Monday, July 14, 2014

Sermon for the 5th Sunday after Pentecost

That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the lake. Such great crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat there, while the whole crowd stood on the beach. And he told them many things in parables, saying: ‘Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away.Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them.Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. Let anyone with ears listen!’

‘Hear then the parable of the sower. When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what is sown in the heart; this is what was sown on the path. As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; yet such a person has no root, but endures only for a while, and when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, that person immediately falls away. As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the lure of wealth choke the word, and it yields nothing.But as for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.’
- Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

Well this is a day I’ve been looking forward to for a while now. Today marks my third anniversary as a pastor - 3 years of preaching Sunday after Sunday, working through the lectionary. But today is a special day because our lectionary is a 3 year cycle, so this is the first time I’ve lapped around the set of readings and prayers for the church year. My first sermon at Christ the King 3 years ago was on these readings. I’m excited because I’m gonna have so much more time on my hands now that I can just use old sermons over and over again each Sunday. I mean, especially for Epiphany - you guys/they haven’t even heard most of these yet. Hello 3 day work week. I’m kidding of course. For nostalgia I looked back at my first sermon from Christ the King and I realized - I wasn’t as good at preaching back then. In fact, it was a bit painful reading through that sermon. But also, the references were not exactly current. If you remember the world was supposed to end on October 21st, 2011, so that reference is a bit dated. Kind of like retired pastors having references to the Cold War. But also, when I looked back on that old sermon, after reading these texts, I realized that these words from Scripture speak to me in an entirely different way today than they did three years ago. All of us can experience this - when we hear God’s Word at different times and in different places in our life, they speak to us in unexpected and refreshing ways. Because, dear sisters and brothers in Christ, the Word of God is alive and active. Our God continues to sow the seed of his word in us and among us, in new and unimagined ways.

In particular this morning, the Gospel reading of the sower and seeds speaks much differently to me than 3 years ago. 3 years ago Carolyn and I lived in a duplex in Ludlow with a postage stamp yard, mostly taken up by the landlords dog. Carolyn had a small container of herbs by the back door, mostly grown from transplants purchased at Big Y. Today, we have a legitimate suburban farm, complete with chickens, berry bushes, vegetables, and more vegetables. Reading this parable again, the thing that struck me, the new word that seemed to come from these words of Scripture now that Carolyn and I are wanna be farmers is this: if God is the seed sower, then God is one lousy gardener. “Listen!” Jesus says. “A sower went out to sow. An as he sowed some seeds feel on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. Other seeds feel on rocky ground where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil…they were scorched…they withered away. Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them.” Oh, and apparently some of the seed fell on good soil and made out alright. Even I know that is not good seed sowing. This is the Pastor/Father Nathaniel method of seed sowing - a method that quickly inspires Carolyn to grab the seeds form me and say, “Why don’t you go mow the lawn or something.” The seed sower in this parable comes across as careless. Seed spilled on the path, seed sowed where it cannot possibly be expected to thrive. Seed seemingly wasted and not given a chance to produce good fruit.

Except then something really funny happened in our garden this year that made me realize: This seed sower may actually know what he’s doing. Because as good as the soil seems, because as counterintuitive as some seed sowing appears, sometimes you never know what the seed will do.

This winter, for the first time, Carolyn took to starting her own seed. With a gift certificate she got for Christmas she bought the super fancy heirloom and organic seeds from a mail order company. I wired for her a growing table set up that would lead anyone who peered through our basement windows to think that we were illegally growing marijuana. Fluorescent lighting on adjustable chains, two levels of trays, heat pads, the works. She did everything right - a light timer, temperature control, the nicest seed starting soil Miracle-Gro has to offer. Before they went in the garden the little transplants spent a few hours a day outside to harden off - once in the garden a cold frame kept in the warmth of the sunshine, and eventually they were established. Except despite all of these efforts - the perfection of seed sowing that only a biology teacher could accomplish, for some reason, a few random seeds didn’t make it. A few plants withered anyway. Despite the good soil, the ideal conditions, the impeccable care, sometimes, seed just doesn’t take.

But then there were the tomatoes. In our side garden bed, without warning, one day Carolyn noticed firmly established and mature tomato plants. Except she didn’t plant tomatoes there. At least not this year. Last year Carolyn had planted cherry tomatoes in the side bed, but there were so many tomatoes that she wasn’t able to pick them all, and some fell off and rotted. But apparently; and this is where I have a hard time wrapping my non-biology major mind around this; those old tomatoes that rotted, the seeds inside of them went into the soil, and in the spring started growing into new plants. And there’s a mystery as to what exactly they’ll be like too because bees don’t pollenate just one type of tomato, they are equal opportunity pollinators. So it’s quite likely that the tomatoes that result will be some sort of hybrid between those cherry tomatoes and other tomatoes. Apparently they may be kind of weird. But that’s ok - it’s still amazing to me. Fruit that withered and died one year, the next year has given us new and unexpected life. 

Sometimes we just can’t stop the work of determined seeds. Kevin Hinkamper stopped by to say hi one day when he drove by and saw me working in the yard. Because of the chickens I decided we shouldn’t treat the lawn with any chemicals, and that I would remove the dandelions by hand. When Kevin pulled over I had already been out there for at least 3 hours, bending over, prying out dandelions by the root, throwing them into my bucket. “What are ya doing?” Kevin asked. “Weeding dandelions.” “Ok,” he said, “Good luck with that.” After hours of work, I woke up the next morning, sore from head to toe, only to view a fresh sea of yellow on our lawn. I spent 3 more days of work in the yard before I finally capitulated a losing battle. Insult was added to injury when the dandelions let out seed and we were awash in a sea of white floating seeds. There was just no stopping that seed. Fortunately the chickens like to eat the dandelions. 


And speaking of birds, the birds that eat up the seed on the path in the parable. That biologist wife of mine has also informed me that this is a big way seed is spread. Birds find a tasty fruit, fly away and let it lose in a new area. Since I mentioned pasty butt in the chickens a couple weeks ago, I’ll leave it to your imagination what exactly “letting lose” that seed means.

Tomatoes we didn’t plant, dandelions we don’t want, and even a few strawberries seeds being flown across town for planting. You never know where seed may be sown - you never know what fruit is possible.

