Category Archives: Sermon

“Who Is My Neighbor?” – Sermon on Luke 10:25-37: The Good Samaritan

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Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.” But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”

Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’ Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.” – Luke 10:25-37

The last week of June, 43 children ages 3 through 12 from Ebenezer, Unity, and Immanuel Lutheran Churches – as well as several children from the neighborhood – gathered with many of our youth and adults for Vacation Bible School. The curriculum was developed by ELCA World Hunger, and the theme for the week was: Who is My Neighbor?

Throughout the week, we sang songs in different languages and we prayed together. We learned the parable of the Good Samaritan and we heard a few other parables about how God calls us to care for others. We made crafts and we definitely had a lot of fun getting each other wet with water balloons.

Each day, we heard stories about many of our neighbors here in Chicago and in several countries across the world who are experiencing homelessness or hunger for a variety of reasons. We learned how ELCA World Hunger is currently partnering with some of our global neighbors to work to end hunger, we ate snacks that are often eaten in these countries, and we talked about some ways we can personally share God’s love with our local neighbors.

And then the children put all of this into practice. Three of the four days, they participated in service-learning projects to learn about and offer their love and support to some of our neighbors in need.   And every day, this group of children – who were a wide range of ages, who have different abilities and needs, who attend multiple churches and schools, and whose families come from different countries of origin: welcomed one another, built community together, and offered care for each other.

Who is My Neighbor?

*****

We hear this question in our Gospel this morning.

Jesus is traveling toward Jerusalem when – on his way – he is approached by a lawyer. This lawyer – who probably did not like all the messages he was hearing from Jesus – tries to test him. “Teacher,” the lawyer says. “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”

“Well,” Jesus says, “You’re the lawyer. What is written in the law? “

The lawyer – who knows his stuff – answers from Leviticus and Deuteronomy: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.”

“You have given the right answer,” Jesus says. “Do this, and you will have life.”

But – wanting to justify himself, the lawyer pushes a little farther: “And who exactly is my neighbor?” he asks.

It’s easy for us to point our fingers at the lawyer and look down on him for being the testy and exclusive character in the story. And yet, if we are honest with ourselves, I think we can often get testy with Jesus, asking him this very same question, as well. Who exactly is my neighbor? Who do I really need to love and care for?

Because behind this question is another stronger question: “Who isn’t my neighbor?” Who are the people I can ignore when I see their suffering? Who are the people I can exclude? Who are the ones who don’t belong in our community, but rather belong behind walls… Who are the ones we can justify deporting, separating from their families, or putting into cages? There certainly has to be some kind of boundary somewhere. So where can we draw the line?”

Jesus – of course – answers the lawyer’s question by telling a story – what we know to be the parable of the Good Samaritan.

Many of us have probably heard this story numerous times. It is one of the most well-known stories of the bible. And for most of us – it can seem like a pretty reasonable story. There is a man who is attacked by robbers while traveling on the road toward Jericho. He is beaten and left on the side of the road half-dead. Two men walk by and ignore him. But the third one stops and helps him. Jesus tells us to be like that third man. End of story. Go and do likewise.

But for Jesus’ audience, this was quite a shocking story – which, of course, was Jesus’ intention. He had a way of shocking folks through his parables that constantly flipped their social order upside down.

You see, it would have been one thing for Jesus to tell a story where the priest, the Levite, or even a devout man of the Jewish faith was the helper and hero. The Jewish faith was full of commands to help the wounded and save those who were dying. Of all people, the religious leaders would have been expected to do something to help a dying man on the side of the road, especially one who is a fellow Jewish man.

So for Jesus’ audience, it would have been a bit unsettling to hear these two just walked on by.

Although, it would have also been understandable.

You see, Jesus’ audience also knew quite well what the road from Jerusalem to Jericho was like. It was an incredibly dangerous road, full of windy turns that made it easy for robbers to hide from a traveler’s view. And it was actually known as the “Way of Blood” because of the amount of blood shed by robbers. It would have been incredibly risky for anyone – Levite, priest, or layperson alike – to stop and help a person on the side of the road. The robbers could be hiding somewhere on the windy path, waiting for another person to attack. And who knows the reasons this person was lying on the side of the road in the first place. This guy could be faking it, and setting someone up for an ambush. Most people would be terrified in this situation. So it could be understandable for anyone to want to immediately run to the other side of the road and move as quickly as they could to get to their final destination.

And in addition to all of this, whoever chose to help this dying man would have to stop whatever they were doing and use their own resources – if they had any – and go out of their way to get this person to a safe place where they could get the care they needed. And this would NOT have been easy. It’s not like they could quickly run down to Clark St. to get to the closest ATM or use their cell phone to call an ambulance or an uber.

So you see, it would have been quite a lot to ask – for a devout man of the faith or even a religious leader to help another Jewish man in this circumstance.

However, at this point in Jesus’ ministry it would not have been too surprising to hear him call on the faithful to take these kinds of risks anyway in order to help out their dying brother in the faith.

But this is not how the story goes. We all know that Jesus is too radical for telling a parable that ends this simply.

Now, let’s just pretend that Jesus told a story about a Samaritan man who was beaten up and left on the side of the road, and it was a devout person of the Jewish faith who helped him out… This would have definitely been more surprising because while Samaritans and Jews shared historical roots, they split centuries before over political, religious, and ethnic differences. And this centuries-old hostility toward one another was deeply engrained. They despised each other. They considered each other enemies.

And so it would have been quite a big deal for a devout Jewish man to help his enemy, who was considered ceremonially unclean, religiously heretical, ethnically inferior, and a social outcast!

But it would still not be completely over-the-top. This version of the story would just make the religious leader or the devout person of faith a very compassionate hero. But he would still get to remain the superior one, who only now has just saved someone who is his inferior: the less-human Samaritan. And this hero – and everyone who follows his example and goes and does likewise – can still continue to pat themselves on their backs for their good works and hold onto what is often referred to as savior-complexes.

But Jesus does not even tell this version of the story.

Because Jesus – our only savior – has no room for savior-complexes.

And so instead of making the Levite, or the priest, or another devout person of the faith the hero, Jesus makes the most shocking person of all – the hero: the Samaritan man.

And this Samaritan man does not only stop to help the dying Jewish man on the side of the road. He sees him and all of his humanity. He notices his wounds – which in Greek is the word traumata, or trauma. And so he recognizes that this man not only has physical wounds, but he has also been traumatized.

And in seeing all of this, the Samaritan man has deep compassion for the Jewish man on the side of the road. So he takes a dangerous risk, walks over to this man, and gives him first aid treatment.

 But he does not stop there. He puts the injured man on his animal, and travels however long it takes to get to the closest inn. And then the Samaritan man stays with him at the inn for the entire night so he does not have to be alone after such a traumatic event. And the Samaritan makes sure this man is not only physically ok, but he also makes sure that he is emotionally and psychologically ok. And then the next morning he pays the innkeeper whatever is needed to ensure this man is cared for.

*****

So who is my neighbor?

Or, as the lawyer in our Gospel this morning was really asking:

Who isn’t my neighbor?

Well, Jesus’ answer is plain and simple. EVERYONE is our neighbor. Even that person we consider to be our enemy. And especially those whom our society deems as less-than.

You see according to Jesus, we can draw no lines. There are no borders in the kingdom of God. The doors to this kingdom are wide open FOR ALL – no matter if one has documentation or not.

In this kingdom, Jesus calls us to clothe the naked, feed the hungry, welcome the stranger, and tear down all walls that divide.

For, to love God is to love our neighbor, as we love ourselves. And thus, we can no longer justify any actions that are contrary to God’s love.

And by making the Samaritan the hero in his story, Jesus flips the social order upside down.

You see, to call someone our neighbor is to place them on equal footing. To see their full humanity. In Jesus’ perspective: to be neighbors is to look at one another and make the statement that neither of us is better than the other and that we both deserve to be treated as human beings… It is to recognize that each of us is a beloved child of God, created in God’s image, beautifully and wonderfully just the way we are.

*****

On the last day of Vacation Bible School, I asked a few of the kids to share with their parents and guardians what they learned throughout the week. Some explained that God loves all of us and wants each of us to love and care for our neighbors. Others talked about how God wants us to see how our neighbors are already sharing God’s love with us and with others. One child explained that our neighbors are not just people we know and live next to. Our neighbors are people who even live across the world. Another child explained that our neighbors are people who may speak, look, dress, worship, and act differently than we do, and that is something that makes our neighborhoods and our world beautiful.

One of the things we talked about during the week was that we build up our neighborhood together by loving our neighbors. And throughout the week – in addition to welcoming and loving one another – the kids literally built a neighborhood out of cardboard. On the last day, we brought the final product up to the sanctuary and the children presented it to the adult volunteers and their parents and guardians. And if you looked closely at this large cardboard neighborhood, you could see tall skyscrapers and apartment buildings, the Thorndale redline, a fountain, a haunted house, trees, homes, shelters, animals and people.

But there was one element in the neighborhood that I will never forget that was created by a 6 year old boy. It was a man who is falling off a bridge and another person who is below him ready to help him in his time of need. When asked to explain why he included this, the boy said that he wanted to create a helper, just like the Good Samaritan. Because this is what we are all supposed to do. We are supposed to be the helpers.

Just this morning, when I opened my email, I saw that I had received a message from this boy’s mom. Included in it was a picture of him with a big smile on his face as he held a large sign over his head that read: “Luke 10:25-37: We should be the helpers.” He was holding this sign as he marched downtown with 10,000 other Chicagoans yesterday to call for an end to the criminalization, detention, and deportation of our immigrant neighbors.

“Who is My neighbor?” Maybe the better question to ask is: Who is being my neighbor?

I think the children and youth in our neighborhood have set a good example for us. So may we go, and do likewise.

Raising Tabitha: an Easter Story of Grief, Moving Forward, and Breathing Life into Death – Sermon on Acts 9:36-43

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“Now in Joppa there was a disciple whose name was Tabitha, which in Greek is Dorcas. She was devoted to good works and acts of charity. At that time she became ill and died. When they had washed her, they laid her in a room upstairs. Since Lydda was near Joppa, the disciples, who heard that Peter was there, sent two men to him with the request, “Please come to us without delay.” So Peter got up and went with them; and when he arrived, they took him to the room upstairs. All the widows stood beside him, weeping and showing tunics and other clothing that Dorcas had made while she was with them. Peter put all of them outside, and then he knelt down and prayed. He turned to the body and said, “Tabitha, get up.” Then she opened her eyes, and seeing Peter, she sat up. He gave her his hand and helped her up. Then calling the saints and widows, he showed her to be alive. This became known throughout Joppa, and many believed in the Lord. Meanwhile he stayed in Joppa for some time with a certain Simon, a tanner.” – Acts 9:36-43

*****

This past week, my facebook, instagram, and twitter feeds have been filled with posts and articles lamenting the sudden death of Rachel Held Evans, a progressive 37 year old Christian author and blogger. And it’s no wonder: Rachel has made an incredible impact on millions of people, particularly many who are vulnerable and who have been disheartened, hurt, or rejected by the church.

