Tales of a Midwest Lutheran on the East Coast

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Healing, Worth, and Wholeness.

Sermon 5-29-16

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from our Lord and savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

After my dad came out of his successful heart surgery in April, the first stop in his healing process was the ICU. At first, before Dad was released to a regular room, we could only visit him for 15 minutes at a time, once an hour, so as not to tire him out. For the other 45 minutes my Mom and I hung out in the ICU waiting room, making and drinking the bland - but free - hospital coffee, getting our family caught up with how well Dad was doing, and waiting for the next opportunity to visit. My mom loves to talk to random people, and so during one of these breaks she struck up a conversation with another lady in the waiting room, whose brother had be operated on by the same surgeon as my Dad. 

This woman asked us if we had looked up Dad’s doctor on the internet yet. We hadn’t. But when we did, we learned that apparently Dad’s doctor is a world-renowned heart surgeon who splits her time between Wisconsin, California, and traveling around the world to perform children’s heart surgeries for free.

Whoa. Dad could not have been more fortunate. This amazing surgeon happened to be in town at the exact moment that Dad needed her, since just four days after Dad’s surgery, she was due to fly back to South America to do more heart surgeries on children in the amazon. If we would have had time to “do our homework,” we could not have chosen a better surgeon for the job. What had Dad done to deserve getting this amazing world-famous heart doctor as his surgeon? Nothing, really. He is not more or less worthy person than the next guy who needs heart surgery. My Dad was at the right place at the right time. Which, I like to think was definitely a God thing.

Sort of like in today’s Gospel reading. We’re wading back in the Gospel of Luke for the summer, and are going to hear story after story of Jesus healing the sick, eating with sinners, telling stories and teaching people about the kingdom of God – and all along the way encountering people who are at the right place at the right time to come face to face with the divine, to personally experience God showing up in their own lives.

For the centurion in Capernaum, Jesus was certainty at the right place at the right time. His worthy slave was sick and nearly dying, and I like to think that the centurion had done his homework about the physician in question. He heard something about Jesus, since Jesus had been to Capernaum before, healing and cast out demons on his previous trip. Perhaps the centurion was hoping for a repeat performance on behalf of his slave.

Which is a pretty strange request, if you think about it. After all, the centurion is pretty close to the top of the food chain in Jesus’s time. At the top were Roman citizens, military and political leaders - men with power. Toward the bottom were all the people that the Romans had conquered, such as the Jesus’s people. Slaves were at the very bottom of the pile, often seen as “living tools” of their masters. So here we have a centurion, a Roman citizen, a military leader who answered to very few, ask for healing on behalf of his slave. This from a guy who could easily have commanded or threatened Jesus. Instead, he asks the Jewish elders to intercede with on his behalf.

Presumably, the elders thought this centurion was a worthy candidate for Jesus because of he seemed like a “good guy” to the Jewish people. It might be the case of a little “You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours.” You built our synagogue, and so we’ll put in a good word for you with Jesus. It makes sense, since proximity to power is the next best thing to having power yourself.

But we know that that’s not how Jesus rolls. Jesus decides to make this house call because he judges the worth of people from an entirely different criteria than that of the rest of the world.

Unfortunately, not much has not changed in the world since the time of Jesus, has it? In the eyes of the world, our worth is still based on where we measure up in the social strata. We are being perpetually judged on some combination of birth – ethnicity, nationality, gender – mixed in with our capacities of money, power, influence, successful parenting, our house, job, extracurricular activities, college we went to, vacations we take, cars we drive, ways we do more and be more.

Because if we can do “all the things,” THEN we will be worthy of notice and therefore worthy of love. If only we can “do it all” and be “good enough, “THEN we will MATTER.  THEN we will matter to the world. THEN we will matter to ourselves. Only we never actually get to THEN. 

This is not how God operates. Jesus came to show us exactly how God judges our worth. Jesus came to knock down the ladder we can never climb, to short circuit the treadmill we can never catch up on, to smash the game board we can never beat. Jesus came to spread the radical notion that all people are worthy of God’s love.

And in the Gospels, we get to follow Jesus as he lives this out by preaching and healing – encountering all kinds of different people along the way. Some of them, like the disciples, stick around the whole time, while others pop in, play their rolls and then we never hear from again, like healed slave and humble centurion.

All kinds of people pop in and out of our lives too. Like the lady we met in the ICU waiting room. Her brother had been in the ICU for a month when we met her. And after Dad was released from the hospital, we never saw her again. We’ll never know if her brother pulled through or not. But God does. To God, she is important. She and her brother both matter.

I really like a quote from the show Doctor Who that goes, “In 900 years of time and space, I’ve never met anyone who wasn’t important” To put it another way, in the words of writer Frederick Buechner, “The grace of God means something like: Here is your life. You might never have been, but you are because the party wouldn't have been complete without you.”

