|Posted by Baltimore Lutheran Campus Ministry on December 11, 2017 at 4:30 PM|
2 Peter 3:8-15
Every Thursday on campus, our ministry stands out with a big sign on campus asking a question to get to know our Towson community. And this week’s question was about which holiday tradition we were most looking forward to. And one of our students told me that what she likes the best is how her mom changes out all the lights to make them softer so that everything is cozy at Christmas. That’s how we like to prepare for Christmas- especially on snowy days like yesterday. We want to bake cookies, put out warm blankets and think happy thoughts.
But in the church, getting ready for Christmas is never cozy. It starts with the end of the world like we heard last week and it continues in the wilderness with a man who dedicated his life to being un-cozy- one who wears scratchy wool and eats locusts. And he’s telling everyone to change the way they’re living and get right with God.
John is standing in the wilderness speaking the truth that his people were out of step with God’s ways. They were taking advantage of others and not doing the hard work that God needed them to do. And frankly, they were getting too comfortable with living like that. So John is telling them that they needed to clean up their lives and get ready for God to come into their midst.
That’s probably something that doesn’t sound all that foreign around this time of year. We never want guests to see how messy our homes. We don’t want them to see how we really live. So, when company comes we scrub the bathrooms, clean out the spare room, and vacuum the floors. And that’s what John is calling us to do, to clean ourselves up and make space in our hearts for the one that is coming.
And although I love John’s words in the abstract- and perhaps I like them in the concrete when they are said to people in my life that I have decided need to repent the most- there are days that I want to put in ear plugs and close my eyes and pretend that he’s not calling to me from the wilderness THIS year. Because sometimes it just seems like too much. To try to do all that’s asked of us in this busy December time while also having to stop and see all the ways I don’t measure up, how I get my priorities messed up and how I don’t care well for the people and the work entrusted to me. And not just to see it, but to begin to live differently! It’s all too much some years and I want John to go back to his wilderness.
But the people in John’s day had ears to hear John as more than a pesky voice giving us one more thing to do. They heard him as the continuation of what God always did in the wilderness.
Because the wilderness had always been a special place for God’s people. Even though it was harsh and unforgiving, it had always been a place where God had sustained the people. God sent them manna and kept them alive for 40 years in the wilderness after God rescued them from Egypt. God had given them the law in the wilderness and led them with a pillar of cloud.
And the wilderness was where the prophets went to hear a word from God. And it’s where God spoke words of hope to those in exile. The wilderness may have been harsh and hard to bear- like John’s words to them- but the wilderness was also a place where God had a habit of showing up for the good of God’s people.
So they could hear wilderness words as words filled with hope. Words that proclaimed what our Second Lesson did- that God is patient and desperately wants everyone to turn around to God and be made new. And the Scriptures says that “people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him” and confessing all that they had done wrong. The people were lining up for the chance to admit that their lives weren’t what they hoped them to be and they were in need of a new way of living. And they were willing to trust that there could be a new future for them. Because they trusted John’s word from the wilderness- God is doing a new thing among you, so get ready for it!
John’s voice cries out the same in our own wildernesses- be those wildernesses of busyness or heartache or shame. Cries out with that promise that we all want this Christmas season- that there is a chance to be made new. For our broken places to be healed. For our distracted ways to be focused again on God. There is a chance to leave behind our harmful habits. There is hope for us to be the people we were created to be.
But that begins by responding to that wilderness call. By confessing all that gets in the way of following God’s hope for us. By confessing all the things that we make more important than following Jesus. By committing ourselves to leave behind those things that trap us. To get ready for all that God wants to do in the world, so that we might have a part it bringing it to birth.
Now, all this preparing our hearts and lives doesn’t earn us something. And our God is going to show up whether we get out there in the wilderness and get ready. Because our God is better at showing up than we will ever be in preparing our hearts. But there are some things that make our heart more ready to greet to that good news when it comes.
