’t happy. That’s how it tends to go in Scripture. And this evening it’s the Pharisees. These were folks who spent their lives trying to follow God’s rules. And presumably this was out of an actual holy desire to be in relationship with God. They weren’t jerks. They were good folks who were irritated that this good Jewish teacher was spending time with these folks who weren’t living right. Because one of God’s holy rules was to keep ourselves separate from outsiders and sinners. It was how God was going to protect us and our short attention spans from getting pulled away from God’s will. And there’s some truth in that- removing temptation is helpful!
So we often make those Pharisees out to be bad people for grumbling and complaining, but they’re just trying to make sure that their religion still matters. That doing good stuff that God tells us to is still important to others. Because following these rules are the way they know to be in relationship with God. So if this Jewish teacher throws all that out by welcoming just anyone, regardless of if they are following the rules, then what do the rules even matter anymore? Is everything suddenly ok and God’s will for us can be ignored?
But Jesus isn’t known to answer our grumblings directly, regardless of how justified they might be. He tends to answer by telling a story. So when Jesus hears their grumbling, Jesus looks right at the Pharisees and tells them about a sheep who is lost. And he tells the story in the presence of the tax collectors and sinners who’d been crowding in to see him.
And this sheep had been separated from the other 99 and was on his own without any help. The sheep was in danger of starving without someone to lead it to food and water and was in danger of being attacked by wolves. And he says that this lost sheep is so utterly important to the shepherd that he will leave behind 99- 99 sheep that are his livelihood, sheep that are known for doing stupid stuff like getting themselves stuck in streams and being led away by sheep stealers. The shepherd will leave them all behind in order to rescue the one who is lost. We’ve gotten used to hearing this parable, but I assure you that this is a rather stupid move to make. Rationality does not do something like this- only love does.
And not only does the shepherd go out to rescue the sheep who wandered away, then he calls all his neighbors and friends to rejoice with him over this sheep. They are expected to be as happy as the shepherd is over its return. Because there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who need no repentance.
And that’s not fair. I mean, it’s plain, 100% not fair. Ok- so you like to look for lost folks, God. That’s fine. But we have to rejoice with you about finding each one while the 99 good folks who follow the rules don’t get anything? Why in the world would we do that? And why in the world don’t we get anything better for following? I had a student text me one summer after reading this passage and ask me why Jesus was being so mean to the good people. Because rejoicing even more in the folks who have messed up is terrible news for those of us who have done a decent job in following.
And I imagine at that point Jesus probably looked up a little and turned his eyes over to the tax collectors and sinners and tried to get the Pharisees to look at them too. Because I can’t imagine what it felt like to be a tax collector and to sit and hear that God utterly delights in what you can become. That the only way your past can define you in God’s eyes is to make you more worthy of rejoicing over. That God’s willing to leave these good folks on their own to call out to you in welcome and in rescue.
Because what would it be like to this said publicly to defend your right to be right where you are, right next to Jesus- even as the powerful people were complaining? What would be it like to have Jesus publicly say that you could live a future completely different than your past and not have the crap you did in the past follow you around anymore? And not only that, you are told that there is joy in heaven over you. God dances when you take hold of the love he has for you.
He looks square at the Pharisees and says, “Our God goes after the ones who find themselves lost. Because they need to be found. That’s what mercy does. Over and over. Look at your brothers and sisters right here at the table and know how much they need that word. And nothing- not your self-righteousness or your holiness or your jealousness- should get in the way of bringing that word and rejoicing when others hear it. Because the word about my love IS THAT GOOD! It’s ALWAYS that good. And if all this that I’m saying pisses you off, then maybe you don’t understand the love of God well enough.
Yes, my rules still matter, Jesus probably told them. I did just finish telling everyone that you need to give up the hold you have on your family, your life and your possessions to follow me. I’m not really watering anything down. But first things first. Some of my friends here have not heard the word of love you already know. So at this moment, at this table, the only words that need to be spoken are about mercy for those that are far from God’s love. There will be time for other words that challenge and teach us all to live differently. But when you are lost in the wilderness, the only words you really want to hear are, “Someone is looking for you and they will find you.”