As two other Christian authors and speakers – Sarah Bessey and Jeff Chu – wrote in the Washington Post: “Rachel was ‘for’ an all-embracing vision of Christ’s church and the relentless inclusion of refugees and those suffering poverty, of LGBTQ people, of women and especially women of color, of the unseen and unheard and swept aside… She used her writing to build the bridges so many of us needed to get back to God’s love, to one another, and to the church.”

As I was watching this large community grieve on social media this past week, I was reminded of Tabitha in this morning’s passage in Acts and how she – too – must have made such an impact on her community.

You see, Tabitha had a special ministry for a group of widows, who were in dire need of a provider, a place to belong, and somewhere to have a voice. Because a woman at this time had no inheritance rights and was defined by the social status of first her father, and then her husband, when she lost her husband or her connection with her father or brothers, she also lost her identity, her possessions, her property, and her place of belonging. Widows were considered outcasts in society and were often taken advantage of and were exposed to abuse and oppression.

Because of this, widows usually had to rely on public charity to provide for them in order to survive. And, yet, they did not always find such a provider of charity in the early church. Just a few chapters before our passage for today in Acts we see that the Greek-speaking widows were being neglected of the daily distribution of food. This was such an issue in the early church that it led to the twelve apostles appointing a committee to make sure all the widows were cared for.

In our text for today, we see that Tabitha – the only woman in the entire Bible who was called a disciple – was a sort of provider for her community of widows. We don’t know where she got the financial means to support them. We just know that somehow she acquired some wealth. And she used it – along with her artistic and creative abilities – to help those who were in need the most.

Acts tells us that she was devoted to good works and charity, and she made tunics and other articles of clothing by hand and had given them to the widows. These articles of clothing would have been very valuable in the first century, and it would have taken an incredible amount of time for Tabitha to make each item. And yet, she sacrificed her time and money to make these pieces of clothing. She saw the needs of these widows. And – like Rachel Held Evans – out of love and compassion, Tabitha used her privilege and her gifts to help those who were most vulnerable.

Tabitha was loved and cherished by her community of widows. So it is no wonder that they mourned so much when she died. It is no wonder that they called out of desperation for Peter when they heard he was near Joppa.  For he was the one – who by the power of the Holy Spirit – had been performing great miracles in the name of Jesus.

It is no wonder that when he arrived, they wept and passed around their tunics and articles of clothing that were made by Tabitha, reminding themselves and one another of the memories they shared with her and of the many pieces of clothing she had woven out of love and compassion for them. These women had lost their dear friend and the one who had clothed them with the love of Jesus, invested in them, empowered them to speak their voice, and find belonging where they had not found it elsewhere.

“There is a sacredness in tears,” an author once wrote. “They are not the mark of weakness, but of power. They speak more eloquently than ten thousand tongues. They are the messengers of overwhelming grief, of deep contrition, and of unspeakable love.”

And so when Peter enters this upper room and sees the amount of tears these widows were shedding and the loss they were experiencing, he falls to his knees.

This reminds me of a scene in the movie Life Itself. Rodrigo, a college student who is studying in New York, goes home to Spain during a college break. While he is in Spain, his mother finds out she is terminally ill, and so Rodrigo tells his mother he wants to stay home with her. But as he stands next to her bedside, she convinces him to go back to school and to continue to live his life. “Life brings you to your knees,” she tells him in her final goodbye to him. “It brings you lower than you think you can go. But if you stand back up and move forward, if you go just a little further, you will always find love.”

Sometimes life brings us to our knees. And when it does, we might just need to kneel in that place of grief and hold it for a while.

But eventually – when we are ready – we will need to stand back up and move forward.

Now, moving forward should not be confused with moving on. Nora McInerny explains this in her Ted Talk about grief.

As she discusses how she has remarried since losing her husband Aaron to cancer, she says: “By any measure, life is really good. But I have not moved on. I hate that phrase so much… because what it says is that Aaron’s life and death and love are just moments that I can leave behind me – and that I probably should. When I talk about Aaron, I slip so easily into the present tense, and I’ve noticed that everybody [who has lost a loved one] does it.

And it’s not because we are in denial or because we’re forgetful,” she continues. “It’s because the people we love, who we’ve lost, are still so present for us. So when I say: oh, Aaron is… it’s because Aaron still is. He is present for me in the work that I do, in the child that we had together, in these three other children I’m raising who never met him, who share none of his DNA, but who are only in my life because I had Aaron, and because I lost Aaron. He’s present in my marriage to Matthew because Aaron’s life and love and death made me the person that Matthew wanted to marry. So I’ve not moved on from Aaron. I’ve moved forward with him.”

Sometimes life brings us to our knees. But if we stand back up and move forward, if we go just a little further, we will find love.

Peter sure does in our passage in Acts.

Seeing how the livelihoods of this community of widows were completely dependent upon Tabatha’s care, Peter makes sure that her spirit and ministry live on. And so – there in that upper room – Peter breaths new life into death. He stands up, moves forward, and does not only find love, but he passes it on.

There is so much death in our world around us. Illness. Shootings. The deadly affects of climate change. Poverty, racism, all kinds of hate.

There is so much death, that we are often brought to our knees.

But when we are, we can find hope as we remember, Tabitha, who breathed new life into the death rooms of her community of widows. And who’s love will carry on because Peter breathed new life into her death room.

We can find inspiration as we remember Rachel Held Evans, who breathed new life into the death rooms of millions of disheartened and hurting Christians. And who’s love will carry on as the people she has impacted will continue to breath new life into the places of death around them.

We can find healing as we remember our own loved ones, who breathed new life into our lives when we felt dead. And who’s love will continue to live on in and through us.

So, let us choose to stand up, move forward, and join those who have gone before us in breathing new life into the places of death around us.

This is what it means to for us to live as resurrection people. This is how we proclaim that Christ is risen, indeed.

Easter reveals to us that death is not the end of the story. Death does not have the final say. In his resurrection, Jesus has conquered death and breaths forth new life.

So may we rise up and join him in this life-giving work.

Amen.

“White Supremacy, Systemic Racism, and Where We Fit within these Systems: It’s Confession Time” – Sermon on Luke 13:31-35

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“At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to him, “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.” He said to them, “Go and tell that fox for me, ‘Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work. Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.’ Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! See, your house is left to you. And I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you say, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.’” – Luke 13:31-35

“Jerusalem, Jerusalem,” we hear Jesus crying out this morning. “How often have I desired to gather your children – all your children – together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings. But you were not willing!”

You see, as a mother hen longs to gather together all her chicks so that they are equally taken care of, Jesus longs to gather all of God’s children so that we are equally taken care of, as well.

And yet, just as Jesus lived in a world full of inequalities, oppression, and persecution, here we are, in a world where 49 of God’s beloved children are murdered in their place of worship by an anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant white nationalist. And here we are, in a country that was built upon genocide and slavery due to white supremacy and where systemic racism continues to bleed throughout our society.

As I hear Jesus crying out in our Gospel this morning, I can’t help but wonder which cities and countries he is lamenting over today.

So let us join him in a time of lament as we take a moment of silence to lift up our Muslim siblings around the world as well as all our siblings who suffer at the hands of white supremacy.

*****

Many of you may be aware that during Lent, we – as a congregation – are taking this time to learn more about systemic racism that continues to prevail throughout our country and our world – and particularly to examine our own place and roles in these racist systems in order for us to work toward dismantling them. During this season of the church calendar, we are reading and discussing the book: “Waking Up White: Finding Myself in the Story of Race.”

Now, this past Thursday morning at our very first book discussion, our Vicar, Noah, had us reread the Invitation To Lent, which is read every year as we enter the season of Lent during our Ash Wednesday service. And this was a perfect reading to begin our Lenten journey of exploring the sin of systemic racism and how and where we fit into these racialized systems.

You see, the Invitation to Lent reminds us that since our “sinful rebellion separates us from God, our neighbors, and creation,” we must “acknowledge our need for repentance and for God’s mercy.” The invitation calls us: “as disciples of Jesus… to a discipline that contends against evil and resists whatever leads us away from love of God and neighbor.” And it invites us “therefore, to the discipline of Lent – self examination and repentance, prayer and fasting, sacrificial giving and works of love” as we “continue our journey through these forty days toward the great Three Days of Jesus’ death and resurrection.”

When we read this invitation during our Thursday morning book discussion, someone pointed out how scary and difficult this all sounds.

And he is not wrong. None of this is easy!

To name and call out systems of injustice that oppress some in order to uplift others is difficult. Because those who stand at the front of the line in these systems rarely like to give up their position in the line and the power that comes with it, even if it means allowing those who have been at the back of the line to move forward. And the same goes for those who stand in the middle of the line, as well.

You see, it is not easy to let go of our positions of power, our comfort, and our sense of safety and security, even if it means that others are being marginalized and harmed because of it. In fact, most of us do not even realize where we stand in the line, how we even got to that place, or how people who stand behind us are suffering because we stand in front of them. Because when you stand in a line, all you have to do is look forward. And the closer you are to the front of the line, the fewer the people you actually see.

And when we do eventually start to look backwards, it is not always easy to acknowledge what we do see when we are closer to the front of the line. It is not easy to come to terms with where we stand, how we benefit from being in that placement, or how that placement perpetuates harm, such as systemic racism and all the inequalities that come with it. And it is not easy to realize how holding onto our position in the line keeps those behind us in their place.

Acknowledging and challenging systemic racism and injustice is far from easy.

And we see this in our Gospel text this morning.

You see, throughout his ministry, Jesus has been proclaiming a Kingdom of God that is quite contrary to the exclusive Roman Empire of his day. This Kingdom of God includes not just those who hold power in society, but it also includes those who lack it the most.

And right before our passage, Jesus says that in this Kingdom of God, people will come from north and south, east and west and will all eat together at the very same table. And he even goes as far as saying that in this kingdom, those who have been last will be first and that those who have been first will be last.

This upside down Kingdom of God is radically different from the way the systems of Jesus’ day worked. And it threatens those who are in power, particularly King Herod. And so at that very hour, some Pharisees come to Jesus and warn him to leave, “for Herod wants to kill you,” they say to him.

No, this holy kingdom work is not easy.

But no matter how dangerous the situation is for him, Jesus is not going to stop proclaiming this Kingdom of God that flips the systems of injustice upside down and that calls those in power to move to the back of the line so that those in the back can move to the front and be fully included.

“Go,” Jesus says to the Pharisees, “And tell that fox, King Herod, that I have some holy kingdom work to do, and I will finish my work on the third day: on God’s time.”

And you see, the hardest thing about this is: we are commanded to follow Jesus in this holy work of dismantling systemic racism, no matter how dangerous or difficult it might be. Because systemic racism is a sin and it is evil. And it holds us back from loving God and loving others.

And as the Invitation to Lent reminds us: “as disciples of Jesus, (we are called) to a discipline that contends against evil and resists whatever leads us away from love of God and neighbor.”

Now how we go about doing this antiracism work is going to depend on where we stand in line.

And while there are systems that keep me from being in the very front of the line – such as my gender, my sexual orientation as someone who is bisexual, my economic class (since I don’t fit into the very top in this country), or anything else that may have held me back: as a person who is white, the color of my skin (as well as other privileges I have), still place me somewhere toward the front of the line.

