Tales of a Midwest Lutheran on the East Coast

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

We are all beggars

Sermon 8-17-14
Grace and peace to you from God our father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ. Amen.

Though Hailey won’t remember much of anything that happened on today her baptism day, I still sort of feel like I still ought to apologize for Jesus here. This might be the first time that Hailey has gotten to meet him, and I’m just afraid that he might not be making a very good impression.

As F. F. Bruce wrote his book Hard Sayings of Jesus –– “His yoke is easy and his burden is light, but his sayings are often hard.” And this one is certainly no exception. It goes right along with Jesus’ teaching on plucking out our right eye if causes us to sin, with Jesus saying he wants us to hate our parents for the sake of the Gospel, with Jesus saying he came “not bringing peace but a sword,” with “the camel going through the eye of a needle” having a better chance than a rich person being saved, and also cursing a poor innocent fig tree that was just minding its own business. And here, we have a couple of whoppers like the blind leading the blind, what comes out of the mouth from the heart is what ruins a person, and finally, Jesus seeming to ignore this woman in need and then apparently comparing her to a dog.

So much ink has been spilled over the centuries to explain, soften, or justify what Jesus does here, and I don’t think any of them are completely satisfying. Trust me, this week I consulted way more commentaries than I regularly do, looking for a brilliant key to help unlock this story. This key turns out to be rather elusive, like the treasure hidden in the field and the pearl of great price. Instead of a key, what we need to look for is more like a crumb, or rather, a trail of crumbs, that we follow like lost children through a dark forest, hoping that we will be able to find our way home.

For this Canaanite woman, the hope of just a crumb was enough for her. It was all she felt that she deserved. She was, after all, an outsider in nearly every possible way. She lived on the wrong side of the border; she was from a people who worshipped the wrong gods and was on the wrong side of history. She was likely a single mother in the wrong century, and her only child was the wrong gender, and if that wasn’t enough, her daughter was suffering from a very wrong-sounding illness. Even this woman’s whole approach to getting Jesus’ attention seems all wrong.

And yet, this woman could not have been more right about Jesus.  She called him Lord and Son of David while the religious leaders of Jesus’ own people despised and rejected him. She knelt before him and engaged in spirited dialogue with him, while his own disciples seemed almost totally in the dark. She knew what she needed from Jesus, and was not afraid to do whatever she needed to in order to get it, for the sake of her daughter. Even if it meant adding one more demand when Jesus already had his hands full dealing with his own people. Even if it meant facing a tired and frustrated savior. She knew that in the end, he would not and could not go against his nature. She knew he would do the right thing – that he would “throw her a bone,” so to speak. And she was right. And I think that’s why he called her faith great.

I wonder if Jesus ever thought about this woman and her great faith again. I especially wonder if he thought about her on that dark Passover night, as he prepared to face his passion and death.

I wonder if he remembered her as he blessed the bread and broke it, and watched the crumbs from the broken pieces fall onto the table and roll to the floor.

I wonder if he remembered the look on her upturned face as she knelt before him and so wisely said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table,” as he looked at the blank and confused stares of his own disciples, who would soon abandon, deny, and betray him.

As Jesus has proven, though, deniers are welcome at his table. Abandoners and betrayers are welcome at his table. Canaanite women, and Roman centurions, hemorrhaging women, the blind, the mute, people possessed by demons or fear or hate or their busy schedules. Liars and cheaters and doubters and selfish people all have a place at the table.

And God is continually adding extenders to the family table, like family thanksgivings when everybody’s home and the normal size of the table would not be enough. And just when we think that the table is full and can’t possibly be extended any farther without completely collapsing, God keeps pushing.

Sometimes we are pushing outward WITH God, participating in the mission we share as baptized children of God, bearing God’s creative and redeeming word of love to ALL the world. Other times, we find ourselves pushing the other way, telling God that the table has gone far enough and surely THOSE people are not welcome at the table. But they are. Because you are.

Hanging above the dining room table at my grandma’s house is a poem copied out by my uncle when he was in school in fancy calligraphy letters. It’s hung there as long as I can remember, and to this day it’s still my grandma’s favorite poem.

It goes like this:

I dreamt death came the other night and Heaven’s gate swung wide.
An angel with a halo bright ushered me inside.
And there! To my astonishment stood folks I’d judged and labeled
As “quite unfit”, “of little worth”, and “spiritually disabled”.
Indignant words rose to my lips but never were set free,
For every face showed stunned surprise --Not one expected me!

