Tales of a Midwest Lutheran on the East Coast

Monday, October 31, 2016

Jesus Loves Me. Open Wide

Sermon 10-30-16
Grace and peace to you from God our father and from our Lord and savior Jesus the Christ. Amen.

499 years ago on October 31st a little known theology professor named Martin Luther posted a list of his 95 thoughts on the state of the church. I heard it said somewhere that if Martin Luther had lived today, he would have posted “the 95 Tweets” instead. That church door in Wittenburg, Germany was the Facebook of his day, and the printing press was the internet, and thanks to both, Martin Luther’s posts were the first in history to go truly viral. And thus the Reformation was born.

500 years ago the actions of Martin Luther were inspired by these questions: Who is God? What is God like? And how is God at work in our lives? Questions we still wrestle with today - which is why, 499 years later, the Reformation still matters. When Luther nailed those 95 Theses on the church door on 1517, little did he know that he would blow the world wide open and re-form the course of his life into something completely different than he had ever expected.

Pine Lake at Sunset
Though we may very rarely encounter a day like October 31st, 1517, there are days in OUR lives when we are re-formed and set on a path we don’t expect. For example, little did I know that working at a Lutheran Bible Camp in central Wisconsin would change MY life forever, and set my path toward a call to ordained ministry. The very path that led me here today.

In the three summers I worked at that camp, I got to know some of the repeats. Amanda was one of these campers who came year after year. Amanda was born with fetal alcohol syndrome. She struggled with a traumatic childhood, developmental delays, and behavior challenges. She required the constant help and support of one the counselors. But she loved being at camp and singing camp songs. Her favorite camp song, which she sang constantly, was a rocked out version of that old favorite you all know “Jesus loves me.”
Me as a counselor at Pine Lake Camp

This one goes a little differently than the one you remember, though. To demonstrate, I’m going to need all of your help. This version is call and response, so I’ll to sing a line, and you’ll sing it back, ok? We’re going to skip the first verse – because we all know that one - and go right to the second verse. Ready?

Jesus loves me! …
He who died! …
Heaven’s gate to! …
Open wide!

Awesome job, you would all be fantastic campers! So imagine Amanda and her counselor belting out this song as they walked around camp. Only Amanda’s version was a little different. She sang it this way –

Jesus loves me! … 
Open Wide!

Jesus loves me? Open wide? Yes. Amanda is right. From the mouth of someone who the world considers broken and incomplete, comes a beautiful statement of truth that has stayed with me all these years later. Jesus loves me. Open wide.

For this Reformation Day, we’re skipping over Luke to take brief trip over to the Gospel of John. In this gospel, Jesus is continually opening wide the horizons of people’s notions about God. It is in John, Jesus says, I am the bread of life, I am the light of the world, I am the good shepherd, I am the resurrection and the life, I and my father are one…

In John Jesus confuses Nicodeums talk of being born anew and gives us John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only son…
In John, Jesus gives hope and living water to the woman at the well, and she opens her mouth to testify to this encounter.

In John Jesus opens the tomb of Lazarus and calls him out of the darkness of death.

In John, Jesus challenges people to open their eyes, minds, and hearts to the fact that the Word of God became flesh and was walking among them.

And here in this section of John, Jesus talks to a crowd, and some of them listening believe in him.  But, in true Jesus-fashion, he throws them this curve ball, and says “Continue - or abide - in my word, and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.

And the people wondered at what Jesus said, as they often did… they wondered in true “Lutheran fashion” - What does this mean? Or, as Martin Luther wrote often in the Small Catechism– Was ist Das? What is this?

Yes, Jesus’ people listening may have been under the occupation of Rome, and many empires before that.  But they had held out, they had survived with their traditions and ethnicity intact. They had kept themselves separate, they had kept the Law. They refused to completely submit. Therefore, because they still worshiped God as their ancestors did, weren’t they already free?

We as Americans can relate to their objections. Our country is based on the idea that we are free – free from unfair taxation without representation, free from having our religion dictated to us, free to speak out against oppression. “I am not in bondage to anyone. I can worship how I want, buy what I want, keep to myself, and am a pretty decent person. I don’t do any of the “biggies” like steal, cheat, lie, murder.”

Then, again, in true Jesus fashion, Jesus throws us a curveball. What about sin?

It’s not just about NOT doing bad things. It’s also about NOT doing GOOD things too. If you have downloaded Luther’s Small Catechism on your smart phone, you can look up the 8th commandment, for example, and see under Luther’s explanation, “Was ist Das?” What is this? - The 8th commandment isn’t just “bearing false witness” against our neighbor in say, a court of law. It’s also about “speaking well about them and interpreting everything they do in the best possible light.” As a wise man I know likes to ask, “How are we doing?”