“So let your brothers and sisters hear my word to them and listen in- because you need to hear these words, too. Know that I love you. I have so much hope for you. I refuse to be done with you, even though at times it may seem like the intelligent option. Whatever you have done in life is not stronger than what I can love into being through you. My love and mercy is better and bigger and stronger than your mistakes, your missteps and your failings.”
I want you to know this in your heart and I want you to celebrate that this is who I am. I want you to celebrate that this is how my love works. AND I want you to celebrate these beloved ones who you call outcasts. These ones who have now felt this love of mine and made it their home.
I want you to celebrate them and I want you to keep noticing them and welcoming them. You know, not like second class citizens, but as people as beloved as you are. Reflect my love and be people who rejoice in restoration and return. Who rejoice EVERY SINGLE TIME a child of God comes to find their life and their hope in God again.
And welcome them back into God’s love without shaming or scolding. Now, that doesn’t mean we need to lie. We can be honest about sin and evil. When others are hurting their brothers or sisters or are trapped by greed or addiction, we need to speak up. We may need to work together to restore trust or repair relationships. And we might even need some holy anger like God had in that first lesson when the people started worshipping a golden calf. But those might not be your first words. Because when someone is lost in the wilderness and in pain, “God delights in you and I welcome you” are the words we need to lead with.
So we are called to be people of mercy. Not because we always like it, but because our God chooses to, over and over again, be a God of senseless mercy. Overreaching love. And foolish welcome. For people who mess up. For people like us.
|Posted by Baltimore Lutheran Campus Ministry on September 6, 2016 at 10:40 AM||comments (0)|
My campus ministry students know that I am something of an expert on all the naked people in Scripture. I don’t know why this is, but it somehow comes up a lot in Bible studies. And this is not only a fun fact, but actually has something to do with the sermon.
Well, last semester at UMBC, we spent one night reading stories of saints- those “official” Catholic saints and other faithful Christians who had done extraordinary things in order to follow Jesus. And that’s when I happened to come across the story of Brother Juniper who served with St. Francis of Assisi. And his story stuck with me, because, wouldn’t you know it, kept giving his clothes away to everyone in need that he met on the road. He did it so often that his superiors finally had to forbid him to do it again. So the next time Juniper saw a man in need, he told him that he couldn’t GIVE this man his tunic, but we wouldn’t prevent the man from taking it either. Brother Juniper just couldn’t imagine another way to live than to give all he had to his brothers and sisters in need.
Folks like Brother Juniper make us laugh at the absurdity of this way of life, but they also make us rejoice at the sheer beauty of it. What treasure of God must Juniper know to live like this? What secret joy in giving away everything for Jesus did he find? And how did he have the courage to follow Jesus like this?
These are the questions we have when we see someone actually be able to live like Jesus calls us to this morning. Because, today Jesus is really pulling out all the stops in telling us how hard it is to follow him. You know, the big stuff like not putting our families or our safety first and giving up all we own. Things that are pretty much antithetical to how much of our culture tells us to live. And things that are pretty terrifying and heart-breaking.
And Jesus starts where it hurts- with our families- those folks that both love us and shape our lives from day one. And Jesus tells the crowds around him that they need to hate their families to follow him. But he meant something more like, “don’t give first preference to.” Don’t let your family’s wants and needs dictate your decisions. Don’t let them be your first priority. That place belongs to God alone.
And he says the same things about our own lives- we’re called to refuse to put our desires or even our safety first and foremost in our lives. So perhaps it then doesn’t come as a huge shock that Jesus tells that unless we give away all we own, we cannot follow him.
And that just sounds mean and unreasonable and a little condemning. If we can’t do what seems impossible, then we’re not allowed to be a follower? Does Jesus not love us then? That’s where we may go in our heads, but we already know Jesus’ love for us is without question. But Jesus is trying to tell the crowds and us something else this morning.
When Jesus says, “if you don’t do these things, you can’t be my disciple,” it’s better translated as “you will not be able to.” As in “If you don’t treat what you have as completely unimportant in comparison to following where Jesus leads, then it’s not going to work. You’re going to get a little ways on the journey and then not make it since you will be weighed down. And if you don’t make Jesus’ calling a priority far above the obligations and wants of your family, you’ll be called in many directions and get distracted. If you’re worried about safety at all costs, you won’t be able to do the courageous things that Jesus asks of your for the sake of bringing love and justice to the world.