The good news is, Jesus expects you. The good news is, Jesus really, really meant it when he gave his disciples his marching orders: “Go, therefore, and make disciples of ALL NATIONS, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”

And if you haven’t noticed, that’s exactly what we’ve done today. Hailey Page Green was welcomed with open arms into this community of faith, where nothing has barred her from being gathered into the body of Christ – not gender or nationality or status or anything else that threatens to divide us when we leave from this place every Sunday. From now on, no matter what, she will have a place and a people to belong to.

During his ministry on earth, Jesus began the work of breaking down the boundaries between who’s in and who’s out, between the haves and the have-nots, sometimes reluctantly and sometimes with gusto. In his death, Jesus is our Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. Not just the sins of a chosen few in a certain time and place, but for the whole world. And in his resurrection, we all are reborn as children of God and we are all gathered into the Lord’s household. We, as gentiles and foreigners in God’s original promises, are not left to be satisfied with the crumbs from the children’s table. We have been adopted as children in the waters of baptism, and given a place at the table.

Martin Luther once said: We are all beggars, telling other beggars where to find bread. Now that we have been given a place at the table, and been given the life-sustaining bread that is Jesus, how can the smallest crumbs NOT get all over everyone we meet? And how can we deny even the smallest crumbs to the people around us, even to those the world considers to be as good as dogs?

The world right now this world is begging for even just a tiny crumb of hope to hang on to. Together, as Christ’s body here on earth, let’s show them more than a crumb. Let us show them what a place at the table can look like. Amen.

Take Heart

Sermon 8-10-14

Grace to you and peace from God our father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ. Amen.
Where you able to put yourself with the disciples in the boat? Was the wind whipping in your face and the splashing of the water drenching you? Could you feel the crazy rocking of the boat, and the fear of the disciples as they saw this mysterious specter coming toward them across the water?

Really, I wonder who they thought was coming after them. They had just seen Jesus feed over five thousand people with just a little bread and a few fish. And earlier in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus had already showed himself to be master of storms by calming one back in chapter 8, after being awoken from a deep and relaxed sleep. Had we been in their place, it is natural to believe that we might have been quicker on the uptake, and responded something like this:  “Hey, look, its Jesus doing another one of his miracle things! Heeeeey Jesus! We’re over here!!!”

But despite our active imaginations, we were not in the boat with the disciples that particular night, battling an intense storm for hours and hours. We were not actually there, drenched in water and battered by the wind, literally being tormented by the crashing waves in a small fishing boat, probably wondering by now why in the world Jesus isn’t there to calm the storm, like last time. By the time Jesus DOES show up, it is nearly morning, and these poor guys were most likely in the brink of complete exhaustion from the physical and mental energy it was taking for them NOT to sink.

Few of us have experienced being in the middle of a storm like that. But most of us have a story or two about living through a big storm that came through these parts. It’s been almost two years since Hurricane Sandy. And for the most part, life around here has pretty much gone back to normal. True, for weeks after the storm things were pretty out of sorts – many of us had to wait for the electricity to be restored and for trees to be cleared. But now, almost two years out, the leaves have grown back, and Beau and I have pretty much reconstituted our condiment supply that was decimated from our own involuntary refrigerator cleaning.

But I don’t think I need to tell you that there are people who suffered far worse from that storm, and are suffering still, in different ways. Two years out, it just might be harder to see. It’s easy to spot the collapsed house, but harder to notice the abandoned lot where it once stood. A house may look fine with a fresh coat of paint and new windows, but the inside may be empty, with nothing yet replacing the damaged furniture, making it easy to see the dark stain of the flood line on the walls. For many, the effects of the storm are still fresh.

But there are others storms that have hit all of us in the meantime. Now, I’m not talking about the Nor’easters or Hurricanes Arthur and Bertha. The storms I’m talking about might not show to the world any external damage. But we can feel the devastation all the same. This kind of storms damage the heart:
The hurricane-force winds of shame and hopelessness that knock you down, all the while shouting in your ears – you are not enough.

Or the driving winds of your hectic schedule pushing you forward, threatening to knock you over if you don’t keep up.

Every day coming like another wave, pounding and pounding your fragile little boat, making you wonder if the next wave will be the one to cause you to sink?

And all the while, the constant rain of stress, or disappointments, or depression beating down on you, mingling with your own tears, blinding you from being able to see what’s ahead.

Wouldn’t it great if our little community in this little boat here would be a safe haven from all the terribly frightening storms raging in the world, and ragingin  our own hearts? Wouldn’t it be great if there was an invisible “Check your Storms at the Door” sign or a “No Storms Allowed” sign somewhere out in the parking lot? Maybe we should get the property committee to work on that one.