*****

A few years ago, when I was in the midst of beginning this life-long journey of becoming anti-racist, I read a blog post by the Rev. Denise Anderson, a black pastor in the Presbyterian-USA denomination, who – at the time – was one of the co-moderators of the denomination. This post challenged and encouraged me to take a big difficult step in this antiracism work. Rev. Anderson wrote: “For those of you who ask ‘how many times [police shootings of unarmed black and brown individuals] must happen? I’ll tell you precisely when it will stop.

It will stop when people en masse are aware of the ways in which whiteness and white supremacy have shaped the way people of color are viewed, engaged, and treated in this world (even by other people of color).” To come to this realization, however, white people will then have to be self-aware and convicted of the ways in which they have benefitted from and promulgated the lie of whiteness…” She goes on: “White people, you have heard it said that you must talk to other white people about racism, and you must. But don’t talk to them about their racism. Talk to them about YOUR racism.

Talk to them about how you were socialized to view, talk to, and engage with people of color. Talk to them about the ways you’ve acted on that socialization. Talk to them about the lies you bought into. Talk about the struggles you continue to have in shedding the scales from your eyes. Don’t make it “their” problem. Understand it as your own problem, because it is… It’s confession time.”

After reading this, I sat down and made a very difficult and yet really important confession that I posted on Revgalblogpals, a blog I sometimes write for. And since antiracism work is a life-long journey, where I need to continuously confess and repent, I am making this difficult confession to you today:

I am racist.

I wish so much that I wasn’t. I try so hard not to be. But I am.

I think this is such a difficult confession to make because we often think people who are racist are “bad” and are intentionally hateful. Yes, there are many people who say and do overtly racist and hateful things. But the truth is, most people who are racist are good and well-meaning people, who don’t want to be racist, try their hardest not to be, and don’t even realize they are.

You see, I don’t belong to extremist groups like the KKK, call people racist names, or say things that are overtly racist. I even shut down jokes and call out comments that I recognize are racist. And yet, I am still racist.

I grew up in a diverse town and went to diverse schools. I currently live and work in Edgewater, which is an incredibly diverse community, and I have friends, neighbors, mentors and even a family member who are persons of color. And yet, I am still racist.

I follow people of color on facebook and twitter, read books and articles about racism and white privilege, attend anti-racism workshops, and participate in marches and rallies that address systemic racism.

But despite all of this: I am still racist.

Why?

Because my entire life I have been socialized to be. I have been conditioned to see the world through my eyes (the eyes that belong to a white body, which is the kind of body our society has supported, deemed the “norm,” and uplifted as superior for over 400 years.)

My school textbooks have been written from a white perspective. My television shows, movies, and books have been dominated by characters who look like me. The media I follow often perpetuates harmful racialized stereotypes and biases – no matter how progressive it might be.

Despite that my family taught me that all people were created in God’s image and deserve to be treated equally, I am still racist.  When I first see a person of color, I still sometimes fail to see her as an individual and instead see her as a stereotype. When I hear people of color share their stories of being racially profiled or denied upward mobility in their workplaces, I still sometimes question if their experiences are valid.

There are still times I say, think, or do things that I don’t even realize are racist and that perpetuate systemic racism. There are still times when I worry too much about ticking off my white friends or accidentally saying something that is offensive to my friends of color that I don’t speak up when I should. There are still times when I am in the virtual or physical spaces of my siblings of color and I end up wanting to center myself. And when people call me out on any of this, there are still times I feel defensive and focus more on my own discomfort than on the fact that black and brown lives matter more than my feelings.

You see, I am a white person who was raised in a country that was founded on white supremacy (the belief that white people are inherently superior to people who are not) and that throughout its history has continued to reinforce this white supremacy through social and political forces (the mass genocide of indigenous people living on this land, slavery, the Indian Removal Act, Jim Crow, redlining and blockbusting, the Urban Renewal Program, mass incarceration, school-to-prison pipeline, racial profiling, racialized policing – to name just a few)… As white person who has inherited all of this history and thus has been immersed in the culture that comes with it, it is extremely difficult to shed myself fully from my own racist views, biases, thoughts, and ways I believe the world should function… No matter how hard I try.

I am stuck in this 400 year old deeply engrained racialized system that not even the activists of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s could completely free us from.

And I benefit from this system. My whiteness is a privilege in it.

For example, as a white person, people look at me as an individual, not a stereotype. I will never be denied a loan, housing, or job interview because of my skin color. A store clerk will never follow me closely to ensure I don’t steal anything, and I will never be taken advantage of by a car salesperson because of my whiteness.

I have always had access to quality education and upward mobility. My white body is not seen as a threat. People will never look at me and think I could be a terrorist because of the color of my skin. People will not call the cops if they see me taking a walk in their neighborhood past sundown or quickly move to the other side of the road when they see me walking on the sidewalk where they are walking. I will not be pulled over in my car for no reason or on my bike because I look “suspicious.”

And if I do get pulled over, I will never have to worry that if I reach for my ID in my pocket, make a quick move, or even mouth back, I could get shot.

Among many things, racism denies the humanity in God’s beloved children and fails to see that God created all God’s children good, in God’s image, and beautifully and wonderfully just the way they are.

Racism is a painful and deadly sin.

And I am racist.

I live in a racialized society dominated by racist systems that were founded by white supremacy. And I benefit from and contribute to these systems.

*****

Now, this may sound incredibly hopeless. But it is not.

Because as Christians, we believe that when Jesus Christ died on the cross, he freed the world from its bondage to sin. Does this mean we are no longer sinners? Of course not. Because we are human.

But this does mean that we no longer have to be bound to sin. When we confess our sins in the presence of God and one another, our sin loses its power over us. Confession leads us toward repentance, where – by the grace of God – our hearts, minds, and thoughts begin to be transformed and we start to turn away from our sins.

 And whenever we turn away from something, we also turn toward something in the opposite direction. In this case, for those of us who are white: when we turn away from our sins of racism and white privilege, we turn toward a life of being anti-racists. But we cannot just turn away from our sin, turn toward a new way of life, and then pat ourselves on the back and go on our merry way. We must continuously and actively move toward this new way of life.

Since the sins of racism and white privilege are so deeply engrained in us and in the racialized systems we participate in and are conditioned by, we must actively check our privilege and racism, confess it, repent of it, and be moved to take action. We must do this over and over and over again.

While I am still racist, I choose to not let racism and white privilege dominate who I am.

 I choose to be actively anti-racist. I choose to learn about and become more aware of my white privilege and how I can work to dismantle it and the harmful racialized systems of which I am a part. I choose to listen to and learn from the voices and the cries of my siblings of color, to show up, and to grieve and stand with them in their pain and anger. I choose to speak with my white siblings about white privilege and interpersonal and systemic racism. I choose not to allow my discomfort, embarrassment, guilt, defensiveness, or the mistakes I have made (and will make) to take over me and hold me back from doing this important work.

While this new way of life is really difficult, in the Christian tradition, we believe that we do not pursue this way of life alone. We do this with the help of God and with one another.

 So, will you join me in this holy anti-racism work?

I need you. We all need each other. So let us do this holy work together.

And as we begin this journey of Lent and this holy work through confession, repentance, and action, let us hold onto the beautiful gift we have: that God, who is rich in mercy, loves us even when we were dead in sin, and made us alive together with Christ.

In Jesus Christ we are indeed forgiven! So now together let us act!

Amen.

“Loving our Enemies, A Golden Rule, and A Messed Up Story of a Giving Tree” – Sermon on Luke 6:27-38

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“But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you.

If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.

Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back.” – Luke 6:27-38

“Love your enemy,” we hear Jesus saying this morning. “And if anyone strikes you on your cheek, offer the other also.”

At the campus ministry I was involved in during college, Shell Silverstein’s book The Giving Tree was used a lot as an example of how the ideal Christian was to emulate Jesus’ selfless love that Jesus calls us to in our Gospel this morning.

It was not until I was studying feminist theology in seminary when I realized how incredibly messed up this was.

You see, in Shell Silverstein’s book, there is a boy and there is an apple tree, who – of course is a female. As a young boy, he climbs the tree, eats her apples, and carves Me + Tree with a heart around it on the tree’s trunk. But as the boy grows older, he spends less time with the tree and only comes back to visit her when he has something to gain from her. He brings his girlfriend to the tree and carves a heart into her trunk with his and his girlfriend’s initials; he takes apples from the tree in order to make money; he takes the tree’s branches in order to build a house; he takes her trunk in order to build a boat.

The tree loves the boy, and at every stage of giving pieces of herself to him in order to make him happy, she is happy. At the end of the book, the boy comes back to her as an old man, and the tree is sad because she has nothing left to give him. But the old man says: “All I need is a quiet place to sit and rest.” And so this tree, who has given up almost every piece of herself, offers all that is left of her – a little stump – as a place for the old man to sit. And as he sits on her, she is happy.

*****

“Don’t be angry when someone wrongs you,” my college campus ministry leader told our women’s Bible study Group. “Instead, love selflessly like the Giving Tree does, forgive, and turn the other cheek, as Jesus commands us. This is what a good Christian woman is called to do.”

One of the reasons I have had a really difficult time with this morning’s Gospel passage is that throughout Christian history, it has been used as a means to tell victims of abuse – whether it is physical, spiritual, emotional, or verbal – to take the abuse and stay with their abusers. It has been used as a means to tell victims of sexism, slavery, racism, and other forms of hate to put up with hateful laws, systems, and treatment and to not resist. It has been used to keep people who are on the margins in their place.  

And the message that is being taught through this interpretation of Jesus’ words in Luke is that in order to offer Jesus’ selfless love, including to our enemies, the oppressed must forgive their oppressor by not feeling or expressing anger and by taking the abuse.

But the thing is, I do not think that refraining from expressing justified anger and from resisting abusive systems and treatment is actually an act of loving the enemy or the oppressor.

And I don’t think Jesus is saying that this is the case in our Gospel this morning, either.

*****

You see, throughout the Gospels, Jesus condemns hate and injustice and proclaims a Kingdom of God that calls for equality for all people and that will flip the systems of injustice upside down. He calls out and challenges abusive individuals and systems that oppress and marginalize and explains that he has come to release those who have been held captive and to let the oppressed go free. And while it may rarely be talked about in college Bible Studies and sermons: Jesus often does all this by expressing his anger about the injustice he sees. The thing is, he does not allow his anger to keep him captive.

I also think we need to look closer at what Jesus was really saying when he tells his disciples to turn the other cheek.

In Matthew’s Gospel, when Jesus tells his disciples to turn the other cheek, he specifies which cheek he is talking about, saying: “if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn the other also.”

 When I taught our youth group about this passage, I told them to find a partner and to pretend to hit their partner on the right cheek with their fist. Then I asked them how they would naturally hit their partner’s right cheek.

The youth answered that they would have to hit the right cheek with the left fist.

Then I explained to them: that in Jesus’ time, the left hand was used for only unclean tasks… and I mean… really unclean, natural every day human bodily tasks, if you get my drift. And so if you used your left hand for something other than those tasks, you basically would be seen as contaminating whatever or whomever you touched with your unclean hand. Thus, you would be excluded from religious gatherings and would have to do penance.

So, I told our youth that they had to put their left hand behind their back and pretend to hit the person’s right cheek again. When asked how they could do it, they said they had to do it with the back of their right hand.