You see, Jesus is being honest about a life spent with him. It’s not for the faint of heart. He was telling the crowds that he was going to keep preaching and living out the kingdom in the face of persecution. And that meant that only those who trusted his lead and put it first in their lives were going to have a chance of withstanding what was ahead. Because even though this following Jesus thing leads to joyful, purposeful God-filled life- it’s not going to easy.
Jesus is giving us a gift- he’s telling us the truth about what needs to be central so that we can put other things- even good things- in their place. If you don’t make this one central choice about where your focus lies and where your heart lies, then you’re not going to be able to make any of the smaller decisions you will need to make. Jesus sorts through all the things that compete for our attention and our devotion and puts them in their place.
And frankly, it’s a gift to have someone who knows where life and beauty and joy are found do the orienting of our lives. Because we have a tendency to not always make such good choices when left on our own! So it’s a gift to have one who loves us be the one to lead us. It is a gift to get to follow one who promises that we can join him in bringing the goodness of God into the world.
But it will mean change and a complete reorientation of our lives. So we need to count the cost before we sign on. Because those who follow Jesus no longer make decisions based on what is best for themselves or even what’s best for their family. They may be called to live in more dangerous neighborhoods so that they may bring a gracious and calming presence there. They may live more simply than others to devote their resources to those in more need. They may spend a lot of time away from their family for the sake of helping those who seem less deserving. Their choices may not always be supported by their family or by our society when they do what Jesus calls them to do. Just like Brother Juniper’s actions weren’t exactly celebrated, even by his religious community.
But Jesus calls us to follow him toward the life and beauty he brings no matter what just like Juniper. You see, Juniper got so caught up in the loveliness of following Jesus that even though he did things that were ridiculous to our eyes, they seemed perfectly normal and even necessary for him to do. Because he had different priorities. And because his eyes were looking toward a different future. As he looked toward God’s future where all people had enough, clothing those in need with whatever he had to give was the only possible way to walk this path with Jesus. So he just did it.
But , since all of you here at church are clothed, perhaps we’re not as gifted as Brother Juniper was at seeing and trusting this kingdom. So what do we do then? What if we’re not as foolish and courageous enough to dance into this beautiful kingdom of God like him? How then can we LEARN to be?
I don’t know the answer, but this is one things that my students and I have tried together. Every year a few of my Towson students and I make a promise to gather every other week to hear what God had been up to in our lives. We share about the moments when we felt like something greater than us was at work and those nagging thoughts that God keeps tapping us on the shoulder with. And we would support each other by connecting those moments and thoughts to the stories of Scripture, as best we were able. Then we would simply ask, “What is God saying? And what are you going to do about it?” We would ask the questions that are THE questions in the life of following Jesus, but they are also the questions that often don’t get asked in the course of a busy life.
And then we would check in with each other later in the week and the week after that and the week after that to see if we had actually done what we planned. We checked in because this is what love does- supporting each other in the things that matter, supporting each other in the things that lead to life. This life of following Jesus matters, so it was worth pushing each other a little.
And because we found that checking in wasn’t always enough, we promised each other that in any crazy thing Jesus called us to do, that we would find two others to walk the way with us so that we would be strong enough. And that we would be some of those people for each other. We called each other to listen to God. We held each other accountable and we walked beside each other as we did the hard work of following. We echoed the exact things that Jesus does on the way with us- he calls us, supports us and goes on the way with us.
Now, together we didn’t do all that Jesus calls us to. Not by a long shot. But we took some steps along the way. And we hoped that living like this together might prepare our hearts for the moment when Jesus may ask us to walk away from anything for the sake of following.
So I pray that I pray that you find those Christians in your lives that love you enough to ask you hard questions about following Jesus. That challenge you and cheer you on. And I pray that you will be ones who love others and enough to ask them about things that matter and walk beside them in the courageous work of following.