You know what that’s like. When our house is clean, we can receive guests more easily because we’re not ashamed of what things look like and we’re not busy thinking about what needs to be done. When our studying is done, we can more readily welcome the test that’s coming. When we’ve been eating right and doing our exercises, we can be more ready to greet the doctor’s appointment. When we’re ready, we can have our hearts open in a new way. That is what John is inviting us to do in Advent.
Advent is supposed to be a renewal movement. A time of getting our hearts ready for all that God will make new. Our preparations are about doing those things make us ready to celebrate God’s ways in the world. But how do we actually do this in the midst of a hectic season?
We go out to the wilderness. We take that one thing that the wilderness has plenty of- silence. Away from our reading. Away from our technology. Away from the Christmas songs on the radio. Away from our to-do list. Take some moments this week- wherever you can find them- to just stop. Hear your own life.
And lift up your eyes from the news to gaze at the vision of God’s new heaven where our Second Lesson says, “righteousness at home.” Imagine what that will look like. And at least for 5 minutes a day, dare to trust that it is coming into the world. Dream about when the prophecies will come true- when the lion and the lamb live together. When everyone sits under their own vine and own fig tree and no one feels afraid. When all people will come to worship together on God’s holy mountain. God’s future has a way of putting our hurry, our stress about little details, and our cleaning and baking and shopping in perspective. This is not so we can escape the world, but we can be ready for the new way of the world when it comes.
Begin doing that thing that you know God want you to do- whether it’s forgive someone, reach out to someone who desperately needs it, or advocate to protect those who are vulnerable.
And if you are too busy with Christmas preparations to even think about doing that, then I’m going to use my authority as a pastor to give you permission to put down some of those things that our culture says we have to do (and believe me, I get sucked in by it, too.) Shut out the voices that try to convince us that if we don’t do this tradition or have our home prepared in this way, our kids or grandkids or friends won’t have a magical holiday. If we don’t find the right gift or bake all 8 kinds of cookies, we simply won’t be able to have Christmas. Blame it on me this year if you have to.
Because sometimes we get so wrapped up in what Christmas has to look like that we forget what WE should look like. We forget what our lives before God should look like as we wait for God to come to us. We forget God’s call to “as much as depends on you, live peaceably with all people.” We forget, “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” We forget God’s pleading voice calling us to come in prayer and trust with all that is too heavy for us to carry.
But then we hear John’s pesky voice in the wilderness reminding us that God is coming. Coming to us, ones called beloved. Our God is coming to make a world “where righteousness is at home.” And we are invited to get our hearts ready so that we can rejoice when God comes.
|Posted by Baltimore Lutheran Campus Ministry on December 4, 2017 at 2:20 PM|
There are wars rumors of war. Earthquakes and famines. Stars and sun and moon are failing to give their light. The world is falling apart and it seems like the end is near. Welcome to the new year in the church!
Every single year, we this is how we begin- with a reminder of the chaos that will happen to our world. And some years we don’t really need this reminder, do we? It feels like our world is in chaos already. It feels some days like all the evil and violence will win and that this is the moment when the world will finally spin out of control.
But perhaps it is a consolation that Jesus knew these days would come. And he’s trying to get his disciples ready. Before that passage we just heard, Jesus was telling the disciples that there will be famines and earthquakes and that his followers would be persecuted and thrown in prison. And now we hear him telling them that even the sun and moon will be in chaos. The seas will be stormy and the tides will be out of sync. All of nature will be in disarray.
And people are going to be terrified. People will faint with fear. Whole countries will be in chaos because they’re not going to know how to handle a world that’s gone crazy. Because none of us do. That’s what makes the chaos of the world so scary. Most of it is far beyond our ability to control or change. When terrorist attacks happen. When tsunamis swallow up the land. When earthquakes and shootings and wars happen, we watch without being able to stop them.
Jesus knew that these things would happen so he tells his followers the truth. Things will happen in this world that will scare you to your core and make you question that I am really in control and am coming back. In those moments, where fear grips your heart, when all you want to do is cry and hide, remember these words.