Now, when a person hit someone else during Jesus’ time with the backhand, they were not doing it to cause injury. Instead, the backhand was a way to insult and humiliate the other person. And a backhand slap was not done to someone who was an equal. Slaves would be backhanded by masters; wives would be backhanded by husbands; children would be backhanded by parents.

The purpose of the backhand was to keep a person who was inferior in their place and to make them submit to their superior.*

So Jesus goes on to say that if someone backhands you, then turn the other cheek.

In doing so, the recipient of the slap makes it impossible for the person in power to use the backhand again. The recipient’s nose is in the way. The only way to hit that person would be with the right fist. But the problem with this is that only equals fought with fists, and the last thing a person in power wanted to do is acknowledge his inferior’s equality.

As theologian Walter Wink explains in his book Jesus and Nonviolence: “This act of defiance makes the master incapable of asserting his dominance in this relationship… By turning the cheek, the “inferior” is saying: “I’m a human being, just like you. I refuse to be humiliated any longer. I am your equal. I am a child of God. I won’t take it anymore.”

By turning the cheek, the “inferior” would expose the evil acts of the superior and forces the superior to make a choice to either shame himself by continuing this wrongdoing or to stop this wrongdoing altogether.

You see, in our Gospel this morning, Jesus is not saying that we should roll over and allow people to abuse or take advantage of us. He is saying quite the opposite. He is telling us to stand up to the bully. He is calling us to holy resistance.

*****

Another reason I have had difficulty with this morning’s Gospel passage is Jesus’ whole bit on loving our enemies.

Most of us likely feel we have at least some enemies – whether they are people we know personally or people we only hear about in the news. Whether they are enemies because they have caused us – or our loved ones – great harm or because we had some kind of falling out with them. Whether they are our biggest competitor who always seems to get our clients, our harsh boss who constantly takes advantage of us, our roommate or neighbor who gets under our nerves, or that facebook friend who just cannot stop trolling all of our posts.

And it’s easy for us to sit around and loathe and even sometimes hate our enemies. They deserve to be loathed and hated, don’t they?

And yet, Jesus does not only ask us to stop loathing and feeling hatred toward our enemies. He asks a lot more of us!

Love your enemies,” Jesus says. “Do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you… Do to others as you would have them do to you… Do good, lend – expecting nothing in return… do not judge or condemn, for you do not always know what is going on in another person’s life. Rather, forgive, and give.”

This is all really really difficult, and maybe even feels impossible. Sometimes we just want to sit around and stew in our loathing and our hatred!

But the thing is, how many of us are actually perfect? How many of us can raise our hand when asked if we were never the one who did anything to create an enemy? Even if we have repented and changed since then or even if our wrong was unintentional or even if we wronged someone while going through an incredibly difficult time, many of us have created an enemy at some point in our life.

And yet, we have a God who forgives us again and again after we have wronged God and others. We have a God who offers us new life and chance after chance to be restored into the God-image bearers we were created to be. And most likely, we have received this grace from others we have wronged, as well. So don’t some of our “enemies” deserve just as much as we do the kind of grace and opportunities to change – that we have received?

“Be merciful,” Jesus says, “Just as your Father was merciful to you.”

*****

Now, please do not get me wrong. I am not saying that this is easy at all. This is a difficult process. And as I spoke about earlier, I am not saying that all our enemies deserve the same kind of response to the harm they may have caused us or our loved ones or that we even owe them any kind of response at all. Boundaries are important and will definitely differ depending on the kind of harm one has caused.

But what I am saying is that even if our enemy really does deserve our loathing and hatred, isn’t it worse on us when we sit around and stew in it?

I think Desmond Tuto, Nobel Peace Prize recipient and the first black Archbishop in South Africa, explains this well in his book: The Book of Forgiving that many of us read last year during Lent.

He says: “Without forgiveness, we remain tethered to the person who harmed us. We are bound with chains of bitterness, tied together, trapped. Until we can forgive the person who harmed us, that person will hold the keys to our happiness; that person will be our jailor. When we forgive we take back control of our own fate and our feelings. We become our own liberators. We don’t forgive to help the other person. We don’t forgive for others. We forgive for ourselves.”

But Tuto also reminds us that “forgiveness is not easy… it is not forgetting… and it is not quick – it can take several journeys through the cycles of remembering and grief before one can truly forgive and be free.”

*****

But no matter how difficult it may be, this – I believe – is what Jesus is calling us to do in our Gospel this morning when he asks us to love our enemies. He is calling us to enter into the difficult journey of loving our enemies by first loving God and ourselves and by finding healing through the journey of holy resistance, boundary-setting, and forgiveness. So may we choose to begin this journey, so that we – too – can be free.

 


 

*My description about the backhand comes from the book Jesus and Nonviolence: A Third Way by theologian Walter Wink.

“An Upside Down Kind of Story” – Sermon on Luke 6:17-26

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“He came down with them and stood on a level place, with a great crowd of his disciples and a great multitude of people from all Judea, Jerusalem, and the coast of Tyre and Sidon.They had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases; and those who were troubled with unclean spirits were cured. And all in the crowd were trying to touch him, for power came out from him and healed all of them.

Then he looked up at his disciples and said: ‘Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets. 

But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep. Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.'” – Luke 6:17-26

In our society, we have been trained to understand the world in the binary: people must fit into one of only two boxes. Right or Wrong. Good or bad. Democrat or Republican. Conservative or liberal.   Black or white. Male or Female. Gay or Straight.

So it can often be difficult to understand anyone or anything that does not fit into one of two boxes and rather falls somewhere on a spectrum.

I do not like the binary. Because I do not fit into only one of two boxes in most areas of my life, and I know many other folks who do not either. For one: as a bisexual woman, my sexual orientation falls somewhere in the middle of a spectrum. And it can be painful to feel invisible when it is constantly assumed that I fit into only one of two boxes or when my bisexuality is actually placed into a tight box where all of the stereotypes and misconceptions about bisexuality are assumed about me.

I also definitely do not like to be placed in a box when it comes to my world views or my beliefs. This leaves no room for me to be a complex and unique human being who is constantly a work in progress.

And to see people only in the binary is not just problematic and harmful when it comes to sexual orientation, world views, or political or religious beliefs. People do not always fit into one of only two boxes when it comes to race, gender roles, ethnicity, economic status, gender identity, and the list goes on.

Seeing the world only in the binary and thus placing people into boxes is incredibly harmful because it puts parameters on what it means to be in one of these boxes and it limits and erases those who do not fit into these boxes.

Michelle Obama shares how this binary lens can be harmful in her memoir “Becoming”:

“The deeper I got into the experience of being First Lady, the more emboldened I felt to speak honestly and directly about what it meant to be marginalized by race and gender. My intention was to give younger people a context for the hate surfacing in the news and in political discourse and to give them a reason to hope. I tried to communicate the one message about myself and my station in the world that I felt might really mean something. Which was that I knew invisibility.

I’d lived invisibility. I came from a history of invisibility. I liked to mention that I was the great-great-grandaughter of a slave named Jim Robinson, who was probably buried in an unmarked grave somewhere on a South Carolina plantation. And in standing at a lectern in front of students who were thinking about the future, I offered testament to the idea that it was possible, at least in some ways, to overcome invisibility.

Later in the book, she explains: … “Hamilton (the musical) (has) touched me because it reflect(s) the kind of history I’d lived myself. It told a story about America that allowed the diversity in… So many of us go through life with our stories hidden, feeling ashamed or afraid when our whole truth doesn’t live up to some established ideal. We grow up with messages that tell us that there’s only one way to be American – that if our skin is dark or our hips are wide, if we don’t experience love in a particular way, if we speak another language or come from another country, then we don’t belong.

That is, until someone dares to start telling that story differently.”

****

Today we hear Jesus giving Luke’s version of what we often call the Beatitudes. Here – at the beginning of his ministry – while preaching a sermon on a plain – Jesus gives four blessings that compare with four woes.

Blessed are you who are poor, you who are hungry, you who are weeping, and you who are being excluded, reviled, and are experiencing acts of hate.

This sounds pretty good, right? But then Jesus continues: But woe to you who are rich, you who are full, you who are laughing, and you who are popular or who have gained the respect of others and are only spoken well of.

If we look at these Beatitudes through the lens that our society has trained us to have, it sounds a lot like Jesus is speaking only in the binary. And it seems quite harsh. People fit into one of only two boxes: and depending on the box you fit into, you are either good or bad. You either receive a blessing or a curse. You either belong to the kingdom of God or you don’t. And for many of us, this is not exactly good news, as we may actually be woe receivers in at least one of these categories at some point in our lives.

But I don’t think this is what Jesus is trying to say here.

You see, the author of Luke is very clear throughout his Gospel and its sequel – the book of Acts – that Jesus’ message is one of inclusion, not one of exclusion. The good news Jesus proclaims is not only for the Jewish community, but it is also for the Gentiles. It is not just for the religious elite, but it is also for the common laypersons.

It is not just for the powerful and the privileged, but it is also for those on the margins: the women, the widows, the children; the poor, the sick, the blind; the immigrants, the oppressed.

The Kingdom of God that Jesus is reigning in is offered to ALL people – and it is especially offered to those most vulnerable.

It is an upside down Kingdom of God, both in the here and now and that which is to come, where the last would be first and the first will be last, the poor will be blessed, and the slave will be free.

This was a radical concept – especially in a world where it was those who had religious and societal power who were seen as worthy of receiving blessings, and where those who were poor, sick, or had any physical ailments were believed to be sinful and thus cursed for their sins.

It seems to me that what Jesus is doing here is what Michelle Obama says is: daring to start telling the story differently.

You see, here in Luke, at the beginning of his ministry, Jesus comes to level the plains. Heck, he actually comes down into a level plain.

After praying in solitude in the mountains, he calls the twelve disciples, whom he also called apostles, comes back down the mountain with them and goes into a level place, where all people – especially those on the margins – can have access to him. There, he joins a multitude of people who had traveled from all over to hear him preach, to be healed of their diseases, and to be cured of unclean spirits. And so Jesus meets the people where they are at, joining them in the midst of their suffering, and stands with them on common ground.

And after healing them, he looks at his disciples and begins proclaiming these radical blessings and woes.

He has come to proclaim a Kingdom of God that calls for equality for all people and that will flip the systems of injustice upside down. He has come to bring good news to those who needed it the most.

You see, for Jesus, it is not that the rich, the full, the joyful, and the popular are not also in need of God’s love, and Jesus is not saying that they will not be included into the Kingdom of God. It is just that there are other people who need the extra attention and care right now.

This reminds me of a metaphor that I have shared before when explaining the importance of proclaiming that black lives matter. I think it is a helpful metaphor, so I’m going to share it again:

It’s like if your neighbor’s house is on fire. The firefighters are going to go to that neighbor’s house and try to put that fire out. And – if they are any good at what they do – they will not stop at your house to have a cup of coffee while they are on their way. This does not mean that your life does not matter. It just means that your neighbor (who’s house is currently burning to a crisp) needs a lot of extra attention and care right now.

Similarly, those who are poor and hungry, those who are weeping and grieving, those who are being excluded and experiencing hate are in need of extra care and attention – and maybe some blessings that offer hope – and they need it right now.