Because Jesus invites us to a life where we are free of the stresses and pulls of so many things on our time , by inviting us to make the one decision that decides all others. He loves us whether we follow well of not, but he wants us to have the freedom to leave behind all that bind us in order to follow him. Because the life of following is beautiful, just like the life the Juniper lived. And it is what Jesus wishes that each of us would grab hold of for the sake of knowing the love of God.
|Posted by Baltimore Lutheran Campus Ministry on March 8, 2016 at 12:35 AM||comments (0)|
Luke 15:1-3, 11-32
This morning, we find ourselves at the table with Jesus, where he’s enjoying the company of the wrong people. The people who weren’t good enough for an invitation anywhere else. The people who were too poor or too rowdy or who were caught up in a profession that wasn’t all that good and holy. And we know Jesus didn’t just do this once- it kind of became a habit. He kept eating with these kind of people and had the audacity to treat them like actual human beings.
And the good people got ticked off. And they’re doing what good people too often do- grumble and complain, wondering why Jesus would waste his time and risk his reputation on these unclean ones. And I’m sure that Jesus got tired of explaining himself and getting into a debate that would never end, so he just shut them up with story. A story they had to live into and find themselves in.
And it’s a story that we know so well we barely hear it anymore. It’s about a family with an irresponsible son and a father who is embarrassingly good. So good that people probably ridiculed him because he was willing to welcome back his messed up son who had wasted every last scrap of what his father had given him. And he didn’t just let him come home to stay- he ran out to meet him and gave him gifts that he was too irresponsible to be trusted with. Instead of giving this son a lecture and some strict rules, he gives him love and celebration.
And the folks listening to the story probably thought- “This is exactly the kind of crap we’re complaining about, Jesus. Enjoying people before they do right. That’s irresponsible. It’s unfair. They deserve a lecture, not a welcome.“
But Jesus just smiled. Because this story wasn’t about what was good or moral or even deserved- it is about what was needed. This was a father who knew his sons. Loved his sons. And he knew a lecture wasn’t going to change a darn thing. Lectures you can tune out. But you can’t fully tune out love, even when you want to. Love breaks your heart open.
So at that moment, when his son was broken and hungry and ashamed, the father knew he couldn’t bear a lecture. Couldn’t bear the coldness of his father merely being polite in letting him come back. He couldn’t be welcomed back into a relationship unless his father did something so full of obvious love that it took his breath away and took him against his will back into this family that he had no business being a part of.
There would be time for hard words to the younger son. There would be time for him to hear what was expected of him, time to make amends. There would be time to bear fruit worthy of a son of so loving a father. But when he was hurting and broken, he needed love first. He needed someone to take complete joy in his presence and honor him for all that he would become. He needed an embrace that ran out to meet him.
You see, these are not the ONLY words of the father to this son, but they are the words that are needed in the moment. Because when we are broken, God gives us what we need, rather than what we deserve.
This is how Jesus’ love always is for the one who is falling apart, who has drifted far away, who has messed up. And this is something we rejoice in. And it’s usually the part of the story that we talk about. But I don’t think it’s the main reason Jesus told it. Because he told it to people a whole lot more like the elder brother. Those who were asking, “so what about us? “
What is the love for those who have stuck around? Who have tried to follow and not done a horrible job at it? What about us who have worked hard to be faithful? We’re not perfect, we’ve done some bad stuff, but like him we may not have done something so publicly bad and wasteful and sinful like this other guy. And sure, all sins are the supposed to be the same and we’ve lied and coveted and stuff, but can’t we get past being politically correct and just admit that we haven’t made as many bad choices, we may ask.
But Jesus just keeps telling the story. The story of the elder brother, the one who is supposed to know better and behave better. The one who has hung around the father long enough that he should have known his heart by now.
And instead of celebrating that his dad was doing the thing his dad did best- welcoming and celebrating and loving without limit- the elder brother can only see his father wasting his inheritance on a kid who was immature and irresponsible. Wasting his goodness on someone that wasn’t worth it. Instead of this brother understanding that HE is also loved by a father whose love is good enough and wide enough to love even his idiot brother, the elder brother just sees unfairness.