I think both Doctor Who and Fredrick Buechner are right. You. You are important. God needs you for the party.

But there ARE people who are excluded from the party, people who are seen as worth less than other people, based on how our society treats them. We may not have slaves and centurions in this time and place, but we have questions of worth of our own to ask ourselves if we are paying attention.

Which kind of people have you seen that are treated as having worth more than others?

Who is worth more? 

Black lives or white lives? 

Men’s lives or women’s lives?  

Straight lives or the lives of people who are gay, lesbian, and transgender? 

First world lives or third world lives? 

CEOs or those who are homeless? 

Political leaders and refugees?

These questions make us all uncomfortable because we know that something isn’t right in the state of the world. And the centurion of all people, the enemy of the Jewish people, is the one in the story who “got it.” And that completely shocked Jesus, which is probably pretty hard to do. In the centurion’s example, we see faith, humility, and concern for others came from the last place that we would expect. We see that he, the “most worthy” in the eyes of the world, giving away his power and authority, so that the slave, the “least worthy,” could be healed and made whole. And that could been seen as a miracle in and of itself.

The centurion saw that treating others with the dignity and worth they deserve did not make his worth become less, like a zero sum game. He saw that our worth actually is not worth anything when other people are treated as having less worth.  Worth is not something I can hoard, or store up extra for myself. It can only be seen and shared. Worth doesn’t come from our own making. We can’t give it or take it away. We can do our best to deny it, but it is still there, given only by the grace of God.

The God’s party - feast of victory for our God - is not complete without you. And it’s also not complete without those people we are surprised to see are invited. That means, as Fredrick Buechner says, the party is not complete without others too. You are important. They are important.

We need one another, because together we are whole. Together we are Holy. Together we are one, as Paul writes later in his letter to the Galatians, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal. 3:28) We need all of God’s children for the party – black, white, rich, poor, straight, gay, and transgender, leaders, refugees, men and women.

Together we are complete. Together we are the children of God. Together we are worthy, because it is God, not the world, who has given us our worth. Amen for that.  

Monday, May 2, 2016

First Communion Sunday: Tables and Time Travel

Sermon 5-1-16
Grace to you and peace from God our father and from our risen Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ. Amen.

I don’t know about you, but my dining room table tends to get filled up really fast. I’m sure that I am the only one that this EVER happens to. The minute I actually have it cleared off enough to eat on, it seems like the very next minute it’s suddenly covered with mail, bills, papers I need to file, extra keys, receipts, a cat toy or two, maybe a remote I forgot I put down, a water glass ready to be spilled, an extra phone charger, a book I’m reading, and probably my cell phone buried under everything. And this is all from just ME. Much of the time, it looks like I do everything BUT eat at the table. I would not be ready at all to be hospitable if someone dropped in at a moment’s notice.

This is so different from the table that I remember eating at my Grandma’s house. While she was alive, her table was always ready to feed people, and had expandable leaves so that it could become more than twice its normal size, ready to host my dad’s very large farm family during holidays.

In fact, there is a lunch bell that still stands in the yard next to the house at my family’s farm, a bell that used to be rung when Grandma was ready to serve the farm help lunch. “All is now ready,” that ringing bell would be saying. “Come and be served. All who here are welcome to the table.”

Do you have a table in your memories that’s at all like that? A table that’s always ready to be filled with good, homemade food, especially after traveling from a long journey away? A table ready to welcome you home? One that is perhaps not so much cluttered with our everyday worries and busy-ness as are our own tables and hearts?

Today we hear a story of a woman who’s heart AND table were ready to welcome and be welcomed. And I image that this woman’s table would have been a big one, with plenty of table leaves for expansion, covered in fine, rich food for weary travelers like Paul and his companion Silas.

This woman’s name is Lydia, and I think she was a pretty awesome lady. Not because we share the same name – well, not JUST because of that. But because we don’t often hear about the discipleship of women, even in such a women-friendly writer such as Luke – who also wrote the book of Acts, where Lydia’s story is found. And she is all the more extraordinary because her story is here, recorded for all of us to read afterwards, when there are so many tables that she would NOT be received at, tables where she would be considered too much of an outsider to be welcome.

Lydia is a woman, a foreigner, a resident of a Roman-occupied town, a savvy successful business owner, is wealthy, and runs her own household. Frankly, I lost count of how many strikes against her that would be. Lydia lives in an age where women were the property of their fathers, brothers, husbands, or sons, who’s only job was to take care of the household chores and have children, preferably more sons.

But Lydia also breaks the gender conventions of her time. She is financially independent – even successful. She runs her own business trading a luxury item – purple dyed cloth – that only the rich could afford. She also might have once been a slave, since Lydia is the name of a geographic region, and slaves were often called by where they were from.