I have told you what will happen so that you’ll be able to be strong and courageous in the face of the mess that’s coming. In fact, when all this stuff starts happening, that’s when you can take heart. In that day, you will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory.” In the moments where you think the world will fall apart, in that day you will see the face of Jesus. In the chaos, you will be met by the God who walked this earth with you.
So when you see these signs, Jesus says, you know that the kingdom of God is near. These signs don’t mean destruction. They mean Jesus coming into our midst. They mean God’s promise of coming to this world again is close.
Look at the fig tree Jesus says. (Or any other tree, for those of us who don’t know much about figs!) It sprouts leaves then you know that the summer is coming soon. That’s how nature works. Buds, then leaves, then summer happens. So you know how to read the signs of the world. And you know to depend on them. So, know that my coming is just as sure as the seasons changing. As sure as the sun rising every morning. Something that can be counted on. So when things in this world are out of control in the world, let that be your sign. Look that chaos right in the face and remember my words. Trust God to come to bring the kingdom and set things right. And when everything may pass away, know that God’s word will never cease to be on the earth. So cling to that word for your very life.
And then, knowing that you are holding onto this hope of God that will not disappoint you, then face the terror with courage, Jesus says. Remind each other of this. Encourage each other in this hope and pray that you will be ready for whatever happens next. Pray that you will have the strength to be who God needs you to be in the midst of all that is going on around you. And get to the joyful work that I give you to do in the midst!
Because as ones who look into the future with hope, we are called to be the ones that care for our brothers and sisters well in chaotic times. Like first responders who resist the paralyzing fear for the sake of helping others, we who hope in Christ are invited to rescue others are trapped by fear. We get to help them see a new vision of what is possible in the world. And because we know a new future if coming, we get to start that work now- by working to break down the systems of oppression that hurt our brothers and sisters. As ones who can trust that Jesus is coming to set this world right, and not destroy it, we can speak peace to those who are terrified and are tempted to react with violence and selfishness. We are ones that can testify to the hope that Jesus gives us, the hope that keeps us alert and gives us the capacity for joy even in the craziest of times.
In fact, we are to be people “infected by hope”- to be signposts of hope for those who are locked in fear or are doing their best to avoid looking reality straight in the eye. We are people who can see the world for what it is- a mess in need of God’s fixing. And we don’t have to be afraid of its messiness and its brokenness, because we know that at the end of time, God will fix all that we cannot. God will restore all that has been destroyed. God will bring peace to all the places where peace seems impossible right now- in Syria and Israel and in the streets of Baltimore.
We get to walk confidently toward the future that Jesus promises, even if the world seems to be falling apart around us. We don’t know when the Son of Man will come again to gather us up and transform this world. But we are absolutely assured that God will come. Simply because God has promised it.
But until then, we wait for the brokenness to be healed in our world. And work to heal it. And we beg and plead for it to be healed soon. But still we wait. Achingly we wait for the world to be set right. But we sometimes we start to lose hope. Because waiting is hard and we don’t know how to do it all that well. And that is why we so deeply need the gift of Advent.
Advent has always been my favorite season of the church year. Because I recognize it. Advent is where all Christians live their lives. Basking in the light of the dawn, but waiting and praying and pleading for the sunrise that will light up the whole world. It’s the moment where we plead for God to “tear open the heavens and come down” like Isaiah. It’s a season where we practice hope and to resist the fear the world tries to teach us. It’s a time to wait with expectation for God’s power to be seen in our world.
A few years ago at our campus ministry at UMBC, we had a few students who were not religious join us for one of our dinner discussions. We regularly welcome whoever will come in and eat with us so you never know how the conversation will go. And that week we were talking about how hard it is to wait and what makes it easier. And, being a pastor I just couldn’t wait to tell them about Advent, where we wait for Jesus in the manger and in our world. And to my surprise, our guests were excited to hear about all our traditions. And that’s when I started to feel a little silly.