I like to pretend that Paul is wrong. “All have sinned?” Not me, right? But, Paul writes in Romans 7 that “…I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.” We admit it every week in the confession that we are captured and trapped by sin and cannot free ourselves. We sin in what we think, say, and do. We sin in things we do AND things we neglect to do. We fail at the greatest commandment – loving God and our neighbors.
As Paul also wrote to the Christians in Rome, he reminds them and us that no one has “made it,” no one perfectly keeps these commandments, no one is free from sin, that all that have fallen short of the glory of God. Who, Paul askes, will save us from this body of death? Is this the state that God leaves us in? Is this the last word on who God is?

Paul, Martin Luther, and Amanda the camper refuse to think so.

Paul wrote– “Thanks be to God in Jesus Christ our Lord” in Romans 7 and in Romans 3 “They are now justified by his grace as a gift.”

Luther wrote – “Be a sinner, and sin boldly, but trust in Christ more boldly still, and rejoice in Christ who is the victor over sin, death, and the world.”

And Amanda the camper sang – “Jesus loves me, open wide!”

Jesus loves me, so much so that he opens his arms wide in his death on the cross, so that those who are lost and those who are bound by sin and death are forgiven and made free. These open arms welcome us into the household of God, to a place at the table where we belong, forever and ever, because Jesus the son of God has made it so.

Jesus loves me, so much so that he burst open the tomb of death that tried so hard to bind him and hold him down. Three days later he cracked death wide open, so that through Jesus’ resurrection we may be re-vived. 

Jesus loves me, so that we are no longer a slave to sin, but are free as God’s children. But this freedom is not given to us for its own sake. Luther wrote, that in Christ’s freedom we become “a dutiful servant of all.” Jesus gives us this freedom so that we will be open wide to the needs of our neighbors. We do not get to keep the grace that God has given us to ourselves. It is meant to be shared.

What does sharing this freedom and grace look like? It can look like holding the door open for a mom whose toddler is having a meltdown. It can look like having the courage to point out that a racist or sexist joke isn’t funny. It can look like risking feeling awkward in welcoming a new person. It looks like receiving the body and blood of Jesus, given and shed for you.

Like a parent who feeds their children good things by saying, “open wide!” we desperately need this reminder, at least weekly, even daily. Because we so often forget. We too often forget that – to adapt another passage from Romans, nothing can separate us from the love of Jesus – not illness, not unemployment, not addition, not divorce, not past mistakes or anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God that has shown to us in Jesus Christ.

Jesus loves you. Open wide. Open wide, re-member, and be re-formed. Thanks be to God. Amen. 

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

"Attitude Adjustment"

Sermon 10-9-16

Grace and peace to you from God our father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ, Amen.

When my siblings and I were kids and sassed off to my mom – which naturally I never participated in – she would tell us that we needed an “attitude adjustment.”

Kids have active imaginations, and so I would always picture that getting an “attitude adjustment” was similar to going to the chiropractor to get a back “adjustment” when your back is out of whack. Only, in this case, it would be my sassy attitude that needed a little adjusting.

In English, we use the word attitude a lot of different way – including but not limited to sassing off to one’s parents. An attitude can be an outlook, feeling, or position in regard to anything - person, thing, opinion, you name it. An attitude is a way that we see and interact with the world.  Sometimes our attitudes can help us perceive what’s in front of us more clearly, like wearing glasses. Sometimes, though, our attitudes are more like wearing the wrong prescription.

I bet my mom would have loved it if shaping up my attitude were as easy as going to the chiropractor or eye doctor. I can imagine she would have wished to adjust my attitude into something more parentally thankful, something more like, say, an “attitude of gratitude.”

I first heard about having an “attitude of gratitude” during my internship year in seminary serving a gigantic church in Minnesota. This church had money, resources, and connections to do amazing things like staging a drama series during Lent, creating their own bulletin art, and, in this case, commissioning a locally famous folk singer to write a brand new song based on that year’s stewardship theme of “Attitude of Gratitude.”

On the Stewardship kick-off Sunday, the folk singer unveiled the new theme song, which we sang it in all the services…. And then, it was never heard from again. It disappeared, at least for the rest of THAT year, as if it didn’t exist. All that production and effort…kind of…seemed wasted. Was an ‘attitude of gratitude’ truly instilled in that congregation? I honestly don’t know. As our own stewardship season quickly approaches, though, we can ask ourselves these same questions – though without the commissioned theme song. Would we describe ourselves as having an “attitude of gratitude’?  Do our attitudes perhaps need a little “adjusting”?   