But thankfully, even though this brother wants to live by what s fair and wants to pout outside the party, this loving father doesn’t treat the older brother like he deserves, either. He deserves to be ignored and left outside because of his questioning of his father. But the father knows he needs his dad to come to him again. To assure him of the love that he’s questioning.
It may be a quieter assurance, not as much of a celebration as he was hoping for, but his father reminds him, “I delight in you. I delight when you follow me and live wth me. I love you so much that even in the midst of a party for your brother, I am standing here with you, loving you and inviting you to celebrate with me. But right now we need to rejoice. Because we have family that you thought was gone forever. You have a brother to share your life with. I dearly want you to be family to each other and to know how much I love each of you. Sitting down to the table with me isn't about deserving it. It's about enjoying the love I give you. And enjoying me. And you don't get to do that when you're keeping score! So get over yourself and let me love how I will love. Enjoy this love instead of trying to control it. And get yourself inside to this feast!”
They seem like harsh words, not extravagantly loving ones, for a son who had done all the responsible things. But they are the only words to break through this brother’s pride and open his heart to the father’s love. The point is not to focus on following all the rules so perfectly, the father says. The point is to love who I love and to be family together. That’s what I want more than anything. So quit your being responsible and just love your brother!
And just as the older brother is left with his mouth wide open in surprise, I’m sure the good religious people were left speechless. Because Jesus says what simply does not make sense. Jesus tells all the rule-abiding folk that their relationship to these ones he’s eating with is what really matters. God is the father who loves both his sons so desperately that their relationship to each other and to him is more important than their virtue.
So all these folks I’m eating with are your family, Jesus says, whether you like it or not. They are your nutty, inconvenient, irresponsible family. And you may do all sorts of good things in the world, live by all sorts of good rules, but if you don’t recognize these as your brothers and sisters and know the love I have for them, you don’t really know who I am. And then you don’t get to enjoy how good my love is. So get to know your brothers and sisters, they can tell you about how good my love is. They can tell you how extravagantly good it is to be welcomed when you don’t deserve it or don’t ever think you will be welcomed. Learn about my love from them. And then celebrate with them. Because then you can celebrate with me.
Because there’s a party. It’s happening whether you like it or not. I’m going to keep loving your brother and you like this even if you think it’s a bad idea. So come and eat and enjoy the love that you get to live in and come meet the rest of your family who gets to live in this love with you.
|Posted by Baltimore Lutheran Campus Ministry on December 8, 2013 at 2:45 PM||comments (0)|
You brood of vipers! You sinful people! Look at you- you’re a mess! You haven’t been living right. You haven’t been putting God first. You’re full of hatred and greed. And just because you’re God’s chosen people doesn’t mean you’re not going to be judged. God is ready to get rid of those of you who don’t shape up! And happy Advent to you! Every single Advent, John brings his wilderness yelling into our churches to disturb our happy Christmas preparations.
So John’s out there yelling at us this morning and I don’t know about you, but I’m not a big fan of people yelling at me and telling me to clean up my act. I don’t like being told that I’m doing things wrong. Anyone with me on that? And why is that? It’s certainly not because we’re perfect and never mess up. I mean, who here honestly raise their hands and say that they are 100% happy with who they are? With how they treat others? And who here can say that they don’t have any habits that they wish they could change? We probably know our own faults better than anyone else. I think we just don’t particularly like to be told about all we’re doing wrong since it reminds us of what we already know is true.
We know that we are not fully who God has created us to be. We know that we get angry too quickly and aren’t patient enough with those that need our attention. We know that we haven’t always put in an honest day’s work. We know that we have taken our loved ones for granted at times. We know that we have not been generous enough with those who live in poverty. And we know that too often we have gotten our priorities out of line. Sometimes we’re so aware of all the things that aren’t right, that we just can’t bear to hear John the Baptist point it out.
But every year, John cries out to us in Advent anyway, reminding us of all our failings. He doesn’t do it to bust our happy Christmas bubble, though. He doesn’t do it so that we can add shame to our list of holiday stresses. He calls out to us so that we can be changed. He’s telling us the truth about our lives so that we don’t have to stay that way. He’s calling us to repent, which literally means, “to turn around.” To start living in a new way. To be changed.