Yes, this place IS a safe haven, but NO, the storms are still very present here with us, even on this sunny summer morning. Being Jesus’s own disciples, following orders from Jesus’ own lips did not stop the storm for Peter and the rest that day. The winds still came and the wave still crashed, and the land and the dawn seemed so far away.

But the mighty winds and waves of the storm DID not and COULD not prevent Jesus from coming to their aid.

Let me say that again, in another way: our storms CANNOT and WILL NOT prevent Jesus from coming to our aid.

When the disciples were so frightened that they thought Jesus was a ghost, Jesus said, “take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”

When the raging storms of our lives are so frightening to us that we see specters instead of a helping hand, Jesus says, “Do not be afraid.”

When Peter’s rational brain caught up with the courage in his heart, and he began to sink, Jesus reached out his hand and caught him.

When we listen to the wind, and reason out how inadequate we are, how much we are failures and nobodies and unlovable, Jesus reaches out his hand and catches US.

SO…knowing this, feeling it in our minds and hearts and souls, are we, like Peter, ready to get out of the boat?

St. Paul Lutheran Church in Beachville NJ has a beautiful sanctuary that is shaped like a boat. The stained glass windows are patterned after the waters of creation, moving in blues and greens and even reds and yellows from chaos into the waters of baptism. But the waters are pictured down here, and the boat comes up like this, like you are underneath a capsized boat. Actually there are a lot of churches around the country, especially where I’m from, that have patterned their sanctuaries like upside-down boats, capsized from being willing to be sent out into a stormy and scary world.

So, what was I doing at St. Paul in Beachville? I was hanging out with sixty Lutheran youth, a small segment of three hundred Lutheran youth from the Nebraska Synod. They drove two straight days cross-country through the storm of New Jersey traffic to literally flood the shore with their time and presence: clearing logs at Cross Roads and canvassing entire shore neighborhoods in the hot July sun. Our own Amy Pennegna with Lutheran Social Ministries sent out a call for savvy New Jersey volunteers, and, for better or for worse, I was the one this particular group got.

These young people got out of their comfortable little Nebraska boats about as far as humanly possible. Jesus said, “Come,” and they responded.

The good news is that we don’t have to go nearly as far as they did to get out of our own boats. Sometimes it’s being brave enough to carve out a few minutes of silence to hear a word from our Lord when we, like Elijah, feel completely alone. Sometimes, it’s knowing the difference between our own storms and someone else who is trying to give us theirs. Sometimes even just getting out of the house to come to worship can feel as difficult as walking on water.

But one thing remains the same. Jesus is not going to let us sink, no matter what storms try to get in the way. AMEN.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Today we are cancelling the Apocalypse! Sermon from 7-20-14

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and from our Savior Jesus the Christ, amen.

The Bible is many things. It is a history book – telling us the story of how God has been faithful to God’s people in the past. It is a poetry and song book – teaching us how to pray and lift our praises to God. It is community bulletin board or blog – sharing the hopes, prayers, and concerns of a fledgling Christian community surrounded by a confusing and scary world. It is a story book – revealing to us who Jesus is and how he lived and died and rose again. The Bible is all of these things and much, much more. But one thing it is not: the Bible most definitely NOT a gardening or farming handbook.

Last week we heard about a sower who went out to sow, who just scattered his seeds around willy-nilly, not really caring where they landed. Now if you have had ANY experience with gardening whatsoever, you know that this is NOT a very efficient way to plant pretty much anything. Most of the time, you take the seed out of the package and carefully read the directions: plant seeds in full sun a half inch deep in loose soil, three to five inches apart. Thin plants when two inches tall. Water often, fertilize as necessary. Germination period sixty to seventy five days.

Here again the farmer in Jesus’ story needs to take some remedial farmer classes. What do you NORMALLY do when you see weeds growing in your garden plot? You get down on your hands and knees and pull those suckers out as soon as possible! Come one Jesus, everybody knows that! It’s just plain common sense.

But this story is not about common sense. It is not a guide to better gardening. And so it has an ending different from what we expect. The weeds are NOT pulled up at their sprouting. Their removal would actually cause more harm than good, so they are left to grow up with the good seed, the wheat. Together the wheat and the weeds are watered by the rain, are nourished by the soil, and shone upon by the sun. It is not until harvest time, many months later, that the weeds are separated out and bound into bundles to be consumed.