As the Church, every week we gather to hear the same readings, to recite the same liturgy, to share the same meal. And yet each time it is new and different and unexpected. The Word read in our midst speaks to us as it never has before. The Word preached or proclaimed in song sheds light on a new angle, a new thought, an unexpected result of that Word heard and experienced long before but suddenly, heard anew. The Holy Meal, God’s word along with ordinary bread and wine that becomes for us the Body and Blood of Christ. At times we’re attentive and curious and open - at times our hearts are Good Soil for God’s word. At other times we’re distracted and anxious - worried and angry, and God’s word falls on our heart as if on a path, as if among thorns, like it were snatched up in an instant by birds. But the Word of grace and hope for us in this parable is that God stops at nothing to make sure the seed takes root and we bear fruit. Our God, the seemingly careless but truly abundant gardener scatters seed everywhere within us and around us, confident that we can only encounter the love and grace of our God so many times before that Gospel planting takes root. 


At times in our lives the plant of our faith may wither. At certain harvests, the fruit is meager or absent. But our God, the gracious and generous garden does not give up on us, and continues to spread the good news for us and for the world. And we in turn share that word, in word and deed, doing our own sowing, daring to imagine a harvest in which all people might know the Good News we cherish in hearts.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Sermon for the 4th Sunday after Pentecost

I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good. But in fact it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand.For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!
- Romans 7:15-25a

Lutherans and Episcopalians don’t tend to talk a lot about secular holidays in their sermons. In some traditions you may get a “Mother’s Day” or a “Labor Day” sermon, but not in our churches. Some call us liturgical snobs - a term a take great pride in. I know I’m not alone. The reason we don’t celebrate secular holidays in worship is simply because that is not why we are here gathered. We come together each sabbath to celebrate the Resurrection - to celebrate our new life in Christ. Our worship focuses on the gift of God’s only Son, the gift of the Spirit at Pentecost. Days of preparation at Lent, days of waiting and watching at Advent. Green Sundays of winter and summer in which we focus on our growth as disciples. But on this 4th of July Weekend, I thought it would be appropriate, particularly given our readings for today, to reflect a bit on something both church and state celebrate this weekend: Freedom. On this Independence Day Weekend we Americans celebrate our freedom from tyranny. But freedom is also a word and a concept we use when we talk about the saving work of our Lord Jesus on the cross - Our Lord Jesus frees us from the power of sin and death. But we throw around this word “freedom” an awful lot, without really thinking about what it means. We celebrate our freedom, as a nation, as God’s people, without realizing what we are called to do with that freedom.

First, let’s take a look at Paul’s letter to the Romans. This morning we get a slice of the 7th chapter and Paul seems to be in a bad place. “I do not understand my own actions,” Paul writes. “For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” C.G. Jung called this the first example of depth psychology. We can all relate - we know we should get up and run in the morning, we know we shouldn’t eat that midnight snack, but we find ourselves doing it anyway. Those examples were very personal by the way. We know we should be nicer to our spouse, we know we should forgive our sibling who snubbed us those years ago and now we can’t remember about what. But we can’t bring ourselves to do it. We know we should, but we fail anyway. We know we should do better, but we fall short, and we wallow in our failure.

After his extensive monologue of remorse, Paul cries out in despair, “Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from the body of death?” But then, in the last verse of our passage, Paul reveals the source of his hope, “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord.”

Later Paul uses the word “freedom,” but here at the pinnacle of his argument we get the closely related word - “rescue.” “Who will rescue me [who will set me free] from this body of death?” The answer of course, is Jesus Christ.

Left to our own devices we experience Paul’s anguish of not doing what we want but doing what we hate. We take advantage of people, we harbor feelings of hate and jealousy, we squander the gifts God has given us - we sin. And aside from God’s saving work in Jesus, despite our best efforts in modern medicine and technology, it is inevitable that we will die. The promise of our faith, the hope of our belief is that through the cross of Christ we are freed from these powers of sin and death.

But the key question we need to ask ourselves is this: freed for what? Are we freed from the power of sin and death so that we can live however we want? Are we freed from sin to go on sinning? Are we freed from death to live lives of selfishness and greed. Of course the answer is no. In one of his most famous works, “On the Freedom of a Christian,” Martin Luther presents the paradox that comes in our freedom. “A Christian is the most free Lord of all, and subject to none;” Luther writes. But also, “a Christian is the most dutiful servant of all, and subject to everyone.” We see this paradox in Jesus himself - Christ the King who reigns enthroned above the heavens who also kneels in front of us and washes our feet. As Christians we are set free from the powers of sin and death - as Christians we are set free to serve our neighbors. We are set free for the sake of the world.

Our freedom as Christians means that we don’t need to play the games of the world that we’re constantly told to play. We don’t need to get the biggest house and the fastest car - we don’t need a perfectly diversified and amply supported portfolio. Set free in Christ we don’t need to be the fastest, smartest or most popular. Free in Christ we don’t need to spend the energies of our last days trying to find a way to keep on living at any cost. And because we are set free - because we enjoy the freedom of the children of God, we are free to give ourselves away for the sake of the world. We are free to live more simply and give fresh produce to the poor. Free in Christ, we are free to befriend the unpopular and advocate for the disenfranchised, not caring how it might make us look in our social circles. We are free to live with humility, to love boldly, and to forgive unconditionally for Jesus’ sake.

As we celebrate our nation’s independence, we celebrate the freedom to say and believe whatever we want. The freedom to be represented in a democratic form of government. The freedom to speak in support of and or in opposition to our leaders as our conscience deems appropriate. And our freedom indeed was won at great cost - the over one million who have died in all US wars. The millions who suffer the lasting effects of armed combat. The freedom we enjoy as a nation, the men and women who have given their lives, deserves all the parades and fireworks and more.

But as a nation, as Christians who are also citizens, we must ask ourselves - freed for what? Too often as citizens we regard freedom as something we deserve - something we have earned. But with the exception of the veterans among us, do any of us really deserve the freedom we have? For most of us, the freedom we enjoy is simply a result of the happy circumstance of being born in or having been granted citizenship in this country. Just as we don’t deserve our salvation, just as we are saved purely by the grace of God, so too we are saved from tyranny and enjoy the safety of this land purely by the sacrifice of others. And because we are free - because we enjoy so many gifts and benefits, we are called to service. We are freed in Christ to serve our neighbor - we are free people in this land, freed to serve others and to work for the freedom of all.