Toward the end of her book, Michelle Obama explained:

“Sitting on the inaugural stage in front of the U.S. Capital for the third time, I worked to contain my emotions. The vibrant diversity of the two previous inaugurations was gone, replaced by what felt like a dispiriting uniformity, the kind of overwhelmingly white and male tableaus I’d encountered so many times in my life – especially in the more privileged spaces, the various corridors of power I’d somehow found my way into since leaving my childhood home. What I knew from working in professional environments – from recruiting new lawyers for Sidley and Austin to hiring staff at the White House – is that sameness breeds more sameness, until you make a thoughtful effort to counteract it.”

Sameness breeds more sameness, until you make a thoughtful effort to counteract it.

This – I believe – is what Jesus is doing in Luke this morning.

He is making a thoughtful effort to counteract the sameness that harms and oppresses those who do not fit into the boxes that society uplifts.

And as he looks up at his disciples when he offers his blessings and woes, he is also looking up at us, calling us to follow him in counteracting this harmful sameness, as well.

Through Jesus’ woes, he commissions us through some warnings. And he makes clear that those of us who have more than enough, who are in power, who are privileged, or whose lives are going well at this particular time must not worship our worldly power, wealth, and status. And we must not hold tight to our current situation and our privilege while ignoring those around us who are suffering and vulnerable.

This means that those of us who are on top and have been centered have to come down from the mountain and step backwards, allowing others who have been lowered into the margins to be uplifted and centered. It means that those of us who have excess need to give up some of what we have and share with others who are in need.

It means that those of us who are joyful and doing well right now must not be so consumed with our own lives that we fail to see the needs of others around us.

It means that we don’t just sit around watching the firefighters put out the fire in our neighbor’s house. We actually join them in offering our neighbor the care and attention that they need.

*****

You see, here on this level plain at the beginning of his ministry, Jesus has dared to start telling the story differently.

So may we choose to follow him in this holy work.

“A Place at the Table” – Sermon on Mark 10:46-52

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They came to Jericho. As he and his disciples and a large crowd were leaving Jericho, Bartimaeus son of Timaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting by the roadside. When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout out and say, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” Many sternly ordered him to be quiet, but he cried out even more loudly, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” Jesus stood still and said, “Call him here.” And they called the blind man, saying to him, “Take heart; get up, he is calling you.” So throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus. Then Jesus said to him, “What do you want me to do for you?” The blind man said to him, “My teacher, let me see again.” Jesus said to him, “Go; your faith has made you well.” Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way.” – Mark 10:46-52

Jesus, his disciples, and a large crowd that had been following Jesus are in Jericho. And they are about to leave town and continue their important journey toward Jerusalem. As they are getting ready to leave, they pass by a man named Bartimaeus, who is sitting alongside the road. He is a beggar, and he is blind. And when he hears that it’s Jesus of Nazareth who is passing by him, he begins to shout out: “Jesus, son of David! Have mercy on me!”

Now many in the crowd sternly order him to be silent. And it’s no wonder they do. This man is marginalized in many capacities. He is blind, which many at that time believed was due to his sin and his lack of faithfulness. And he is poor – and most likely experiencing homelessness. And therefore, he is deemed one of the lowest of the lows, an outsider who doesn’t deserve to participate in the life of the community and must be pushed to the complete outskirts of society.

So who does this man think he is, shouting out in a public place at a respected Rabbi and his close disciples: his devout and faithful students? He needs to be put in his place. He needs to be silenced.

*****

In the past several weeks we have seen many examples of people attempting to silence and erase others around us – particularly those on the margins. At the end of September, we saw Dr. Christine Blasey Ford bravely share her incredibly painful and traumatic story of being sexually assaulted as a teenager, only to have her story be brushed aside. And, instead of fully respecting and listening to her story, many – including those in powerful positions in this country – have questioned her integrity and her honesty, have mocked her, and at times have even called her a liar.

And this silencing of Dr. Ford shines light on the incredibly deep-rooted problem we have in this country of not believing and of silencing sexual assault and rape survivors (particularly those who are women and non-binary persons.)

This week, we are also watching the migrant families desperately caravaning on foot across Mexico toward our border, seeking a place where they will be freed from oppression and violence. Seeking safety for themselves and for their children. And yet, while this is a horrific humanitarian crisis, these asylum seekers are being demonized. They are constantly being depicted in the media and by many of our national leaders as a mob that is full of “very bad people” and that is invading our country and therefore needs to be silenced and stopped.

And last Sunday we got wind that the Dept. of Health and Human Services is attempting to change the legal definition of gender, determining gender only on biological traits that are identifiable at or before birth, which would erase trans and non-binary persons and will take away many of their civil rights.

And – as Rev. M Barclay, the first transperson who is openly non-binary to be ordained as deacon in the United Methodist Church – stated: “The spiritual trauma of being perpetually told who we are isn’t real, that others shouldn’t believe us or support us, and that our well-being isn’t of collective significance is doing so much damage.”

*****

As the crowds surrounding Jesus tried to silence the poor, blind man named Bartimaeus, so too are the crowds in our midst today trying to silence and erase those around us who are already on the margins and are most vulnerable.

And I think it can be easy to want to silence those around us who’s experiences and insights are different than our own or whose views make us uncomfortable and are difficult to understand… It’s often our tendency to silence those who’s stories and insights call for change, because that change often affects us. When change that requires inclusion of all persons takes place, it means that those of us who already have places at the table must make some changes within ourselves, too.

Because when we make room at the table for those who have been excluded, it means our space at the table gets a little smaller and we may feel a little more cramped and a little less comfortable than we did before. And when we offer platforms for those who have been silenced to speak their voice, that means the time we get to speak lessens and it means that there are other insights that we need to listen to, sometimes ones that will challenge our own perspectives and actions.

And this kind of change can be hard because it means we will likely need to give something up: whether it’s our pride, our comfort, our social status… our need to always be right, our constant use of space in the world, our positions of power.

*****

And I wonder if this was the case for Jesus’ disciples and the crowds surrounding him when they sought to silence Bartimaeus. I wonder if they sought to silence him in order to maintain their insider status and their positions of power.

I wonder if they feared that if they gave these things up, they would be valued and loved less. But even though Jesus loves and values his disciples and those in the crowds, he is not going to put up with their silencing, dehumanizing, and excluding of one of God’s beloved children. And he is not going to allow them to continue to hold onto their societal power and privilege that uplifts them while pushes others to the margins.

Because for Jesus: there are no hierarchies. There are no outsiders or last and least. For Jesus, ALL are beloved children of God, beautifully and wonderfully made in God’s image. ALL deserve to be listened to, treated with dignity, and are worthy of equality and justice. For Jesus, there are no walls or borders that keep people – particularly those most vulnerable – out. And ALL are welcome at Jesus’s table.

We saw Jesus calling his disciples out when they sought to maintain a hierarchical status last week in our passage in Mark. When James and John ask Jesus to grant them seats next to him in his glory, which basically is asking for high societal status and power for all eternity, Jesus tells them that whoever wishes to be first must be last. And whoever wishes to be greatest must humble themselves and serve others instead. “For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve,” he explains, “And to give his life as a ransom for many.”

And Jesus continues to proclaim who he is and who he calls his disciples to be in our passage this morning. Instead of brushing Bartimaeus aside, continuing on his journey, and allowing him to be silenced, Jesus stops in his tracks, stands still and tells his disciples to call Bartimaeus to him.

And when Bartimaeus comes to him, Jesus does something that is surprising and so different from the cultural norms of his day. Jesus asks what he can do for Bartimaeus.

I think Jesus’ question here is so surprising because so often we feel we know what is best for others… even when we don’t identify with those individuals or know what it’s like to be in their shoes…

And we often tend to speak on their behalf, without having their voices centered at the table, even if we don’t know what it’s like to be them: even if we don’t know what it’s like to be blind, to be poor, to be experiencing homelessness. Even if we don’t know what it’s like to be a youth today, to be a person of color or an immigrant in our country, to be a part of the LGBTQIA+ community. Or to be whatever blank we can fill in…

So often we try to determine what life is like for others and what is best for them without even listening to their stories, experiences, perspectives, & what they say they need.

I think a good example of this took place earlier this week on Megyn Kelly’s talk show. She invited a panel to come on her show to discuss whether or not it is racist for white people to wear black face when they dress up for Halloween. Megyn’s argument was that it wasn’t racist because she said when she was a kid, it seemed to be okay.

But Amber Ruffin, comedian and one of the writers of the Late Night Show with Seth Myers pointed out that there was a big problem with what took place on Megyn’s show. Amber immediately noticed that all the people on the panel who were sitting around the table were white.

“How are you going to have a bunch of white people sit together and figure out what’s racist?” Amber asked. “White people don’t get to decide what’s racist. If I punch you, I don’t decide if it hurts or not. You do.”

And this scenario is so common. We tend to do this often. Whether it’s a bunch of men talking about what women need or experience or a bunch of people who have never experienced mental illness talking about those who do, and the list goes on.

*****

But this kind of silencing and exclusion from the table is unacceptable to Jesus. And in our passage this morning, he shows us another way.

He asks Bartimaeus: “What do you want me to do for you?”

You see, Jesus does not insist that he understands Bartimaeus’ experiences or knows what he needs and what is best for him. Rather, Jesus asks Bartimaeus to share his story and to state what he needs.

Jesus offers Bartimaeus – a person who had been ostracized and silenced for so long – the same kind of dignity all persons should have: the ability to speak for himself. Jesus makes room for Bartimaeus at the table and offers him a platform to share his story and his perspective. Jesus makes room for him to demand justice and equality that he has been denied. Jesus listens to him, believes him, and acknowledges his suffering. And then Jesus praises Bartimaeus for his persistence and resistance. “Your faith has made you well.”

And when Bartimaeus asks Jesus to restore his sight, and thus release him from the systemic oppression he had been experiencing because of his blindness, Jesus offers him healing and freedom and invites Bartimaeus to follow him on his way.

*****

Brothers, sisters, siblings: this story is good news. In our passage today, Jesus reminds this poor, blind man who he is and who’s he is. And Jesus reminds us of this, as well.

You see, Jesus loves us, and claims us as his own: beloved and sacred children of God: Each with our own stories and insights that deserve to be heard and held with care and love. And he calls all of us to follow him on his way of making space for and offering compassionate arms, listening ears, and believing hearts to those who have otherwise been silenced. And THIS, my friends, is where we will experience freedom and healing.

And for those who have been silenced or pushed to the margins: there is good news here, too. Because no matter how much the crowds may try to take away your dignity and worth: Jesus affirms it and marks you with his unconditional love.

Because you are beloved. You are beautifully and wonderfully made in God’s image. You are a cherished child of God. You deserve to be listened to and to be believed, and your story is sacred. And no crowd or individual that says otherwise can take that away from you.

When Bartimaeus called out to Jesus, “have mercy on me,” Jesus stopped in his tracks and with compassion he invited Bartimaeus to share his story and what he needed, asking: “What can I do for you?” And through his listening ear and loving care, Jesus offered Bartimaeus freedom and healing.

And he offers this to you, as well.

Amen.