But in the meantime, we might imagine the good seed crying out to the master of the field – Lord, there are so many weeds! Look at them all! They are everywhere – right here next to us, sharing our sun and water and soil, their roots becoming intertwined with our roots, their leaves brushing up against ours. O Lord, why must we wait until the harvest day? Why can’t they be weeded out TODAY?

The weeds are with us in our newspapers and on the TV nightly news, filling up space and time with BAD news, of shootings in our neighborhoods and drugs on our streets, corruption within our halls of government and depravity done in the name of religious devotion. O Lord, why must we wait until the harvest day? Why can’t they be weeded out TODAY?

The weeds are with us in our own communities, cutting in line at the supermarket and on the turnpike, bullying our children on the playground and online, they are with us in our boardrooms and even in our
churches. O Lord, why must we wait until the harvest day? Why can’t they be weeded out TODAY?

The weeds are with us even in our own homes…the son who has been to rehab more times than anyone can count, who begs for just one more chance and just one more “loan” of a hundred dollars. The aunt at every family gathering who has nothing good to say to anyone, whose life and children are perfect and can’t understand why you are such a mess. The mother or father or sister or brother for whom nothing will ever be good enough, who will never show you their approval or love.

As the Psalmist writes in psalm 86, “O God, the insolent rise up against me; a band of ruffians seeks my life, and they do not set you before them…. Show me a sign of your favour, so that those who hate me may see it and be put to shame, because you, Lord, have helped me and comforted me.” O Lord, why must we wait until the harvest day? Why can’t they be weeded out TODAY?

But the weeds are also with us …in the mirror, within OUR VERY OWN HEARTS. The root causes of sin and evil and brokenness has been sewn in our own hearts too, and the seeds of the evil one has all too often found that the soil there is rich and ready. Their roots become deep and stuck fast, and their fruit is the fruit of death. The garden plots of our own hearts have been compromised, and so we cry out with the psalmist, “Give me an undivided heart to revere your name.”

Looking at Jesus’ story from this angle, perhaps our cries for the swift justice of the Lord are a bit premature. We may want to reconsider our eagerness to do our own weeding in the name of the Lord.  For such a harvest of justice in God’s kingdom would not leave any of us unscathed. So perhaps it is a blessing that our God seems rather slow, and is “merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.”

But God only seems slow because we are living in the middle of the story. It probably took Jesus less than ten minutes to tell this parable from beginning to end, but it has taken, and will take, many lifetimes to actually be completed. We are still in the growing time before the harvest. From our vantage point, we can only see the small little plot of land around us, and we see that there are a heck of a lot of weeds growing big and strong around us, and inside of us too. Which sometime makes it hard for us to figure out which is which. And maybe that also means we are not meant to.

God decided that it might be fun to show me what this might mean during this last week when I was away, to be with my family after the death of my grandfather, my mother’s father.  Every part of the funeral service for my grandpa was perfect to celebrate the life of this perfectly flawed but perfectly loved child of God. This was two Thursdays ago. That Sunday we attended my home congregation, but on Monday night we decided to go to the Monday night service back at Grandma’s church. My grandmother belongs to a church that has some different ideas that my own. This time, the vicar, or intern, was preaching, with the aid of his handy power-point outline and his three-point sermon.

As a preacher myself, it is normally a blessing to get to hear others preach, since it is not a blessing that all pastors have. But this particular vicar was making very challenging for me. He began and ended his message by taking a political and religious stance that I don’t happen to particularly agree with. And it would have felt so much better to judge him for it from my only particularly “self-righteous good seed" standpoint, if not for the middle of his message.” Wouldn't you know it, but somewhere in the middle of his sermon was a message about trusting in God in the midst of the hard stuff, a message encouraging us to let go of our fear because our hope is in God. Gosh darn it, it would have been so easy for me to have completely written him off, to have tuned the rest of the sermon out, to have put this young man directly and solidly in the “weed” camp, and felt the better for it.

Well, it’s a very good thing that none of us are in charge of who is in and who is out, who is wheat and who is a weed in the end.

The day of the harvest IS coming. The weeds will be separated from the wheat. The oppressed will be set free. All the wrongs will be righted. Sin and death will be no more. All that is evil in this world will come to an end, and the people of this world who truly are evil will get what is coming to them.

But that day is not today. But today IS the day that we do put our hope in the Lord in the middle of the story, in the midst of the hard stuff. Because that’s where God is too. And in the meantime we, along with the writer of the Eighty-Sixth psalm, ask God, “Teach me your way, O Lord, that I may walk in your truth; give me an undivided heart to revere your name. I give thanks to you, O Lord my God, with my whole heart, and I will glorify your name forever.” AMEN.