There has been a recent conversation between faith and public life playing out in our own community as of late. Mayor Sarno has come out strongly in opposition to any future refugees being resettled in Springfield. Our own Lutheran Social Services, one of the largest resettlers of refugees in this community, have pleaded for perspective and compassion as families escape persecution in their native lands. Mayor Sarno has pointed to strained city services and mounting challenges in city schools. This is indeed a complicated issue, not black and white. We must support all those who work with refugees, and yet, we in Wilbraham and surrounding communities should be convicted by Mayor Sarno’s words when he said we should bear some of the responsibilities for refugee resettlement. If we truly believe that our country is a bastion of freedom, that those who face death for their beliefs across the world should be allowed to find refuge on our shores, then perhaps Wilbraham and Hampden and East Longmeadow need to develop affordable housing in our towns and contribute to the work of integrating and supporting these people in our neighborhoods. That’s a lot to ask, I know. But too often we like to believe something, to celebrate it - without wanting to do the difficult work of living it out.

But people of God, welcoming the outcast - caring for the oppressed is what our Lord Jesus calls us to. At the end of our Gospel reading, Jesus tells the crowds, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” When I read that once again this week, I couldn’t help but notice the similarities to the poem that adorns the base of the Statue of Liberty. I know there were a lot of Anglicans here already when that statute was erected in the late 19th century, but many Episcopalians and most of the Lutherans who settled in America passed by this monument to freedom, and found solace in the words of the sonnet “The New Colossus” by Emma Lazarus:

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
"Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she
With silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!” 

As Americans, we are blessed with being a free people. And most importantly, as baptized children of God we are free in this life and the life to come. As we celebrate this freedom, as we give thanks to God anew for the manifold gifts for which we did not labor and of which we will never deserve, we must always consider what we have been made free for. We are made free in Christ to serve our neighbor. We are Christ’s hands and feet in this world, called to give rest to those who are weary and carrying heavy burdens, as Christ has done for us.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Sermon for the 4th Sunday of Easter

“Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit. The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.” Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them. So again Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly. - John 10:1-10

The 4th Sunday of Easter is always “Good Shepherd Sunday.” On this day, in each of the three years of the lectionary, we hear different parts of John 10 – titled, in most bibles as “Jesus the Good Shepherd.” Except this year, in the first year of the lectionary cycle, we get the buildup – the introduction to Jesus’ identification as the Good Shepherd. In fact, in our reading this morning Jesus hasn’t yet called himself “the Good Shepherd” – he does that one verse later, what we’ll hear next year. No, this morning we celebrate, in a way, “Gate Sunday.” Jesus says, “I am the gate for the sheep.” The Greek here is actually “door.” There’s a lot of hymns in our hymnal about the Good Shepherd, my internship was served at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church. I know of no “Jesus the Sheep Door Lutheran Church.” 

Last month, as we prepared for our Easter celebration and several of our high schoolers were headed off to France, I sent the parents of our world travelers a clip from the NPR show This American Life. In this particular episode writer David Sedaris recalls his humorous experience in Paris, taking a French class, in which he and other ex pats had to explain, in broken French, Easter to a non-Christian classmate. He runs into trouble, however, when he finds out that in France, the Easter Bunny doesn’t bring candy on Easter – instead, as legend has it, a large bell flies in from Rome bearing the treats. Sedaris can’t get past the absurdity of this, he writes, “The Easter bunny has character…A bell has all the personality of a cast-iron skillet. It's like saying that come Christmas, a magic dustpan flies in from the North Pole, led by eight flying cinder blocks. Who wants to stay up all night so they can see a bell?” I think Sedaris thoughts on the Easter bell hits at the reason why there aren’t any hymns in our red book about “Jesus, the Good Gate.” 

But I think this passage may bother some of us for other reasons. We generally don’t like gates – what I mean by that is we don’t like exclusion, division, separation. When you board your delayed and oversold flight, it’s not often looks of joy and happiness that you show the first class passengers. Wider seats, free drinks and priority boarding separated by a flight attendant pulled curtain. A gate of which you’re on the wrong side. For some reason, airline examples really come to mind on this –my Dad told me he’s now in the TSA pre-check program, so he can bypass long airport security lines. When he told me this I almost blurted out, “You’re one of those people!” I thought back to Carolyn and I scrambling to make our flight home from Minnesota last year – “Carolyn, look – no lines at that gate!” “I’m sorry sir, this is for pre-check members only. You’ll have to proceed to another checkpoint.” Shut out of the gate. We don’t like gates, don’t like division. And so some people are uncomfortable with this image of Jesus – Jesus as the gate. Whoever enters through Jesus will be saved, others, not so lucky. A quick read of this story may plant in our minds a very straightforward and perhaps exclusionary image – The pen is heaven, Jesus is the gate – come in through him or you’re out of luck. Don’t try to climb over, it won’t work. You better be one of Jesus’ sheep – otherwise you’re a thief or a bandit, so don’t even try.

Except that’s not what the story says. The images and figures of speech here aren’t consistent. At first the focus is on the gate and the area within, but the sheep don’t remain there – they “come in and go out and find pasture.” And while it’s clear we’re the sheep, the sheep and bandits and thieves don’t appear to be comparable characters. Their only motivation for getting over the gate is so they can steal or kill the sheep. The gate, the relationship between shepherd and sheep, all of this serves to keep the sheep safe, to protect them from those who would do them harm. Given the placement of this story amid an ongoing dispute with the Pharisees, it seems that Jesus is laying out some tough words for the false prophets and religious leaders who would lead the people astray, not threatening those who are not currently in the fold.

But still, when we read this today – in a pluralistic society governed by a post-modern world-view, we may not always be comfortable speaking of Jesus as the gate. Even though Jesus invites everyone to come to him, that he will give all people rest, identifying Jesus as the gate, where anyone who enters by him will be saved, seems to exclude those who believe they can or have received their saving through other means, other faiths. We proclaim Jesus as the way, the truth and the life – what then, do we say about those who are not Christian?

When we speak about salvation, and speak about those of others faiths, the loudest voices tend to be heard. Entrenched views about who will be saved that stand out in the conversation. These views were played out in Lutheran circles lately in the regular first page column of Pastor Peter Marty in the Lutheran magazine. Marty wrote an article about salvation that rubbed a lot of people the wrong way. In the ensuing letters to the editor, readers of the Lutheran more or less came down on these two polar opposite sides. But it’s not just in the Lutheran magazine – these are views we hear often in our society when discussing salvation. We may call these views, believe in Jesus, or else – or, it doesn’t matter what you believe, just as long as you’re sincere.