Lydia is an influential woman runs her own household. This would not just have been her immediate family, but likely also her extended family – aunts, uncles, cousins – and also likely many servants, slaves, and perhaps some of her employees. So when Lydia goes to the river to pray, and runs into Paul and hears him preach about Jesus, it is not just her life that is forever changed. Dozens of people are baptized because of her open ears, because of her open heart, and because of her open invitation to her table. And so, her home became the home base that launched the church in Philippi, which is the same community that Paul writes to in his letter to the Philippians. Not exactly a coincidence.

Lydia received the gift of the good news about Jesus from Paul: that Jesus died for her. That Lydia – woman, foreigner, outsider – is a beloved child of God. And so Lydia then also gives the preacher PAUL the gift of hospitality at her table.

We hear about another table in our reading from the Gospel of John, though a table is not directly mentioned. Though we are in the season of Easter, after the resurrection of Jesus, we have narratively time-traveled back to the night before Jesus’ crucifixion, as Jesus sits around a table and shares his last meal with his disciples, his friends: those who would – in just a few hours – abandon, deny, and betray him.

We are back at this point in time, because the disciples are grappling with the same question that we ourselves wonder about today. So where is Jesus NOW? Though Jesus is resurrected, he is no longer walking around. So what does it mean for them and for us, that Jesus still promises to be present? How can Jesus still be with us, when we can’t see or hear him like we see and hear one another? How can Jesus still be with us when he says he has gone to be with the Father?

One of the ways is through the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, who Jesus sends to teach and guide us. The Holy Spirit very often uses people we encounter in our lives, who are sometimes at the “right place at the right time,” like Lydia and Paul. But Jesus also promises to be present in our lives in other ways, ways that in our tradition we call sacraments.

Hang on with me for moment, and use your favorite time traveling machine –TARDIS, Time Turner, DeLorean, Scooby-doo time machine – and let’s go back for a moment to confirmation class. Sacraments, if you recall, are how God shows grace and is present to us in our everyday lives. Some flavors of the Christian church have a lot of sacraments, and some have none. We Lutherans believe there are two sacraments, both of which we hear about today – baptism (in the baptism of Lydia and her household) and Holy Communion, which some of our young people will be participating in for the very first time today!

Why only 2? In the Lutheran church, sacraments have two parts. The first is a word from Jesus, the second is an earthly physical sign. Because frankly, we are human, and God understands that we also need something concrete to help us wrap our minds around the mysteries of God’s presence.

For baptism, Jesus said, “Go and make disciples… and I will be with you,” (Mtt 28:19) and the sign is plain, ordinary water. For communion, Jesus said, “this is my body and blood, given FOR YOU… do this in remembrance of me,”(Luke 22:14-23) and the sign is ordinary bread, and the most common drink at the time of Jesus, wine. Stuff you could find at the local first-century “Wawa” equivalent.

I invite you to take a look in your bulletin inserts at the sheet from Luther’s Small Catechism, the page that says “the Sacrament of the Altar” at the top. There you can see the “Lutheran recipe” for sacraments for Holy Communion: bread and wine, and words that were instituted, or introduced by Jesus.

The sacraments are where the God’s presence intersect our lives. Baptism is the welcome into God’s family, into the life Christian community, as we heard with Lydia. Holy Communion is what sustains us on this sometimes difficult journey of life. It’s not just for some of us, for the “completely put-together” of us, for the “doing-well-in-life” of us, for those of us who have it all figured out. Because if that were the case, I would bet money that there would be NO ONE around the Lord’s Table.  

Our lives are disarray, and own tables are often so cluttered with things that distract us, with the busy-ness of life and hectic schedules. And too often we forget that we need to stop and be fed along this called life. And it’s so easy to miss where the Holy Spirit is at work, perhaps putting people in our lives for us to welcome and be welcomed by, like Paul and Lydia – people who might just change our lives forever.

And all too often we like to remove the extender leaves from out of the table, in order make the table smaller, so that we can control who is in and who is out, who is welcome and who is not, based on who we think is worthy to be loved and welcomed. But we DON’T have a say on who’s in and who’s out, who’s welcome and who’s not. We are simply invited to join the meal, to share it with Jesus and with one another.

But we are all invited to the table, right here, to feel the presence of Jesus in the bread that our kids used their own hands to bake themselves, and in the wine, to taste how the Lord is good:  in ordinary, everyday things served through ordinary, everyday people.

Our first communion students learned a song these last few months that goes, “To the banquet, come. It’s not just for some. But for all, big and small, you may come.” Jesus never checked people’s credentials in order to invite them to the table with him, and so neither do we

We don’t check anybody’s Lutheran card, green card, race card, sexual orientation or gender identity card at the door. We simply do what Jesus modeled for us and commanded us to: invite. Jesus welcomes. And so we welcome. We say, come to our Lord’s Table
Come, taste and see that the Lord is good.

The disciples were welcome.

Lydia was welcome.

I am welcome.

You are welcome.

All are welcome.

Welcome to the table. Welcome home. Amen.