Isn’t that what we really want at Christmas? To know that after the presents are opened and the decorations put away, that we will somehow be different. That Jesus’ coming will change us, will change our world for the better. That we will be kinder and more loving to those around us. That we will be able to let go of anger and guilt and all those things that keep us from bearing God’s image more clearly.
And we hope that peace will break into our neighborhoods and homes and across our world. That corporations and governments will be less corrupt. That more people will have jobs and homes. The season of Advent is always one of hope, hope that this year, Christ’s coming will change us and change the world around us. That we will be transformed.
And what does that transformation look like? Well, it’s a bit of long story, but stay with me here. One year in particular, I was charged with helping set the nativity scene up for a church I worked at. I had heard so many stories of the life-size crèche, which the congregation had been setting up for over 20 years, right in the middle of downtown Philadelphia, a few blocks from the Liberty Bell. So, when the men of the church set the stable of wood and chicken wire up right after Thanksgiving, I looked forward to the day when I would help to set the scene.
And about 2 weeks later, the day finally came and we ventured down to the “closet of the mannequins.” I imagined them dressed in fine robes sewed by the women of the church and just waiting in the closet to greet me. But instead of shepherds and wise men, I came face to face with a big mess of legs and torsos, shoved in wherever they fit. This wasn’t exactly how I imagined it. It was our job to grab as many arms and legs as possible and head upstairs to put them together, with plaster falling off fingers and faces as we did. All the mannequins had numbers on each of their parts so that each person could be reunited with their correct body parts. Our challenge was to fit them back together without putting the hands or the feet on backwards and to make sure they stayed together amidst the duct tape.
Then we dressed them with a random collection of old blankets and leftover fabric. Their robes didn’t look any better than the used clothing we gave weekly in that room to men and women who lived on the streets. A Rainbow Brite doll stood in for Jesus after he’d been stolen years before and we wrapped her with of swaddling clothes to hide her true identity. Mary’s head had to be covered very carefully to hide the fact that all her hair had fallen off.
After we dragged the shepherds and the wise men out to the stable, I was in charge of strategic straw placement to hide the toes the goats had gnawed off last year. We had to tie some of the shepherds to the wooden slats since we couldn’t manage to get them to stand up on their own. And two wise men had to stand very close so that no one could tell that we never did find one of their arms that year.
Now, I’d like to say that when we got it all done, it looked a lot better than it sounds, but the truth is that it didn’t. It looked a little ridiculous. It wasn’t exactly that idyllic scene portrayed on Christmas cards. I just hoped that people looked at it from far away or got distracted by the live animals in front of it so they wouldn’t notice what a mess it was.
But that year, I also had the privilege of living next door to this nativity and watching people as they passed. They stopped on their way to work or lunch. People stared from their cars. People drove out of their way to see it. And every night, the men of our church’s homeless shelter would go out to the stable before going to sleep for the night. These folks didn’t see it like I did, with every imperfection showing. They saw it transformed. Instead of a bunch of mannequins missing limbs, they saw it as a story of God’s love and a message of hope in the middle of the city.
Those mannequins may have been imperfect, they may have been falling apart, they may have been a mess, but God could transform them. They became more than what they were- they became a part of the story of God’s promise for a messy world. A part of the story of our God that took on our flesh. The story of a God who came to transform us by sharing our human life with us.
And that is the gift that is coming, the gift that John promises this morning. “One who is more powerful than I is coming. And he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” He will come to change you and transform you. You, ordinary, messy, imperfect people. Your God is coming to you. And you will not be the same.
John came telling us what to do to be right. He told the truth about our failings and told us to turn around. But we all know that’s not enough. If knowing the right thing to do was enough, all of us would stop eating Big Macs, get 30 minutes of exercise a day and pray every morning and evening. Even though we know what is right, we still fail. We’re still imperfect. We need someone who will come to wrap us in the Holy Spirit and transform us.
We need someone who will love us even when we’re falling apart, even when we mess up. We need someone who will love us enough to take on our flesh and walk this life with us. We need someone whose love is so sure, so overpowering, so undeserved and unexplained that it can change who we are. That it can transform how we live.