But there are problems with both of these sentiments. On the believe in Jesus, or else side, it seems we may be inappropriately inserting ourselves into the role of judge, a role we confess is Christ’s alone. Also, Jesus himself, in the part of this story we hear next year, reveals a possibility that God’s mercy may extend further than we previously imagined. In verse 16 Jesus says, “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd” (10:16). Jesus has assured us, we who have entered by the gate have been saved. But Jesus leaves open the possibility that there may be others – so perhaps we shouldn’t be rushing to judgment.

But also, there is a danger with the competing view – you can believe whatever you want to believe, just as long as you’re sincere. If that’s the case, then quite frankly, why are we wasting our time with this church business? Following Jesus is hard work – it means sacrifice, it means loving those we’d rather not love, forgiving those we really don’t want to forgive. Why pick up our cross and follow Christ if it doesn’t make a difference?

In the end, we may find a new way of looking at these questions, a new way of living, in Jesus’ own words. We talk a lot about being saved, but we may need to consider the question, what is salvation, anyway? What does it mean to be saved? We tend to approach that question as strictly about eternal life, exclusively about heaven. You’re either in or you’re out, or, everyone’s gonna get in. But notice that in the story, the sheep aren’t gated in and kept safe exclusively apart from the pasture – the shepherd leads them in and leads them out, keeping them safe at home and throughout the rolling hills. “I am the gate” Jesus says. “Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”

“I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” In the waters of Holy Baptism we have entered by the gate of Christ’s death and resurrection. We have been saved. But saved not only for the last day, saved each and every day that we might have life and have it abundantly. We miss the depth and fullness of the blessing of salvation when we limit it to a heaven years and worlds away. Our eternal life in God’s Kingdom is central to the Easter promise, but it is not the totality of that promise. Christ came that we might have abundant life at the last day and every day of our lives. The abundant life that is worshiping our God and serving our neighbor. The abundant life of experiencing profound forgiveness and reconciliation. Abundant life, celebrated in community and experienced at the Lord’s table. The abundant life that is knowing our God leads us as the Good Shepherd and will not let the thieves and bandits steal us away.

Our Lord Jesus is the Good Shepherd – we hear his voice and follow him. And he is also the gate, our protector. But not a gate that divides and excludes, a gate that is always extending the invitation, to all people, to have life and to have it abundantly in him.

Monday, May 5, 2014

Sermon for the 3rd Sunday of Easter

"Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them,but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. And he said to them, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?” They stood still, looking sad. Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?” He asked them, “What things?” They replied, “The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place. Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive.Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him.” Then he said to them, “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures. As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. But they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.” So he went in to stay with them. When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. They said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. They were saying, “The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!” Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread." - Luke 24:13-35

In the interest of keeping Carolyn happy, I got rid of my beard last week. It is, allegedly, getting warmer, after all. Of course I did take the opportunity vacation presented and sported just the mustache during my time off. Carolyn was not a fan of that. But what I really enjoyed was seeing your reactions, this past week and this morning. A few people noticed right away – your beard, it’s gone! You look like your 12 again! Other people didn’t notice at all. I forget who had this reaction but at a meeting on Monday in which we finalized our plans for the RIC forum for after worship today, someone noticed right when they walked in, while others had been at the table for 10 minutes and it hadn’t fazed them. 

In seminary a professor showed us a video in which a couple pairs of people were tossing a ball back and forth. We were told to count how many times the ball was tossed back and forth. After a couple minutes the professor asked – how many times was the ball tossed back and forth? Most people thought a dozen, a couple thought 11, but they were easily convinced they had missed one. But about a third of us had no idea how many times the balls had been tossed back and forth. “Why is that?” the professor asked? “Because of the man in the gorilla suit that walked into the room,” we said. The other 2/3rds of the class surely thought we had lost our minds. But sure enough, when the professor rewound the tape, for about 15 seconds you see a man in a gorilla suit, very clearly walk into the room, look around, and walk out. The majority of the class however was so focused on counting how many times the ball was tossed back and forth that they missed the gorilla entirely. The lesson, of course, is that when we’re focused on something, expecting something, we may miss the gorilla in the room entirely. Sometimes you expect a beard and don’t see there isn’t one. Sometimes we expect death, without seeing the miracle of new life. 

The Road to Emmaus is one of the most honest and beautiful of the resurrection accounts. It’s Easter, the day of resurrection, but these two disciples are getting out of town. Jesus, the one they had hoped “would redeem Israel” had been condemned to death and crucified. It was all over. And it had been 3 days. Perhaps the initial shock wore off. Now there is just disappointment. Sadness. Disillusionment. They know of some rumors of the tomb being empty, but they’re not convinced. They don’t see any reason to remain in Jerusalem, so they head off. Towards home, perhaps, we don’t know for sure. But three days after their Lord’s death they have no reason to stick around. They’re on the road.

In just the third verse of this story we’re let in on the secret that Jesus himself has come alongside these disciples on the road. But, Luke writes, “Their eyes were kept from recognizing him.” It would be tempting to put responsibility for this mistaken identity on God – a sort of hardened hearts routine a la Moses and Pharaoh in Egypt. But it may be simpler than that. Instead of hearts hardened by God, their hearts, as a pastor said recently, may simply be broken by grief. Luke paints an honest image of the depression engrossing these disciples on the road. When this stranger asks them what they are talking about, for a moment, they’re left speechless. “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?” he asks. With a pregnant pause, Luke writes, “They stood still, looking sad. Then one of them…answered him.” Cleopas and his fellow disciple tell Jesus everything that happened during that horrible week, not realizing that the one of whom they speak is beside them – the one whom they lament as dead is in their presence, alive.

That same professor who showed us a video with a conspicuous gorilla character, in discussing pastoral care used to encourage us to ask the question, “Where is God in all this?” Likewise a pastor I worked with during college used to talk about “God Sightings” – where we see God at work in our lives, in our community, in our church. In our culture, the presupposition is that God is dead and has left the building. But the Easter promise is that our God is alive and active and present throughout creation, throughout our lives – present in our sorrow and in our joy.

Many people speak of seeing God in nature – of hiking up the Rice Nature Preserve and seeing the bright sun shine throughout the Pioneer Valley and feel the beauty and presence of God. You may attend a concert, in which the musicians weave together an elaborate and mesmerizing tapestry of color and sound. In the beauty of the composition, of the performance, of the space, the presence of God is palpable. Or perhaps in the generosity of a stranger or the intimacy of a loved one’s touch, or poetry that leaps off the page and sucks you in. God among us. God with us.