One example of a pretty dramatic attitude adjustment is the story of Naaman, a famous war general, who also suffered from a painful and embarrassing skin disease. In the missing verses in today’s Old Testament reading, Naaman shows up on the doorstep of the King of Israel with a letter from his own king asking for healing, and accompanied by a giant parade: truckloads of gold, silver and fine clothes. After the initial mix up, Naaman parks his impressive motorcade, along with his warhorses and battle chariots, in the correct place -  in front of the Prophet Elisha’s humble little hut, who would be the one to do the actually healing.

How Naaman EXPECTED to be healed by Elisha included a dramatic appearance, loud shouting, and an impressive hand waving. Well, Naaman was very disappointed that what he got was a messenger and the command to bathe in a creek. He almost left without being cured, thanks to his pride, because he forgot that being healed was more important than HOW the healing happens. He needed a bit of an attitude adjustment, and a little prodding from his servant, to take hold of the healing that was offered him in this much less dramatic form.

None of this would have happened without the attitude of gratitude of the little slave girl from Israel, who sets this whole story in motion. Even though she was young, a girl, and a slave forced to serve her captors, her attitude of gratitude changed the lives of those around her.

Paul, while he was in chains, imprisoned in jail, wrote letters out of his own attitude of gratitude, and so we too are able to hear his encouraging words to people like Timothy. Paul had a dramatic “attitude adjustment” of his own– going from having once been one of the most ardent persecutors of Jesus’s followers to turning into one himself. Paul would not stop following Jesus, even though his attitude of gratitude eventually cost him his reputation, his freedom, and later his life.

An attitude of gratitude is also what set apart the 10th of the 10 lepers that Jesus healed on his way to Jerusalem. It’s also likely why this text is often used at Thanksgiving services, and the reason I chose to use it when it was my turn to preach at our community thanksgiving service a few years ago. The service that year was at St. Anthony Catholic Church in Hightstown, and I was certainly grateful to have the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity as an ordained woman pastor to be able to preach there. And I even mentioned Pope Frances!

That evening I also shared an experience I had after doing a memorial service for a woman who I had never met who had no church home. Weeks later I was sent a large gift basket of fancy Harry and David goodies with my address misspelled and from a sender I didn’t recognize. It turned out it was this woman’s family, this group of “church outsiders,” who were showing their thanks in the only way they could think of, by sending a gift basket to someone they had only met once, but in thanks for an experience that obviously had meant a great deal to them.

These ten lepers, cultural outsiders living in the border country, had never met Jesus before, but had probably heard of him. Since they were forced to be separated from their community because of their skin condition, their healing would mean they would all be restored to their friends and families and greater community of faith. All, except for one. The Samaritan. He would be an outsider no matter what condition his skin was in.  
And yet, Luke’s point is to show us that, though all ten were healed with no strings attached, there was something different about the Samaritan.  There was something about his attitude that set him apart. He had an attitude of Gratitude.

From his example, we learn that an attitude isn’t JUST a mental orientation we have toward something. An attitude can also be a physical position or posture of our body to express an action or emotion. The Samaritan used his body, which was just made whole, to praise God. He stopped in his tracks, turned back, and bowed down in an attitude of thanks before the one who healed him. He had seen what the others did not – that in Jesus, God had come near to him, had made him whole, and had welcomed him into a community where he would never be considered an outsider ever again.

That community is the kingdom of God, where we all find welcome, where we all are made whole. This community defies time and space, spans political parties and differences, resists racial and economic divides, and crosses the chasms that separate us from one another, chasms caused by fear and hate.

Jesus heals these lepers while he was on his way turn death on its head, to turn outsiders into insiders, to turn his arms being spread in posture of shame and death into a gesture of welcome and embrace, by opening his arms to all of us.  And so, having been rejected by his own, Jesus gave of himself, even his own life, so that the rejected could always find a home with him.

As Paul wrote, Jesus’s attitude on the cross reveals to us the truly generously nature of God - to be faithful to us, even when we are in need of an attitude adjustment. 
Later on his journey to the cross, on his last night with his disciples who would later prove less than faithful, Jesus broke bread with them in his own version of a thanksgiving feast. Only this feast does not include turkey and cranberry sauce. Instead Jesus gave himself– his body, his blood, and the promise of his presence.  This kind of thanksgiving is one we celebrate not just once a year, but every week.

Every week, like the Samaritan leper, we live out our “attitude of gratitude” in what we do with our bodies, giving thanks to God by standing shoulder to shoulder with friends, neighbors, family, acquaintances, strangers, outsiders, all the people of God… Together with arms reaching, hands raised ready to receive what we have been promised, the greatest gift of all – the gift that never disappoints - the sustaining presence of Jesus.

And so what if this was the “attitude of gratitude” that we took out into the world with us, arms raised NOT to receive but instead to give? And to give what? And what have we to offer the world? We go out bearing to the world the very presence of Jesus, the one who makes us whole and goes with us on our way. Thanks be to God! Amen.