 

“This Changes Everything” – Sermon on Mark 6:1-13 #elcayg2018

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“He left that place and came to his hometown, and his disciples followed him. On the sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astounded. They said, “Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands! Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at him. Then Jesus said to them, “Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house.” And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them. And he was amazed at their unbelief.

Then he went about among the villages teaching. He called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits. He ordered them to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts; but to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics. He said to them, “Wherever you enter a house, stay there until you leave the place. If any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you, as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.” So they went out and proclaimed that all should repent. They cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them.”  – Mark 6:1-13

Many of you might know that last week Pastor Michael and I were in Houston with 13 youth and 2 young adult leaders for the ELCA Youth Gathering, where 30,000 youth from all over the country and even across the world gather once every three years for worship, to hear speakers, to participate in service learning projects with local organizations, to learn about multiple areas of injustice and how our faith calls us to respond, and – of course – to also have a lot of fun.

This year, our youth group also gathered with about 700 other youth and adults for the Multicultural Youth Leadership Event, which is a pre-Youth Gathering event that seeks to empower youth of color and multicultural youth groups to grow in their faith, develop as leaders, and build awareness and acceptance of one another’s cultural backgrounds and differences.

During the Multicultural Youth Leadership Event, which is the most diverse gathering of Lutherans in the ELCA, our youth and leaders had so many powerful experiences as we sang and danced to global worship music together, talked with and heard the stories of people from all over the country and some from across the world, shared our own personal and family stories – some which included painful stories about our youth’s experiences with racism, and our group started a community garden for refugee families who are new to the Houston area.

Once the Multicultural Youth Leadership Event ended, the main ELCA Youth Gathering began. The theme for this year’s gathering was: “This Changes Everything,” and throughout the week we heard so many inspirational and challenging stories and messages about how God’s radical love, grace, and hope do – in fact – change everything.

While the worship we experienced and the messages we heard were remarkable, what was most powerful for me was seeing how our youth truly embodied the hands and feet of Christ as they created a safe and caring space for one another to be truly themselves, as they befriended and encouraged youth from other church groups, and as they organized and led 300 youth and adults from our Metro-Chicago synod in a rally and march calling for an end to the separation and detainment of families at the border. Several of our youth spoke – both in English and Spanish – led chants and songs, invited youth to call and write letters to their legislators, and two of our youth were even interviewed by Telemundo and the Houston Press. This was not easy for them to do for multiple reasons, esp. in times like these. Yet, despite the opposition they could have faced, these youth believed this was important, and for some of them, this was personal. So they proclaimed this good news. They were so courageous and they did a phenomenal job! I am extremely proud of them! They were an amazing representation of Edgewater!

After hearing and experiencing God’s love, grace, and hope last week in a variety ways (many of which were through our own Edgewater youth), we were then challenged to continue to share this good news when we returned to our home communities.

On our last night of the Youth Gathering, we heard from 11 year old transgender activist Rebekah Bruesehoff, who said: “I have a lot of support, but so many transgender kids don’t. Transgender kids are just like other kids. We need to be loved and supported… Hearts and minds can change. And I can change the world. I want people to know that it doesn’t matter our age. We can be hope for the church and all people. They need us. I have hope for a church where people are not just welcomed, but they are celebrated. We can make it happen… And you – each and every one of you – made in God’s image, are made to be hope in the church and made to be hope in the world. You are my hope.”

And we heard from poet Joe Davis, who said:

“This generation is the one that will disrupt fear with courage and status quo with radical hope. You are here for a reason: Not just for the future, but for the here and now. Show up unapologetically as your authentic self. The church and world need you… You are a generation that’s teaching us that enough is enough. Radical hope is when we celebrate not just what we see now, but what it can be. Things can and will be transformed. But there will be struggle, and we must practice this hope every day. This hope changes me. This hope changes you. This hope Changes Everything.”

Now, while many of the 30,000 youth and adults were inspired and transformed by the good news we heard and experienced last week, the call to share this good news when we return to our home communities is not always going to be easy. For we know it is not always going to be welcomed and accepted, even by those we are closest to.

And this was the case for Jesus’s homecoming in our Gospel text this morning, as well.

You see, in our passage in Mark, Jesus has just returned to his hometown – along with his disciples – and has begun teaching in his home synagogue. And yet, while this synagogue is filled with people who knew Jesus’ family, had hung out with Jesus when he was a boy, or had watched him grow up, they did not respond to his homecoming with welcoming arms.

When the Nazarenes hear him teaching in the synagogue on the Sabbath day, many soon become astounded… And if there was any good sense of this word, it doesn’t last very long… as the Nazarenes soon take offense at him. “Where did this man get all of this?” they ask.

“Isn’t this the poor carpenter we’ve known all these years? Isn’t he the brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon? Aren’t these his sisters sitting right here? Isn’t he the son of Mary?” they sneer, as they remind each other of Jesus’ shameful origin: that he had been conceived by an unwed teenager. “How could this guy – this poor, carpenter with ordinary siblings and a mother with a disgraceful past teach with authority? How could his teachings and his actions have any sort of power at all?”

Now our text does not say what it was about Jesus and his teachings that offended this crowd in his hometown synagogue so much that they discredited and insulted him. However, if we look back at the preceding chapters in Mark, we could probably take a wild guess.

In the first several chapters of Mark’s gospel, we see that even from the very beginning, Jesus’ ministry is not what would have been seen as ordinary.

He’s cast out demons and stilled a storm. He’s performed miracles… on the Sabbath day. He’s touched and healed those who were deemed “untouchable”: the sick, a leper, a woman… who had been haemorraging… for years. He’s called twelve disciples to follow him – most of whom are just common fishermen and one who is a tax collector. He proclaims that the kingdom of God has come near and tells those who follow him not to keep anything hidden, but to bring all their secrets into the light.

He eats with the sinners and the tax collectors and then tells the religious – the righteous ones – to confess and repent of their sins.

Jesus was changing everything!

And he was already seen as such an offensive radical rule-breaker that by the time we get to Mark chapter 3, many of his followers say he is “out of his mind,” some of the religious leaders accuse him of being in line with Satan, himself, and even his very own family questions his abilities and rush to where he is teaching and try to restrain him.

And now here we are a few chapters and several radical teachings, actions, and miracles later. Jesus has definitely shaken things up a bit, and it’s only the sixth chapter in Mark.

And here in our text for today, after all the backlash he’s already received, Jesus has the nerve to come back to his hometown and to his home synagogue. And here – in the midst of the ones who’ve watched him grow up, he comes preaching this same kind of message. This same message that treats the outcasts and those who were “untouchable” as if they are equals and calls the religious and righteous to bring their secrets to light and confess and repent of their sins.

Who does this ordinary carpenter with a shameful family past think he is?

But the insults don’t stop Jesus. He lays his hands on a few more of those “untouchable” and cures them. And then – as he and his disciples leave Nazareth and go out into the villages, he gives his disciples authority and commissions them to go out into the world vulnerably – two by two – with nothing but a staff, the clothes on their backs, and the sandals on their feet.

They must rely on the people they meet to feed them and to provide them with a place to sleep. And yet Jesus tells them they must go out boldly, proclaiming that all should repent, and they must confront evil, cast out demons, anoint those “untouchable” with oil, and heal the sick.

*****

Now, I don’t know about you, but if I were one of the disciples – who had just watched Jesus get opposed, insulted, and publicly shamed in his hometown synagogue, I would have probably thought quite hard about picking up all of my belongings and running in the opposite direction.

Because I’m sure it would have been very difficult for these disciples to give up their food, clothing, and social status – the things they were privileged to have and could rely on for their safety, comfort, and well-being. And it would have been very difficult for them to go out vulnerably and proclaim Jesus’ radical good news, with no confirmation that they could find people who would accept them and provide for them.

Sometimes I wonder how these disciples had the courage to follow Jesus and to go out risking so much, when it would have been much easier for them to ignore the cries of those around them and just go on living their normal every day lives, without having to face the suffering and injustice around them.

I think I wonder this about the disciples because sometimes I wonder this about myself. To be quite honest, there have been many times when I just want to pick up all of my belongings and hold tight to my own privilege and just pretend that the systemic injustice that continues to prevail throughout our country and world and the suffering it causes so many people do not exist.

Because this is the easier way. Because this way allows me to live in my comfortable bubble that I have the privilege of living in. It allows me to avoid any kind of shaming and opposition that those who speak out often face. It enables me to deny my own participation in and benefits from the unjust systems in our country that still privilege those like me while deeming those who are not as “less than.”

Because as a white, cis-gender, educated, middleclass, woman who is married to a man and who is a U.S. citizen with documentation, I have the privilege of being able to just shut everything around me out and to live my life without fear.

I can just go to my safe home – without ever being pulled over in my car or stopped and frisked on my bike ride home because of the color of my skin. I can walk home without fear that I could get jumped or called a derogatory name because of my religious affiliation, gender identity, or because of the gender identity of my spouse.

I can go to sleep every night knowing that my sister’s children will never be forcibly taken from her or that my parents will never get deported. I have the privilege of just getting to turn off the news and going about living my own comfortable life without having to think about those around this country who have to live in fear every single day.

And yet, this is not a privilege I get to hold onto when I follow Jesus. Because this is not Jesus’ way.

Because just as Jesus called out to the twelve disciples and commissioned them to acknowledge and let go of their grip on their privilege and to go out into the world boldly, he commissions ALL of his disciples to do so, as well. He commissions each one of us to share God’s radical love and to BE the hope that will – indeed – change everything.

Because when one member of our human family suffers, we ALL suffer.

*****

During our last worship service at the Multicultural Youth Leadership Event, we heard Chicago Pastor Yehiel Curry explain that it is when we immerse ourselves with others who may look, speak, talk, believe, worship, and act differently than we do and get to know them, that we will begin to realize that we are more alike than we are different. And THIS IS WHAT CHANGES EVERYTHING!

He saw this taking place a lot at the Multicultural Youth Leadership Event this week. (And so did I. And wow: was it ever a beautiful image of the Kingdom of God!)

Pastor Yehiel went on to explain that we are one in Christ, because it is Jesus who brings down the walls of hostility that divide us. However, we – as the body of Christ – are called to bring down these dividing walls in our world, as well. And yet, in order to make change, we need to start within ourselves.

“When you change your heart, you can change your mind,” he said. “When you change your mind, you can change your community. When you change your community, you can change your city. When you change your city, you can change your state.

When you can change your state, you can change your nation. When you can change your nation, you can change your world. When you can say this is my brother, this is my sister, [this is my sibling], this is my family: THIS CHANGES EVERYTHING!”

And then we are truly ONE in Christ.

Amen.

“Stranger Things” – Sermon for Transfiguration Sunday

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“Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.

As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead. So they kept the matter to themselves, questioning what this rising from the dead could mean.”

– Mark 9:2-10

Strange things happen on the top of steep hills and mountains.

I have learned this from experience. Several years ago, when Jonathan and I were in Ireland, we decided we would walk St. Brandon’s Pilgrim Path, an 11 mile ancient Christian pilgrimage that is believed to have first been walked in the late 500s. This path begins along the seaside and then takes you through fields with beautiful scenic views and ancient heritage sites along the route.