God is everywhere – we just don’t always notice. Like the disciples our eyes can be kept from recognizing God’s presence. Pain and grief, like that of the disciples can keep our eyes from recognizing God. The distractions of work and busy, stressful lives can turn us from God’s gaze. The plethora of plentiful and attractive yet insufficient substitutes for God entice us multiple times a minute with promises of popularity, pleasure and purpose. We focus on counting how many times the ball is passed back and forth, we assume the beard is still there, we stare at our feet or at a screen and fail to recognize the gorilla in the room. The presence of our gracious and loving God that permeates all creation.

But fortunately, as the Church, we have a great blessing – a reminder, a concentrated dose of God’s presence in our lives and in our world. That blessing, that reminder, that concentrated super dose of God is worship. God is present throughout all creation, but it is here, in our worship, where our Lord Jesus has specifically promised to be present – in the Word, in the Meal, and in and among each other.

In some ways this scene on the road to Emmaus is worship writ large – the disciples journey together, they tell the story of Jesus, it’s significance is explained, they share a meal and they run off to tell others what has happened. In our worship, we gather together – God is present in our relationships, in our lives, in our common life together in this community. We hear the word read and proclaimed – God is present in our listening, in our reading, in our preaching and in our singing. We share a meal together, Christ’s own body and blood poured out for us – God made flesh, God’s flesh made a part of our flesh. And we are sent forth, with joy and with a mission – to serve God, to share the good news, to celebrate God’s presence among us and in the world.

As the disciples walk along, their eyes are kept from recognizing Jesus. Even when he explains to them why the Messiah would die but would be raised, they still aren’t totally sure it’s him. It’s in the breaking of the bread – the sharing of the meal that opens the disciples eyes and gives them faith. As we journey on the road toward church each Sunday, we come with different distractions, different questions, different doubts. Sometimes a hymn lifts our spirits, once and a while the sermon speaks to us. But even if nothing is working for us that week and we still question God’s presence in our world and in our lives it is in the meal where God’s presence hits us like a ton of bricks. Where the body of Christ is given for you – the blood of Christ, shed for you. Where even if our eyes are shrouded, Christ enters into us regardless and changes us from our very core. 

After their eyes are opened, even the past starts to look different for the disciples. Their eyes opened, they say to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” It’s not always easy to spot it, but this is one of many moments of humor in Scripture. Oh no, I totally knew that was Jesus before – I mean I thought it was heart burn, from that lunch we had, but now I know it was really my heart burning because our Lord was with us. No I totally noticed the gorilla in the video, yeah, definitely. It doesn’t need to be an embarrassing admission – the promise of our baptism is that our loving God will never leave us, in this life nor in the life to come. But sometimes our eyes are closed. Sometimes we lose focus. Sometimes we are distracted. But thanks be to God, it doesn’t matter that we can pinpoint God at each moment – what matters is that the eyes of God never stray from watching over us. What matters is that our Lord Jesus walks alongside us, and continues to give himself for us, so that our eyes may be opened, and our hearts set on fire.

Sermon for Easter Sunday

"After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men. But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.’ This is my message for you.” So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples. Suddenly Jesus met them and said, “Greetings!” And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshiped him. Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.” - Matthew 28:1-10

Hallelujah, Christ is risen! What a joy it is to worship God together this morning and celebrate the promise of the empty tomb – the Easter promise; that in the cross of Christ our mighty God has defeated the power of sin and death. Easter has always been my favorite day of the year – Spring has finally come, though we cut that close this year. The church is full and smells of flowers. Everyone seems to be happy. The central promise of our faith, that in Christ we are reconciled to God and will live forever in God’s kingdom, is made real this day. Hallelujah. And yet, if today is such an exciting day – if the empty tomb is the central moment in the history of God’s saving work, then the guys who wrote the Gospels really disappoint. In the three year cycle of readings called the lectionary, we hear the story as Matthew, Mark and Luke remember it. Except it’s not all lilies and pastels. These memories of the empty tomb are chaotic, confusing – even scary. Last year the women who find the tomb empty tell the other disciples – only, Luke tells us, the other disciples think their story is an “idle tale,” forever giving credence to the female argument that men are not good listeners. And Mark’s account seems even more troubling – upon hearing about Jesus’ resurrection, the women flee from the tomb in terror and, Mark says, “They said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” And this morning, in Matthew’s version, an equally chaotic moment – there’s an earthquake, an angel, and the guards even faint they’re so overwhelmed. The two women named Mary see all of this, and are sent to tell the others. But Matthew’s description is a bit unexpected. He writes, “So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples.”

Fear and great joy. Perhaps not what we’re expecting on this Easter morning – great joy, yes. But fear? Fear is what we’d rather not think about – fear is what we try to avoid. When we fear, we feel like something is wrong. These women have heard that their Lord is not dead but is alive again – the great joy is understandable, but why this fear?

I don’t know if they still sell this stuff but when I was in junior high school, “No Fear” clothing was all the rage. I think I just had a baseball cap with the logo – “No Fear” – but you could tell just by the font that it was intense. It was cool. The “No Fear” brand marketed itself through extreme sports and daredevil antics, but even if we’re not jumping off of bridges or flying through class 3 rapids – even if a roller coaster is too much excitement for you, I think most of us, at some level, think the “No Fear” sentiment is a good one. We don’t want to be afraid – the ideal seems to be that we live without any fear. But that actually may be just as problematic. You may have heard of Thomas Aquinas – a theologian who died a long time ago but whose ideas live on as some of the most important in the history of the Church. For Aquinas, fear, at least some fear, is natural and not inherently bad. In fact it can be a good thing. A modern theologian, Scott Bader-Saye, explains Aquinas’ thought this way, “We fear evil because it threatens the things we love –family, friends, community, peace and life itself. The only sure way to avoid fear, then, is to love less or not at all. If we loved nothing, we would have no fear, but this would hardly be considered a good thing” (Bader-Saye, 40). When we love people, when we love peace and community and life, we don’t want to lose those things – as a result we have some natural level of fear. This can be beneficial, according to Aquinas – if we didn’t fear our children being hurt, we wouldn’t look out for them like we do. If we didn’t fear for our own lives we’d think nothing of driving 100mph on the highway. Fear can make us appropriately cautious and responsible. Fear can be a sincere response to love.