And that is the gift that John is proclaiming, that the church is proclaiming, that the whole season of Advent is proclaiming. Our God is coming to us. Christ has come to take on our flesh, to live with us, so that we can be more than we know we are. So that we can be more than the missing toes and the duct tape. So that we can be more than the imperfections that we try so desperately to cover up. Our God has come to us, to live with us, to be closer than our own skin, so that we can walk with God and be changed.
And that is not all. Christ has come to make us new not only for ourselves. For we are transformed, like those mannequins, into people who play a part in telling the story of God’s love for the world. We have been transformed from messy, imperfect people, into people that bear God’s promise into the world. Who bear that love to a hurting world. Who proclaim the story of God’s love in who we are, in the words we speak, and in how we live. We have been transformed so that we can tell the story of God’s love to a world is waiting to hear it.
So as we get ready to celebrate the miracle of God coming to us, be ready to be transformed. Let Christ’s presence turn you around and change those things that keep you from God. Be ready to be changed by his coming.
|Posted by Baltimore Lutheran Campus Ministry on September 2, 2013 at 10:00 AM||comments (0)|
Luke 14:1, 7-14
This Tuesday, we officially begin our new adventure called “The Table”- a joint Lutheran-Episcopal ministry at Towson. And the name “The Table” came out of our life together as a ministry- sitting around a table together to eat and discuss. And it came from reading about what Jesus did at tables in the gospel of Luke. And this morning’s gospel lesson was one of the central texts we discussed. So it seems pretty fitting that God has worked out to have us read this lesson this morning.
Jesus sits down to dinner in the home of a leader of the Pharisees, one of the area’s most important religious leaders. And rather than make small talk, Jesus tells his host, "When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.”
He sits down to a nice dinner that he’s been invited to and tells the host that everyone around the table shouldn’t be there. Instead, when you invite people over to dinner, don’t invite your friends or your family or the people you want to impress or the people that can help you get a job or the people you admire. Instead, invite those with little money, those who are hungry, those who have physical challenges. Go find those people who don’t usually get invited to dinner and bring them over to your house. Welcome those people who you try not to notice, all those people that are different enough from you that they make you uncomfortable. Invite all the people that can’t do anything for you. And then you will be blessed.
We’re used to hearing stuff like this from Jesus. Hard stuff. He tells us to give up what we own. To be prepared to cause division in our families and suffer physically for following him. And then we get to today’s text, where Jesus just tells us to change who we invite for dinner. And I’ve got to tell you, for some reason these words seem almost as hard to live out as all that big stuff.
Because who we eat with is a pretty personal thing. We eat with people we like and who make us comfortable. Who make us feel like we belong. And when we stretch beyond just eating with those folks we like, it’s usually for a good reason- like having lunch with your boss or a client at work to get ahead. Or hosting a party to impress some folks or to introduce people to each other. Most of us don’t do a whole lot of eating with random strangers if we can avoid it.
So why is Jesus messing with that? Why is he being so insistent about who we should invite to dinner? I mean, we all know that he wants the poor to be fed, but can’t we just give them their own meal? We know he wants those who face physical challenges to be helped, but can’t we do that some other way? Would all these folks really want to come into our homes, anyway? Wouldn’t that be just as strange for them as it would be for us? Why does Jesus care who we eat dinner with, as long as we care about others and make sure they have what they need?
That’s what I say in my mind when I read this passage, but in my heart I think I know the reason already. I think that Jesus is so insistent about who we invite to our meals precisely because they are so personal. And they are so ordinary and central to our lives. Gathering around tables together is how we get to know each other. Sharing a meal with someone is a way show that we value them. And a way we show the world who we are willing to be seen with and connected to. And often they are also about social standing- who we are equal to, who we are better than. They’re often ways that we show where we stand and who we are willing to stand with. They are central to understanding who we are in the world.
But Jesus comes to show us a new way that doesn’t look like the rest of the world. That has different values and different ways of life. It is one where peace is more powerful than violence, love is more powerful than death and where justice is more important than power or wealth or status. It simply doesn’t look like the rest of the world. And one of the ways that we’re going to learn about and live out that kingdom is in one of the most ordinary and personal ways we can imagine- changing who is around our dinner tables.