When Jonathan and I asked the one taxi driver in the small town we were staying in if she could pick us up at the end of the path, she laughed… and then told us: “Just call me when you get tired…” And when we looked a bit confused, she added: “It’s not as easy as you might think.”

And boy was she right! The trail was hilly and windy, often taking us through long patches of tall grass and weeds that were up to our knees, private fields, thick mud, and rugged terrain.

Once we passed Kilmalkedar Church, an early Christian and later Medieval site, the next several miles of the path were even more difficult and off the grid. As we hiked up a very long, steep hill with only a few small hand painted trail markers to show us the way, the incline got steeper, the winds stronger, the sky darker, and the fog thicker.

When a trail marker directed us to walk through a closed gate, we found ourselves walking uphill through a private sheep farm. This final part of the journey was fun… at first. But after a while, the fog got so thick we could barely see anything around us, not to mention: where we were going. At one point I screamed, as two sheep seemed to appear out of nowhere – frantically running through the fog just two feet in front of us.

And when we tried to backtrack our steps so we could find a place to call and meet our taxi driver, as I took a step on what seemed to be the ground, I ended up falling through one of the many thorn bushes that we soon realized we were surrounded by and that were quite deep and wide. By this point, we had not seen a trail marker for about an hour, we had no phone service, and I was starting to wonder if we were ever going to make it back to our cabin.

Our only hope was to keep going up to the top of the hill, which we still could not see. So we just kept cautiously walking.

But once we eventually got to the top, something else strange happened. The fog thinned out, we could see things a lot more clearly, and the exhausting and – yes – quite terrifying – journey we took to get to where we were all of us sudden seemed worth it. As we looked out over the other side of the hill, we could see some of the most incredible views of Mt. Brandon and miles upon miles of the beautiful Irish countryside. And as we looked down the side of the hill that we had just climbed, we could see the tiny steeple of Kilmalkedar Church off in the distance down below, and the path we took from there seemed to be a little more apparent than before. (Although, I am not going to lie, our journey back down to Kilmalkedar Church was still a bit terrifying.)

Yes, strange things happen on the top of steep hills and mountains.

And this is the case for the disciples in our Gospel text this morning. Jesus takes Peter, James, and John and leads them on what is most likely a long, arduous journey through windy, hilly, and rugged trails and unmarked fields up a high mountain. And when they finally get to the top of the mountain, Jesus is transfigured before them. His appearance changes, and he begins to glow. His clothes become dazzling white, so much so that no one on earth could bleach them, our text says. And then – when you think things could not get anymore weird, they do. Because suddenly out of nowhere, the long departed Moses and Elijah appear before the disciples and begin talking to Jesus.

Such strange things are happening on top of this mountain, that you might expect David Harpour – star of the popular Netflix show Stranger Things – to suddenly appear saying: “It must be a tide ad!” (If you watched the Super Bowl commercials, you know what I am talking about.)

But this is not a tide commercial. It’s the transfiguration. And it is a very strange scene.

So strange that Peter stumbles over his words because he doesn’t know what to say, for he and the other disciples are terrified.

And it’s no wonder they are. They had just seen this strange thing happen on the mountaintop. Here, for the first time, they see Jesus in a completely new light. (Both figuratively and literally).

And many of us know that once we see Jesus in a completely new light, there is no turning back. Everything changes. Sure, eventually we have to go back down the mountain to our every day life, but we do so with a new perspective and with a heart that is open to being transformed.

This is true with any kind of “mountain top” experience where we encounter Jesus in a new light. We begin to see things more clearly. These mountain top experiences may take place during a powerful worship service, at a large Christian gathering (like a conference, prayer retreat, or an ELCA Youth Gathering), or on a mission or service-learning trip.

Or maybe this mountain top experience takes place when we hold our child or our grandchild for the first time, when we hear someone else’s story, when someone sits with us in our pain, when we spend time taking in the nature around us, or when we develop relationships with our neighbors of other faiths and realize that God is so much bigger than we had imagined.

Maybe this mountain top experience is when we are volunteering at the local food pantry and realize for the first time that Jesus is not just working through us and our acts of service to our neighbors experiencing homelessness or hunger. Rather, through our neighbor, Jesus is actually speaking to us.

Or maybe our mountain top experience is when we first attend an anti-racism training or read a book on economic injustice and we begin to recognize our own privilege and prejudices and how they contribute to systemic inequalities.

Here on the mountaintop, Jesus transfigured before the disciples, and now the disciples are being transformed.

The journey the disciples had taken thus far in following Jesus is now seen with news eyes. And the same goes for the journey they would soon take in following Jesus back down the mountain, into the valley, and soon thereafter onto Jerusalem and toward the cross.

But this is – indeed – terrifying. Having this mountain top experience meant that their lives were going to change going forward. For the disciples, this means that soon Jesus will no longer be with them on this earth. How could they continue this ministry on their own? Were they even qualified to do this work? Were they good enough? Were they adequate enough?

It’s no wonder Peter suggests they build three dwellings – or tabernacles – at the top of the mountain (a common ancient practice to mark places where God’s people had a holy encounter.) For these disciples, this was surely a holy place. Plus, if they built the tabernacles, the disciples could stay in this holy space for a while, which could buy them some time before they had to come back down from the mountain top and face the hardships that come in the valley below, knowing who Jesus is and what and who Jesus stands for.

But just as Peter suggests this, a cloud overshadows the disciples, and a voice comes from the cloud saying: “This is my Son, the Beloved.”

I love this response to Peter and the other disciples as they are overcome with fear. Because it reminds us of Jesus’ baptism, when the voice from heaven cries out: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

I love this because whenever we recall Jesus’ baptism, we are also reminded of our own. Just as Jesus was named God’s beloved child in his baptism, so too are we – in ours.

No matter how terrified Peter may have been about what was to come and about how Jesus was calling him to live, and no matter how inadequate or unqualified to do this work he might have felt, Peter is God’s beloved child. No matter how terrified, inadequate, or unqualified we might feel about coming down from the mountaintop and living out our call in the valley alongside those most vulnerable and marginalized, we are God’s beloved children, as well.

But the voice in the cloud does not end there.

“This is my Beloved Son,” the voice calls out. “Listen to him.”

When Peter saw Jesus in a new light, he was quick to speak. To give his two cents. To find a quick fix for the situation and for his fears.

And to be quite honest, aren’t we all quick to speak and slow to listen?

But the voice from the cloud calls on Peter to listen first.

You see, when we see Jesus in a new light, we are not just immediately transformed. This is a process and it requires a lot of listening and a lot of self-reflecting. We must be slow to speak and quick to listen. We must listen to God. Listen to our neighbors.  Listen to ourselves.

I love what Mother Teresa told CBS anchor Dan Rather when he asked her what she said during her prayers. She answered: “I listen.” And when Dan asked her: “Well then, what does God say?” she smiled and answered: “He listens.”

It might seem strange that this morning we are on the mountaintop for Jesus’ transfiguration – which takes place toward the end of his public ministry – and then next week we go back to Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness – before Jesus’ ministry even begins. And yet, I think it makes sense that we are on the mountaintop this morning before we begin our Lenten journey through the wilderness this Wednesday.

Because I think this is similar to real life. Isn’t life often like a roller-coaster ride, bringing us from the mountaintop right down to the valley and into the wilderness and then on toward the cross before we can experience the resurrection… just before the roller-coaster ride begins again.

The disciples needed the mountaintop in order to see things more clearly before they followed Jesus toward the cross and onto what came next. They needed this as a holy place to begin their journey of transformation.

And so do we.

As Thomas Jay Oord wrote in his commentary on this text in the Christian Century magazine this week: “Mountains can bring us to attention. Sometimes we need to be atop a mountain to remember our reason for the journey. Mountains can give us the novel perspective we need to make sense of things; they can renew us. And sometimes only atop a mountain – after a grueling hike, with an aching body, oxygen-starved lungs, and sweat-drenced skin- can we truly hear the voice of wisdom: ‘this is my beloved son. Listen to him.’”

So this Lent, as we take this journey down from the mountaintop and into the wilderness, may we open our hearts to being transformed. May we choose to do this holy work of listening.

Amen.

“A Messy and Fishy Kind of Sermon” – Sermon on Jonah 3:1-5, 10 and Mark 1:14-20

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I love how our Hebrew and Gospel stories are paired together this morning. Because I think these two stories share several similar themes.

First, we have two fish stories. We have Jonah, who many of us probably remember has something to do with a giant fish. And then we have four of Jesus’ earliest disciples, who happen to be fishermen. And when Jesus sees them fishing, he says to them: “I will make you fish for people.”

Secondly, these are two call stories. God has called the prophet Jonah to go into the city of Ninevah and cry out against the Ninevite’s wickedness. And in our Gospel, while Jesus is proclaiming the good news of God, he sees four fishermen fishing in the Sea of Galilee, and he – a rabbi – calls out to them: “follow me,” asking them to become his disciples, or his students.

The third theme these stories seem to share is that when we look at the stories as given to us through our assigned lectionary readings this morning – without any additional context about the people involved – they both seem to be picture-perfect call stories.

When Jonah hears God calling him, he listens, immediately gets up, goes to Ninevah, and cries out to the Ninevites, proclaiming their impending destruction for the wickedness of their ways. And they repent.

And in our Gospel, when Simon Peter, Andrew, James, and John hear Jesus calling them, they immediately get up, drop their fishing nets, and follow Jesus as he travels across Galilee, teaching in the synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God, and bringing healing to the sick and the suffering. And they leave everything they have and know behind them without any knowledge of where they are going or what will come next.

You see, it looks as though this morning we have two neat and tidy call stories, with what appear to be confident, obedient, and qualified people of God who respond to God’s call to go and proclaim the good news of God’s love and to do God’s work in the world.

But if we look beyond the lectionary readings this morning, we will see that these calls stories are far from neat and tidy, and the people being called are far from perfect.

You see, when Jonah was first called by God to go and speak to Ninevah, instead of going, he jumps on the first ship he can find that will take him to Tarshish, a city that is in the complete opposite direction of Ninevah. And he goes down into the hold of the ship to hide out, hoping to escape God’s presence. But God sends a great storm upon the sea, and – as the winds strengthen and the sailors can’t seem to get the ship back to land – Jonah is eventually thrown overboard. So God sends a great fish to swallow Jonah. And while Jonah is sitting in the belly of the fish, he gives thanks to God for hearing his cries. And so God hears his prayers again, speaks to the fish, and the fish ends up vomiting him up onto dry land.

This is where we come to our lectionary passage this morning. God calls out to Jonah a second time to go to Ninevah. And so this once very disobedient Jonah, who is now covered in sea water and fish puke, happily goes to Ninevah to tell them about their wicked ways and their impending destruction.

No, this is not a neat and tidy call story at all. This story is rather quite messy… and probably pretty smelly.

Now, when the people hear Jonah’s cries, the Ninevites – ALL of them – even the animals – begin to fast, cover themselves in sackcloths, and cry out to God, repenting of their evil ways. And when God sees they have turned from their old ways, God forgives them and decides to no longer bring about calamity upon them.

Now, you would have thought that Jonah would have been ecstatic about this news. And you would have thought that he would have learned his lesson by now and turned from his old ways.

But you would have thought wrong. And the messiness continues.