“Well, the main thing we do is light candles.” “A lot?” they asked. “No, just one more each week. It’s our way of defying the darkness. And then we put blue cloths on the altar because it’s the color of hope. It’s usually a dark blue, which is the color of the sky just before morning. And then we read the promises the prophets brought us. And we sing songs about Jesus coming to steady our hearts.” In the face of the impending exams these students were worried about, in the face of a big, fancy Christmas season, our candles and readings and prayers didn’t seem like enough.
But the are all reminders of the promise that is enough- the promise that God holds this world and us. All our candles and songs and readings this season point us to the truth that we live in- the truth of Jesus who loved this world enough to wear our flesh and battle back all that works against our world. They point to the truth that we cling to when the world is out of control.
So, during this Advent, cling to this hope. When news stories cause you to fear, steady yourselves with the words of hope from the prophets. Light Advent candles (and maybe a whole lot more candles) at home to remind yourself of the light in the darkness that will not be overcome. Testify to hope by being part of the healing of all that is broken in the world- by caring for the lonely and the needy. Encourage each other with this hope and bring this hope to the world outside these walls- when you meet people locked in fear and despair. Live this hope anyway you know how as we wait for our God to come and transform this world.
|Posted by Baltimore Lutheran Campus Ministry on November 27, 2017 at 11:55 AM|
A sermon on Matthew 25:31-46
Christ is King! This is our proclamation today- to the world and probably more even more so to ourselves and our brothers and sisters sitting with us. Jesus is the only true ruler of our lives. And in the world. When the politics in our own country sadden us and anger us and cause us to despair some days. When we see extremist groups attacking and killing in mosques and in markets. When the rich get richer while those without money suffer. It is a blessed thing and a hopeful thing to get to come here to say together with the whole church, “Jesus is king.”
We profess- even when we can barely believe it- even when it is against our better judgment- that the powers of this world are not more powerful than the One we trust our lives to. Jesus reigns over all the powers in the world- corrects, judges and is greater than them all. And we proclaim that our hope lies in this Jesus who governs with justice and with a grace beyond what we are capable of.
And if Jesus is king, that our ultimate allegiance- beyond political party or national identity or even family connections, lies with him. He is the one that deserves our respect. He is the one that sets the laws that govern our life. He is the one that can command our obedience. And no other power has that right, no matter how honorable it might seem.
And that is reason to rejoice. But then we hear about what it means for Jesus to be our king and the kind of rules he sets for the kingdom we are invited into. And it’s not surprising that those who will be counted as great are those who have served King Jesus. What is surprising is that Jesus tells us the astounding reality that each of us can do this- serve the very person of Jesus- every time we care for those who are hungry, naked, sick and imprisoned.
Your respect for and care for and those who are suffering is as important as the words you pray to me in holy places. It’s as important as the time spent studying my word. (Both are a part of a life of following Jesus.) It’s as important as the time spent working and caring for your family. Because this is what it means to be a subject in my kingdom.
And it doesn’t mean just doing the easy stuff. It means loving the hardest to love. The prisoners who have done things that you don’t want to forgive. The hungry who are ungrateful. The sick who are belligerent and who are sick because of their own choices. The sick who have diseases you could catch.
But Jesus also says that when you love the ones who are least in Jesus’ family- and I would extend that to the ones you call least- you will be blessed. And that means loving our Christian brothers and sisters who we disagree with on everything but Jesus. Loving those on the other side of the political fence. Loving those who think we’re too liberal. Loving those who would even speak against us. These ones are my children. Children that may be hard to love. But when you love them, you love me.
And that means that our deeds matter. When so much of our trying to help doesn’t change situations fast enough or even at all, we need to know that our helping was not futile. When we visit the person suffering from Alzheimer’s who doesn’t even know who we are and it seems like a waste of time. When the sick person we pray for and visit and support just gets sicker. In those frustrating moments, it is a blessing to know that that our moments of serving are part of our worship and Jesus sees them and rejoices that we are living into the kingdom he brings.