Jesus tells the Pharisees and us that meals in the kingdom aren’t about status or the people you like- they are about a crazy community that would only be called together by me- a community whose only connection is that they are people that I am absolutely crazy about. And at these kingdom meals, all the folks who don’t get much love out in the rest of the world get an extra special seat at my table. And they get that seat simply because they need it. So when you set the table for a feast, Jesus says, remember these folks that I shower my love on- the ones who need to feel that love the most. And make sure they have a place at all your celebrations.
Because, he told the Pharisees, all those good law-abiding folk who loved God, you already know you are God’s children. You know that God thinks you are an utter delight. But there are some folks who don’t get that. And the truth is, you’re going to be the person through which they learn. So your meals are meant to be about the ones who never get an invitation. And if you’re ever in that category- if you are someone who is struggling and in pain, someone who gets left out, someone who can’t understand my love, then I’m going to bug your brothers and sisters to invite you because I adore you. And I want you to know that. And perhaps, when they invite you in to their party- invite you by name and out of love- you might learn what it means to be loved by me.
So go invite your brothers and sisters in here at my meal. Make my welcome of them real- in flesh and blood. And then take your place among them. Get to know the ones I love. Get to see what I love about them- even if you have to look hard. And see how I love them even when it’s difficult. And then maybe you’ll get how I love you, too. Even when you make it plenty hard for me.
Make your meals a reflection of the kingdom I’ve been preaching about and maybe you’ll start to learn how amazing that kingdom is. That place where the only status you have is “child of God” and that is all the status you need. Where you don’t need to figure out who is more important and who is less important or worry about what group you fit in. You fit in simply because you are loved by God and you invite others in because God loves them, too. Start living that way in your meals and maybe you’ll start understanding that this how things already are in God’s kingdom. And maybe you’ll start to fall in love with the kingdom and with me again.
Jesus is saying that to love the kingdom, we have to start living it. That’s what his followers do.
Jesus keeps telling us that to be his follower is to be known and defined by the strange things we do in order to live out the message of Jesus. It is to be so in love with the kingdom that Jesus is bringing that we risk living it out on earth. And perhaps that starts with one of the most personal and ordinary things we do- inviting everyone into our meals. Inviting all those who get left out and might make you a little uncomfortable. All those who need an invitation more than anyone else. Inviting them simply to eat with us and be a part of our lives for awhile.
This is what I know Jesus calls us to- as individuals and most especially as a Christian community. Because this is what he lives out- eating with public sinners, tax collectors, important people and those of no account. And I know that Jesus wants our communities to actively embrace everyone. To go out into the streets and invite folks into our homes and our communities. To invite them in for dinner. But I’ve got to admit- I don’t do this most of the time. This is not how I live and not how most Christians live. Inviting everyone- especially those who have more challenges and more needs than most- is hard. It’s inconvenient. It takes up a lot of time and energy. We don’t have the resources to do it. And worse than that, I have to admit that I don’t really want to do this most days. I don’t want to make my meals like Jesus says.
But just because I don’t like it, doesn’t mean that Jesus doesn’t keep inviting us to this work.. So perhaps we need to admit how hard Jesus’ words are. To admit that they are not always easy or a whole lot of fun. And as a community of people who are trying to follow Jesus, continue to challenge each other to live out Jesus’ words. To try it out as a community together so we might have the strength to do it. Perhaps once a year, then a few times and then once a month. To try inviting folks to a meal- at this congregation or at a restaurant or in someone’s home. Not to convert them. Not to get them to join the church. Not to do anything but simply share life with them. Hear their stories. Learn who they are. And for an hour or two, simply to be willing to share our lives with those that Jesus desperately loves.
It’s not going to change our lives overnight. It’ll still be strange and awkward. But Jesus calls us to this so that we might learn what the kingdom is like. So that we might learn what the love of God is like. How wide and abundant and overwhelming it is. How it embraces us no matter how challenging we are, and whether others like us or we like ourselves. We’re invited to invite others in so that we might learn how God keeps inviting us to the table because he adores us. And then, we get the privilege of inviting others to the table so that we might get to show someone else how much they are loved by our God.