But fear can also paralyze us – fear can make us do horrible things. After the September 11th terrorist attacks, fear was a very useful tool in passing legislation and going to war. Fear of our children being hurt can make sure we look out for their well-being, but that can be taken to unreasonable ends - I saw a kid on a leash the other day. Fear of losing what we have or of death can make us incapable of enjoying what we do have and the very life we’re living. A certain level of fear is normal and appropriate – too much fear will paralyze us. Ideally we live lives that acknowledge that fear, but keep it in its place. Lives that continue despite the fear – and that is what we call ‘courage.”

That same modern theologian writes, “True courage does not lack fear altogether; it feels fear appropriately but does not allow fear to control one’s life, to diminish one’s loves, or to divert one’s pursuit of the good” (Bader-Saye, 45). In that case, it is clear in Matthew’s resurrection account – these women – these two women named Mary are courageous. Their lives have been thrown upside down; their Lord has died only now they’ve been told something different. They feel great joy that the Messiah could be alive, and yet they still fear. They know the threats that were muttered against his followers – know the suffering he endured. They’re uncertain and discombobulated by the chaos and they experience real fear – but they leave the tomb quickly anyway. And there on the road come face to face with their Lord, who tells them that they don’t need to be afraid anymore, as they cling to his feet and worship the resurrected Christ.

We have many tombs in our lives and in our world. Places of death that cause us great fear. Fear about losing our job, fear for the safety of those we love. Fear of illness and death, fear over the conflict and bloodshed seen daily on the news. Fear that we’re not good enough, that no one loves us. Fear that our life hasn’t amounted to all that much. Fear. But it is here, at the tombs of our lives where our Lord Jesus meets us, as we cling to his feet and he tells us, “Do not be afraid.” The evil in this world threw everything it could at Jesus – he was betrayed, suffered death, and was put in a tomb. But all of the world’s evil was no match for God’s love. The Easter promise is that sin and death do not have the last word – God has the last word. Our Lord Jesus is alive, and God has given us the strength to face the trials in our lives, the tragedy in our world, and the hour of death with courage.

These two women, both named Mary, who run quickly from the tomb to tell the others despite their fear – they are examples for us of how to live courageously as God’s people on Earth. We also have a wonderful example of this courage in the people of Boston. On this eve of the Boston Marathon there is fear – how could there not be? Every reasonable precaution has been taken – tons of security including cameras and plainclothes police officers - but along a 26.2 mile route there’s no way to guarantee complete safety. There is fear in Boston. And yet a record field will run and over a million spectators cheer them on because they are courageous. Because despite the fear, the legitimate and understandable fear they will run and cheer and celebrate anyway. The people of Boston are not letting fear of injury or death keep them from celebrating God’s gift of life.

Dear brothers and sisters, Christ is alive and we have been set free. Free from lives of sin and fear and freed for lives of courage and hope. Lives in which we use our gifts to serve our neighbors and witness to God’s love. Lives in which we love and forgive as Christ forgives us. Lives of true joy and peace now and in the life to come.  

Monday, March 31, 2014

Sermon for the 4th Sunday in Lent

As he walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” When he had said this, he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes, saying to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (which means Sent). Then he went and washed and came back able to see.
The neighbors and those who had seen him before as a beggar began to ask, “Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?” Some were saying, “It is he.” Others were saying, “No, but it is someone like him.” He kept saying, “I am the man.” But they kept asking him, “Then how were your eyes opened?” He answered, “The man called Jesus made mud, spread it on my eyes, and said to me, ‘Go to Siloam and wash.’ Then I went and washed and received my sight.” They said to him, “Where is he?” He said, “I do not know.”
They brought to the Pharisees the man who had formerly been blind.Now it was a sabbath day when Jesus made the mud and opened his eyes. Then the Pharisees also began to ask him how he had received his sight. He said to them, “He put mud on my eyes. Then I washed, and now I see.” Some of the Pharisees said, “This man is not from God, for he does not observe the sabbath.” But others said, “How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?” And they were divided. So they said again to the blind man, “What do you say about him? It was your eyes he opened.” He said, “He is a prophet.” The Jews did not believe that he had been blind and had received his sight until they called the parents of the man who had received his sight and asked them, “Is this your son, who you say was born blind? How then does he now see?” His parents answered, “We know that this is our son, and that he was born blind; but we do not know how it is that now he sees, nor do we know who opened his eyes. Ask him; he is of age. He will speak for himself.”His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jews; for the Jews had already agreed that anyone who confessed Jesus to be the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue. Therefore his parents said, “He is of age; ask him.” So for the second time they called the man who had been blind, and they said to him, “Give glory to God! We know that this man is a sinner.” He answered, “I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.” They said to him, “What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?” He answered them, “I have told you already, and you would not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you also want to become his disciples?” Then they reviled him, saying, “You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses. We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from.” The man answered, “Here is an astonishing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. We know that God does not listen to sinners, but he does listen to one who worships him and obeys his will. Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.” They answered him, “You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?” And they drove him out.
Jesus heard that they had driven him out, and when he found him, he said, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” He answered, “And who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him.” Jesus said to him, “You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.” He said, “Lord, I believe.” And he worshiped him.
Jesus said, “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.” Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, “Surely we are not blind, are we?” Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.
- John 9:1-41

I’m gonna start with a little story this morning. It may seem a bit strange but bear with me. When I was 7 or so, I was at my friend’s house and we were playing with my super cool Star Trek action figures. We would make different scenes with the Borg invading the Enterprise or the Klingons facing off in a great battle. 

Now for some reason, that day, as a 7-year old trying to be the cool kid, I decided to impress my friend by pushing some boundaries. So I took my Commander Riker action figure and Counselor Troy and, well, let’s just say their scene was not very appropriate. Would not have appeared on the television show. My friend couldn’t believe it - we both looked around nervously to make sure his parents didn’t see what I had done (just to be clear, I was 7, so in hindsight it was pretty tame). I felt some guilt about what I did, but in my 7 year old mind, what I did with those action figures was the funniest thing anyone had ever thought to do with Star Trek toys. Fast forward, an hour later, we’re playing outside and I got stung by a bee. It hurt, I cried. But I wasn’t upset, because I was convinced that that bee sting was God punishing me for what I did earlier with the action figures. “Fair enough, God,” I thought, “Only PG scenes from here on out.” When I look back on that day I laugh - that God would be concerned with how I played with my action figures and send a bee to sting me is absurd. Moreover, as an adult and a theologically educated one, I know that Lutherans don’t believe in such things. Some might call that karma - you do something wrong and sooner or later you get punished. But such “punishment” rarely seems fair or well thought out. We know all too well that bad things happen to good people for no reason at all – and perhaps even more infuriating, that good things happen to really bad people. I got stung by a bee that day because I probably sat on it or aggravated it in some way and that’s what bees do. It wasn’t punishment. It was random. I made sense of my pain by blaming myself for an inappropriate joke.