Love people in need- those who are sick, those who spend their lives in prison like our brothers and sisters in the Community of St. Dysmas, and those who are hungry and begging. This is how you love Jesus. If the parable ended there, it would be hard, but good. But then there’s that part about judgment. And this is the third week in a row we’ve heard about judgment! There have been bridesmaids who didn’t bring enough oil, servants who didn’t invest their talents and now nations and peoples who don’t serve others when they had the chance and they keep ending up in the darkness after being thrown out or shut out.
And that probably makes some of us uneasy. We don’t quite know what to do with our Jesus throwing people that didn’t seem to do things so terribly wrong into the darkness. Because we don’t know what that means for our brothers and sisters or for us! And I have to tell you, I don’t know completely. I do not fully understand God’s judgment in light of this Jesus who went to the cross to rescue us.
But what I do know is reality. I do know the truth that living apart from Jesus means living apart from his unexplainably beautiful love. It means living away from the hope that there is forgiveness beyond our mistakes and hope for the future. And to not live in this love is punishment.
And Jesus says- when you refuse to love the people that I love, you live apart from me. You set yourself outside the goodness of my love. You live outside my kingdom and refuse to be my beloved, peculiar people in the world. You refuse to live as if I am actually in charge of your life. And then you live your life without me as your king. And will put your trust in things that will disappoint you. And that is punishment in this life and in the next.
So I can’t believe that this parable is saying what so many in our world assume- good people go to heaven and bad people go to hell. It’s not that easy when Jesus and his annoying tendency to love people is involved. But it is telling us that there are consequences to how we live. And they are not always seen in the moments when we choose convenience or safety over the life of our brothers and sisters in need. But every time we ignore the needs of our brothers and sisters, these choices take us farther away from the heart of God. And every time we miss the opportunity to see Jesus, to care for Jesus, to trust Jesus’ ways as our very life and hope.
And yet, after all those beautiful words about God’s kingdom, I bet we’re still wondering, are we a sheep are or are we a goat? Are we the ones that are welcomed in to the joy of God or are we the ones who are sent away because of our actions? We’ve probably been reviewing our past few weeks in our head during much of the sermon. So, how does the sorting work? Do we get welcomed in because of one moment of caring or do we get kicked out because of one moment of non-caring? Are those of us who always try to care for others going to be put among the goats because of the one time we were too distracted or too grumpy to help? And are those who are always rude and unfeeling, going to be welcomed into life with God because of one kind act? Which side are we on? The parable makes us uneasy.
And I think that’s part of what this parable is supposed to do- convict us when we have ignored those who need our help, whether we were too scared, too busy or too self-righteous. It makes us a little nervous of how God will look at us because of how we have acted. It makes us grieve over the times we have failed to care for Jesus in his bodies on earth. And Jesus reminds us that the privilege and responsibility of caring for him doesn’t end. The opportunity to glimpse his presence in the faces of those that need our care is always nearby. It keeps us constantly on alert to care for Jesus in the flesh of others.
And it reminds us that we get the no matter which side we feel we’re on- sheep or goat- we stand before the throne of Jesus, our king. We stand before the one who loves us and shows us the good ways to live in his kingdom. And, all of us who call Jesus king- or who TRY to call Jesus king- have the command to serve all our neighbors. Especially those most in need. These are the rules of the kingdom we are invited into.
They are hard rules, but what joy to find our life in this kingdom where those who are weaker are treasured as much as the strong and those who have failed are forgiven and given new chances. It’s a kingdom where love conquers hatred and where healing springs up in unexpected places. This is the kingdom of our God, the kingdom that we get to live into, where the rule is always one of merciful love. For us and for our neighbor.
So as ones who will stand before the throne of our King Jesus, as those who wish to be found among those sheep welcomed into his joy, we spend our lives trying to love like crazy. We live constantly attentive to the needs of those who suffer and those who have less than we do. We go beyond what is comfortable and safe for the sake of our neighbors. And when we cannot do everything, we trust the mercy of Jesus. We rely on the one whom we meet in the faces of those we serve.
|Posted by Baltimore Lutheran Campus Ministry on May 9, 2017 at 12:15 AM|
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|
“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|
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|
“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|
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|
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|
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.