Jonah is extremely displeased with this news. How can God give those undeserving Ninevites a second chance?! And so out of anger he shouts at God: “Please take my life away from me. For it is better for me to die than to live.” Then he stomps off and finds a shaded place to sit just outside of the city where he can pout and wait and watch what will happen to the city, hoping he gets his way after all.

But (Spoiler alert): he doesn’t actually get his way.

So Jonah’s call story is fishy, stinky, and a real big mess. But God still sees the potential in Jonah, and God continues to show up for him and to call him to participate in God’s work.

And while our Gospel call story this morning isn’t quite as messy as Jonah’s, it still isn’t the picture-perfect scene with picture-perfect people it seems to be at first glance.

You see, in first century Judaism – particularly in the region of Galilee – there was a very extensive process a man would have to go through in order to become a disciple – or a follower – of a rabbi.  There were several levels of religious education, beginning at age 4 or 5. Only the top students coming out of each level of education would continue onto the next level, and only the top of the top of the top would eventually be eligible to follow a rabbi (and even then, the rabbi would not necessarily choose to take him as a student). Since Simon Peter, Andrew, James, and John were all in the fishing trade, they would have only finished as far as the second level of education and may have only been through the first level of education.

And so these four fishermen had not made a typical rabbi’s cut.  They were not the top students of their day.  They did not have an extensive resume – scriptural knowledge, interpretations, or religious lingo – that would have enabled them to continue climbing the educational ladder.  And so they were definitely not qualified to become a rabbi’s disciple.

And yet, for some reason, Jesus thinks otherwise. For some reason, Jesus sees a great potential in these average, ordinary men fishing in the Sea of Galilee. And so when he sees them fishing, he stops and he calls out to them: follow me.

And immediately, these average fishermen do just that. They drop their nets and – even though they most likely were covered in smelly fish guts – they follow him.

But even though these ordinary fishermen seem to be obedient at first, if we read on, we will see that they – too – continue to be far from perfect. The disciples often misunderstand Jesus’ teachings, question his authority, doubt his promises, hide out when they get scared, and some even betray and deny him.

And so, in some ways, like Jonah’s call story – this one, too, is fishy, stinky, and a real big mess.

But Jesus still sees the potential in and the gifts of these disciples, and he doesn’t give up on them. He continues to love them, to show up for them, and to walk alongside them in all of the beauty and the messiness of this difficult call.

I just love these two fishy and messy call stories.

Because they seem more like real life.

And just as God saw the potential in Jonah and continued to show up for him – even through all of his grumpiness, failures and mistakes – and just as Jesus saw the potential in those four ordinary fishermen and believed in them, so does God see and believe in each one of us – no matter how little qualified we may feel, no matter how grumpy we might get, and no matter how imperfect we may be.

In just a little while, we will celebrate the baptism of Savannah Grace. And I think it’s quite appropriate to do so as we look at these two biblical call stories.

Because a baptism is a call story. And – as we have seen with Jonah and the early disciples, a baptismal call story is a life-long journey that is nothing close to neat and tidy.

 But in our baptism, we are claimed by our compassionate and merciful God – who loves us in and through all of our messiness and fishiness. Who loves us through all of our grumpiness, our failures, our struggles, our doubts. In our baptism, we are called and welcomed into the Kingdom of God that Jesus proclaims – a Kingdom that is full of grace, forgiveness, and unconditional love. We are welcomed into this Kingdom of God, and nothing and no one can keep us from it.

When we celebrate the baptism of one of our own at Ebenezer Lutheran Church, we do this here in community. Because we are not expected to pursue this baptismal life alone. Rather, in Christ, we are called to live this baptismal life together. In Christ, we are called to see and affirm the image of God in one another and recognize the potential and the gifts of one another. We are called to share in each other’s joys, help carry one another’s burdens, and walk alongside one another in all of the messiness that takes place as we live out our call to proclaim the good news of God’s love to the world.

And so as we come together this morning to celebrate the baptism of Savannah Grace, let us also remember our own baptisms. Let us remember that we are all beloved children of God, and that by grace, God calls each one of us.

And even when we are covered in stinky fish puke and guts, Jesus will still see that we are – indeed worthy of this call – and he will continue to say to us, “follow me.”

Amen.

“Wide Awake” – Sermon on 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11

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“Now concerning the times and the seasons, brothers and sisters, you do not need to have anything written to you. For you yourselves know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. When they say, “There is peace and security,” then sudden destruction will come upon them, as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman, and there will be no escape! But you, beloved, are not in darkness, for that day to surprise you like a thief; for you are all children of light and children of the day; we are not of the night or of darkness.

So then let us not fall asleep as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober; for those who sleep sleep at night, and those who are drunk get drunk at night. But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, and put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation. For God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep we may live with him.

Therefore encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing.”  

– 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11


 

In the movie “Wide Awake,” there is a 10 year-old boy named Joshua whose beloved grandfather had recently suffered from bone cancer and passed away. Throughout the movie, Joshua has flashbacks of times he spent with his grandfather. One of the most touching flashbacks is when Joshua tells his dying grandfather through tears that he is scared, and when Joshua fearfully asks his grandfather if he, too, is scared, his grandfather replies, “You know I’ll be alright because God will take care of me.”

Yet, after his grandfather passes away, Joshua struggles to find interest in his school and friends, and his parents have to drag him out of bed every morning and encourage him to have some fun. We later find out that Joshua fears that his grandfather is not – indeed – alright. That maybe there is not in fact a God who will take care of him.

Fear had gotten the best of Joshua. And throughout the beginning of the movie, fear consumes him and keeps him from experiencing the joys in the people and the world around him.

*****

Fear.

I think this is at the heart of the situation that Paul is addressing in his first letter to the Thessalonians. You see, these early Christ-followers in Thessalonica had a lot to fear. They had only recently become converts to this new faith movement. And, yet, it is not too long after Paul begins his ministry with them, that he and other leaders start to face severe persecution for teaching about a Messiah who would save God’s people from the oppressive Empire. And soon Paul and the other leaders are kicked out of the city, leaving these early Christ-followers to fend for themselves.

These new Christ-followers are scared. Scared for the safety of their new friends. Scared for their own lives. Scared for their future.

Scared that maybe Paul had gotten it all wrong.

Because if Paul was right about this Jesus being the Son of God, the Messiah – the one who is supposed to come and bring them salvation – then why on earth were they facing persecution for following him? And if Paul was right about this Jesus who is supposed to return again and deliver them from death, then why hadn’t Jesus returned before some of their friends and relatives had already died? What would happen to those deceased friends and family now? Would they be left behind when Jesus comes again?

Fear.

I think this is an unwanted feeling that many of us know too well today… Especially in times like these.

And fear is a natural human feeling.

One that even Paul, Silas, and many of the early Christians most likely felt numerous times. One that even Jesus felt and so honestly expressed while hanging from the cross as he cried out to God before taking his final breath.

We are not alone when we experience feelings of fear.

And fear is a normal human feeling that can guide us in making important choices and taking safety measures when needed.

And yet while this is true, I think we also need to be careful about how much power we allow our fears to have. Because in times like these, it can be incredibly easy to allow our fears to consume us and to take over our lives. Our fears can drag us down into the dark – where we become blind to the needs of those around us. These fears can transform us into being people of the night – as Paul explains in Thessalonians – rather than of the day, where we spend most of our time asleep with our eyes shut to the joys and the beauty in our world.

And this is where I think Gandhi is right in saying that “the enemy is fear. We think it is hate; but it is fear.”

I think fear can become our enemy when – in times like these – we allow our fears to have power over us. When our fears of failure, change, or the unknown future hold us back from taking chances. Or when our fears of loneliness and rejection hold us back from opening ourselves up to new relationships or publicly standing up against injustices. When we allow our fears about our children’s safety to keep us from letting them try new things and grow up as unique individuals. When our fear that we might not have enough keeps us – as individuals or as a church – from giving to those in need around us. Or when our fears of the “other” blind us so that we don’t see and experience the image of God in our siblings who may appear to be different from us.

I think that while fear is incredibly human, it becomes our enemy when we allow our fears to keep us from actually living.

And so Paul compassionately reassures the Thessalonian Christ-followers that they need not be consumed by fear.

And Paul’s pastoral words to the Thessalonians are also words for us today. Just before our passage today, Paul explains that we must not be uninformed about those who have died and we must not grieve the loss of our loved-ones as others do who have no hope. For we can be assured that “through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died.”   When Jesus returns, these beloved ones will not be left behind. For just as Jesus died and resurrected from the dead – so too shall those who have died, be raised from the dead when Jesus comes again. And – as Paul says – for those of us who are alive at Jesus’ return, we – too – will join with those who are already deceased to meet and be with Christ forever.

And this is why we can boldly proclaim with hope the words we confess every week: Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.

Therefore, Paul urges us: “Encourage one another with these words.”

Paul then provides further encouragement in our passage for today.

“Now regarding the times and the seasons,” Paul says, “we will not know the time Jesus will return again. It will happen quickly – when we least expect it – like when a woman’s labor pains suddenly kick in or when a thief appears in the middle of the night.”

However, we must not live without hope and consumed in fear. For – we are not asleep, we are not dead – Paul reminds us. We are not children of the dark, children of the night, where our eyes remain closed to our neighbors needs, the world’s injustices, or to the joys and beauty that surround us. Rather, we are children of the light, children of the day.

“Therefore, let us not fall asleep, as others do,” Paul urges us. “Keep awake.”

*****

Now, you may be wondering what happened to Joshua in the movie Wide Awake. After a while, he finally announces one day that he is going to go on a mission to look for God to make sure his grandpa is okay. And so throughout the rest of the movie, Joshua goes in search for God. And while on his journey, Joshua begins to find some joy through his friends and a new adolescent crush and relationship, whose name – of course – is none other than Hope.

And he eventually gains empathy for those whom he had least expected, including the not-so-popular annoying kid who longs for attention and the class bully that Joshua later realizes is using his aggression to cover his own insecurities and struggles at home. By the end of the movie, Joshua is able to get out of bed easily, have fun with his friends, and find joys in the world around him. And he finally comes to the conclusion that his grandfather is okay because Joshua had found God. Because God had, indeed, been present in the little things in life, through the people he had encountered, and through the empathy and compassion he had shared with others.

At the end of the movie, Joshua explains this as he reads a poem he wrote in class: “I spent this year looking for something, and ended up seeing everything around me. It’s like I was asleep. I’m wide awake now.”

*****

I think this is sort of what Paul is talking about in his letter to the Thessalonians when he encourages his readers to live as children of the day. For – Paul says – we can hold onto the hope that God has not destined for us wrath, but rather God has destined for us salvation through Jesus Christ. A salvation that comes through and because of our Messiah, our loving Lord and Savior, who died for each one of us, so that we might live with him. That not only will we live with God for eternity after we pass on from this world, but that we might also live with and experience God – in the here and now – as we are awake and alive in this world today.

It is for this reason that Paul urges us to be not afraid. To shield our hearts with faith and love.  To protect our minds with the hope of salvation that we have in the promise of Jesus, who died for us so that we might live.

So let us choose to live. To remain wide awake to what’s happening in the world around us.

Let us choose hope over fear.

And therefore, as Paul says, encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are already doing.

Amen.