When bad things happen we so desperately want to find meaning or explain the event that we fall into this trap: something bad happens to someone, and we think, well, they must have done something wrong. They must have sinned. That’s the tact the disciples take today when they come across a man blind from birth. They ask Jesus, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” The thought that this man could have sinned is a stretch - if he was born blind he would have had to have sinned in the womb. Not an easy task. So it must have been the parents, right Jesus? To all those who feel guilt over the birth defects of a child, for all who would blame themselves for the developmental delay in their offspring, Jesus answers decisively - “Neither.” “Neither this man nor his parents sinned.” Jesus is clear that our God is not a God that punishes an unborn child for the shortcomings of their parents. We have all fallen short - if a blind child were the result of sinful parents the whole world would be blind.

But then Jesus says something that may be equally as troubling: “He was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.” That seems equally problematic. Did this blind man endure the struggle of a sightless life simply so that Jesus could impress the Pharisees one afternoon? What do we make of that?

First, we need to address the Greek, because there is one translation that renders these words much differently. The words “he was born blind” do not come from Jesus’ mouth - the sentence translated literally is “neither this man nor his parents sinned but that God’s work might be revealed in him.” Some have argued verses 3 and 4 are divided incorrectly. That the two sentences should be rendered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned.” Period. “So that God’s work might be revealed in this blind man, we must work the works of him who sent me while it is day.” In that case Jesus would be clear - neither this man nor his parents sinned - but now God will be revealed through the sign I am about to perform.

I think that is a very doable translation. But what of the majority who feel the translation we heard this morning is correct- “he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him?” I think there are three important points.

First, even if you read that literally, it’s important not to make this into a generalization. If God caused a man to be born blind so that God’s works might be revealed, that does not mean that every bad thing happens for a reason. An important side not, “Everything happens for a reason” is a phrase that appears nowhere in Scripture. Did the bee sting me for a reason? Was I sick last week for a reason? Did the Malaysian airlines flight crash; did the Boston firefighters die for a reason? Our gracious and loving God doesn’t work that way.

Second, when we hear this story we may be operating under a subconscious presupposition - that blind persons are at an inherent disadvantage. While blindness certainly leaves people disabled in certain areas, blindness hasn’t stopped people from achieving extraordinary things among all people, sighted or unsighted. Some disabled persons utilize a different term: differently abled. Much of the suffering this blind man endured would have been due to his society that, like the disciples, would have seen his disability as the result of sin. Our definitions and ideals say a lot about what we think but little about what God thinks. We have a great example of this in our first reading as Samuel goes to anoint Israel’s King. As he approaches Jesse’s sons and reviews these strapping young men, as Eliab and Abinadab and Shammah pass before Samuel he thinks, “Surely the Lord’s anointed is now before the Lord.” But of the perfect physical specimens, the Lord’s anointed is not present. “Are all your sons here?” Samuel asks. “All but the youngest,” Jesse answers. And Samuel comes to David and God commands him to anoint him as the Lord’s chosen. David is the short one, the punny one. But God commands Samuel, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature…for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.”

But finally, a third point, we need to pay attention to the context of Jesus’ visit. In John’s Gospel the author gives clues when something is planned – when an encounter is an integral part of the narrative. But we don’t have that here. Jesus is just walking along and he sees the blind man and the disciples ask a misguided question about sin. Given how the story unfolds, it doesn’t seem likely that this man was born blind for this particular moment, but rather, that Jesus encounters this blind man and decides at this moment that his blindness will be used for the glory of God. That’s a small but important distinction – when we speak of evil or suffering being caused by God so that God can do something, it turns us into puppets and God into a cruel puppeteer. That’s the view that everything happens for a reason. Instead, the latter view is of a God who meets us in our suffering – who walks alongside us, and transforms our suffering into relief – who brings good out of evil. Where things don’t always happen for a reason – that random, terrible things happen in this life. But that God can transform the bad things of this life into good. That is the promises of the cross and resurrection. That at the last day, our God will transform our suffering and we will experience redemption. That even the ugliness of death will be transformed into the beauty of everlasting life. That at the last day, the peace and joy of the Kingdom of God will come to earth. We even see glimpses in the here and now, just as the man born blind is granted sight and becomes a witness and a believer in Jesus.

One final note about this man born blind – he holds a special place in John’s Gospel. This chapter includes the longest span where Jesus is not present. For 27 verses the focus is not on Jesus, but on the blind man, and on his miraculous testimony and strengthening faith. The Pharisees interrogate him repeatedly, even call in his parents for questioning, but the man born blind is resolute. “Give glory to God!” The Pharisees say, “We know that this man [Jesus] is a sinner.” The man born blind answers, “I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.” Though we may point to his limitations, John holds up this man as one of the fiercest and most relentless advocates for Jesus in the face of the religious establishment. And he also acts as a flesh and blood embodiment of the miracle that our Lord Jesus accomplishes through each of us – that though we were once blind to the good news of God, our Lord Jesus opens our eyes through the waters of Holy Baptism and brings us out of darkness and into light.

There are mysteries of sin and God’s providence that we can’t understand – and when we try to understand, when we speak of the reason behind things or purpose in suffering, we too often get it wrong. But thanks be to God, we don’t need to worry about getting it right. For we have faith in the promise that is ours in the cross of Christ – that the darkest and most difficult realities of existence are no match for God’s unfailing light. That God doesn’t count our sin and levee punishment but forgives our sin for Jesus’ sake. That blind or sighted, short or tall, or whatever it is that the world says defines us, we know what truly defines us – our adoption as God’s children and our place in the Body of Christ.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Sermon for the 5th Sunday after Epiphany

“You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot. “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. - Matthew 5:13-20

There’s a lot about “righteousness” in today’s readings. That’s not a word we throw around a whole lot these days – if anything, at least for me, talk of “righteousness” makes me think about the negative term “self-righteousness.” I went looking for a good definition of righteousness, but as it turns out the ones for “self-righteousness” were way more entertaining. Here’s my favorite entry, from the urban dictionary:

A self-righteous person acts superior to his peers because he believes his moral standards are perfect. This "moral smugness" is condescending by nature and is usually found offensive by others. Self-righteousness is a way unintelligent and nonathletic people can retain a sense of superiority…

Joe: Hey, I downloaded this awesome movie! Want to go watch it?
Joe: Yeah..?
Tim: *Sigh* That's immoral and against the law. I would never do that.
Joe: You're a self-righteous tool.

I think self-righteousness is so unattractive because we recognize, that even the most morally superior among us have moments of immoral shortcomings. Moments where the morally smug among us act hypocritically. In Lutheran terminology, we’re simultaneously saint and sinner. We realize, we shouldn’t spend too much time polishing our halos, because sooner or later the horns will start to show. Self-righteousness is obviously something we want to stay away from, but it seems, in the process, we may end up deemphasizing righteousness itself.

In the first reading from Isaiah this morning, God’s people, the house of Jacob, have got righteousness all wrong. Though they don’t think so. They think they’re doing all the right things. In an attempt to appease God and to show forth their own righteousness, the people are fasting. But it’s the wrong type of fasting. Their focus is on the act itself and not what’s behind it – they’re going through the motions but not hitting at the deeper issues. As the people complain that God is not paying attention to their righteous fasting, God answers, “Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers…Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high.” God’s people have been practicing an empty, heartless fast of sackcloth and ashes while ignoring the welfare of those under their care. God, it turns out, has no use for such displays of self-righteousness. The righteousness that God truly desires, is this, “To loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free…to share bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor in your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin.” The righteousness that God desires is justice. Injustice masked by false piety is revealed as the empty gesture that it is.

As Lutherans we have a funny relationship with righteousness. Luther was tormented by the knowledge of his own sin. Far from self-righteous, Luther knew he had fallen short, knew he wasn’t worthy to stand before a righteous God. As Lutherans emphasize and most Christians confess, Christ is our righteousness. It is through the cross of Christ that we are made worthy to stand before God. But sometimes we use this as a crutch – as an excuse. Dependent upon Christ to make us righteous, we may think, “Why bother? I’m a sinner, I’m unworthy. So why even try?” Or we may look at our communities and our world and see the great challenges we face. The widening gap of inequality. The injustice and suffering endured by so many in our own back yard and a world away. We listen as Isaiah echoes God’s call to lose bonds and undo yokes – to let the oppressed go free and to feed the hungry , and we think, “How on earth am I gonna do all that?” It seems hopeless. Like too large a task. We confront the challenges and our own weakness and too often resign ourselves to quiet shame and dependence on the grace of God for our own salvation, forgetting the needs of so many for God’s saving work here and now.

But that’s where Jesus comes in. Our Lord Jesus, who not only becomes for us our righteousness before God but who works through us so that God’s justice is realized throughout creation. Our Lord Jesus, who to his disciples and to us this morning gives a pep talk. A reminder. A commissioning. Our Lord Jesus who reminds us that you are salt and you are light – and the world needs both too much to have them trampled under foot and hidden under a basket.

First, let’s wrap our heads around these images a little bit. Salt was incredibly important in antiquity. Its use in preserving food made it necessary for survival. Salt was central in sacrificial worship – when covenants were made salt sealed the deal. And of course our bodies require salt for proper nerve and muscle function and fluid balance. And last but not least, without salt, food doesn’t taste like much of anything. Salt isn’t the flavor but pulls out the flavor of everything it touches. You, Jesus says, are necessary for life – you are the spice of life.

And light. It takes a power outage (which fortunately we haven’t experienced yet this winter) to really appreciate what the ancients endured during the winter and during the night. Without electricity, darkness becomes a very real threat and hindrance. The few lamps, the little oil you could afford would be of the utmost importance in your home. When Jesus suggests the preposterous idea of lighting a lamp and putting it under a basket, the disciples would have laughed out loud. You, Jesus says, are the light of the world. So don’t hide your light, “Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your father in heaven.”

There’s two small details we may miss in these pronouncements from Jesus. The first is the pronoun – our bible translates it as “you” but it’s actually the 2nd person plural pronoun. As my New Testament professor at Southern Seminary would put it, y’all. “Y’all” are the salt, “y’all” are the light. Not any one of us, not on our own – but together, salt, light for the world.

And the other detail is the tense. Jesus isn’t recalling some past great deeds of the disciples, “you were the salt.” He isn’t even making a promise about the future, “you will be the light of the world.” Jesus tells his disciples and he tells us today, “you are the salt of the earth – y’all are the light of the world.” It isn’t a suggestion, it isn’t wishful thinking, it isn’t an ideal to strive for – you are God’s baptized people, the Body of Christ, and you are the spice of life – the light that shines in the darkness – you are the means by which God’s justice – God’s promises will be realized on earth. You are – y’all are – salt and light for all of creation.

That’s an intimidating commission from our Lord, but the good news is that we don’t do it on our own. Our salt, our light is the power of Christ within us – the power of God working through us to realize God’s righteous justice in the world. By his cross our Lord Jesus reconciles us to God – brings us into right relationship, that’s what righteousness means. But we’re not made righteous for our selves – as Christians we’re called not to be self-righteous. Christ didn’t endure the cross and rise from the grave so that we can sit in our own little self-righteous cocoon feeling so proud of ourselves for being somehow “better” than our neighbor. The righteousness of God conferred at baptism is meant to be salt and light for the sake of the world – the good works our God performs through us are meant to give glory to God, not ourselves. Our good works don’t get tabulated in a heavenly ledger for our own benefit but are rather a witness to the goodness of our gracious and loving God.

Brothers and sisters, you are righteous – you are worthy. So stop worrying about it. Instead we worry about God’s children throughout this world who long desperately for God’s justice and peace. And we act, we jump into some of the new projects our social ministry committee has planned; we volunteer at the survival center; we write to our representatives in Washington and speak up for those whose voices are so rarely heard. In Christ we are made righteous and we are commissioned to do God’s work; to let our light shine – to realize God’s justice throughout creation. You are the salt of the earth; you are the light of the world. Y’all are the body of Christ.