Persistent Faith

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Proper 15 + August 20, 2017 + Matthew 10:21-28

Preached August 20th at Zion Evangelical Lutheran Church

A woman is calling out to Jesus for help. Surely, he will listen. Surely, he cares about her. Her daughter is possessed by a demon and she knows where to go for help. She goes to the men she’s heard about. The men who cast out demons and restore those possessed back to their communities. They are here for her.

All she has to do is ask for help. These men have the power of God in their hands. These men have the power. She’s heard about these men and their willingness to help. They will help her. Surely, they will help her. She hears the crowd of disciples walking by. She hears Jesus preaching. Now is her chance. Now, she will get healing for her daughter. She feels hopeful.

The woman cries out loudly, “Show me mercy, Son of David! My daughter is suffering!” She asks for mercy. She calls Jesus “Son of David.” But he didn’t respond. Did he not hear her? Is “Son of David” not his name?

Motivated by her daughter’s suffering, she keeps yelling. She follows the men. “Have mercy on us! My daughter is suffering! Help us!”

They keep walking, ignoring her. She follows and repeats her message. “Help us!”

Finally, annoyed by her persistence, the disciples appeal to Jesus to tend to her. But not to heal her. To send her away. “We can’t make her stop. Jesus, send her away. She is annoying us.”

If they were the disciples of Jesus, surely they would have had compassion on her. This is what they do, right? They heal the sick, free the possessed. This is their calling, their purpose. And surely, Jesus would turn around and demand that his disciples attend to this woman. There is a daughter who is suffering and in need of healing.

Instead, Jesus replies, “I’ve been sent only to the lost sheep, the people of Israel.” What?! Jesus denies her request? Jesus says to her, in front of all his disciples, “You’re not my problem.”

Jesus declares publicly that he is only there to serve the people of Israel. This can’t be right. Did y’all read that in the text, too? Did you see that? Am I reading this right?

Jesus is claiming that God has sent him only to care for the lost sheep of Israel. That means his priority is only for Jewish people who have gone astray.

Did we read that right? By using the phrase, “lost sheep, the people of Israel,” he is implying that his job is to return these sheep to the nation of Israel. He finds which sheep that have left the fold and returns them to Israel where they can be brought up in the law. Surely, there is an explanation for this. Surely, Jesus wouldn’t be exclusive or nationalistic. Surely, we aren’t reading this right. Surely, we are missing something.

I guess we better read on.

The woman persists. She kneels before Jesus. Her voice drops. Her yelling ceases. She stops the crowd. “Lord, help me.” She calls Jesus by a different name this time. She calls him, “Lord.” Kyrie. Help me.

The crowd is silent. They are watching this exchange. They are aghast at the boldness of this woman. She defied the authority of these men. They told her to be quiet. They told her to stop bothering Jesus. She persisted. She went directly to Jesus, the Son of David, and begged for his attention. He sent her away, but she didn’t go away.

Surely, he would strike her down. Surely, he would put her in her place. The crowd is watching. The woman, kneeling in the dirt before Jesus, asks again, “Lord, help me.”

Jesus doesn’t disappoint the crowd. He puts the woman in her place. He says an extremely offensive thing, “It is not good to take the children’s bread and toss it to dogs.” He tells this woman, the lost sheep of Israel are the children. She is the dog begging at the table. He tells her that her request is taking his attention from the children. She, the dog, is putting herself above the children.

Are you reading this? Are you hearing this? Is this our same Jesus? The Jesus who silences the crowd and says, “No, no, let them come to me. Let the blind man be healed.” Is this the same Jesus who spoke to the woman at the well? Is this the same Jesus who just 6 chapters prior, heals the woman who had been bleeding for twelve years? Is this the same Jesus who we talk about every Sunday? Our same Jesus who welcomes all of us, even those of us who aren’t Jewish, to eat at the table? Is this our same Jesus? Did he really just call her a dog in front of his disciples?

Unfazed, and unwavering, the woman persists. She says, “Yes, Lord. But even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall off their masters’ table.”

“Sure, call me a dog. Tell me that I’m not your child or your priority. Tell me you can’t be bothered by my request. Tell me I’m not good enough to warrant your attention. Just heal my daughter. I’ll take it. Like a dog begging at the table, I am happy to get any scraps I can. Just heal my daughter.” Her words stop Jesus in his tracks.

Jesus hears the woman. He says, “Great is your faith.” Matthew then tells us that her daughter was healed instantly.

For those of us who are wanting Jesus to answer our prayers, we might be wondering at this point in the story, what was it that the woman did to get her prayers answered? Why did Jesus finally choose to respond to her? If I have “great faith” would that mean Jesus would listen to me? If my faith was big enough could my prayers be answered?

Just for a moment, let’s not rush to coming up with a formula for getting our requests answered. Let’s not try to answer our lifelong question of, “What can I do to make God listen to me?” Let’s look at this woman. Let’s listen to her request. Let’s consider her experience.

She persisted with her request in the midst of public embarrassment, being ignored, being seen as an annoying pest for someone to deal with. She knew what she needed and she persisted with her request. She was told, “no” multiple times, but she didn’t give up. She persisted.

How frustrating it is to have people not listen to her. How frustrating it is to have the group of men tell her to be quiet. How embarrassing it is for her to hear the men ask their leader, Jesus, to deal with her- to silence her. How awful it must have been to be called a dog in front of all of those people. But, she persisted. She never waivered. And the disciples are seen as fools and Jesus is impressed with her great faith. And her daughter is healed instantly.

Dear friends, we know this woman. We are this woman.

We are living in a time where it seems like our pleas are falling on deaf ears. We are fighting for justice but folks tell us to just sit down and be nice. We try and try and try and try but it seems like nothing is working. We advocate for the poor, but the system keeps them poor. We speak up for the marginalized but those in power deny there is a problem. We meet to pray and to work to dismantle racism, but then they meet to protest, then we counter, but then someone dies. So we get up and we try again. We try to make our voices heard, we try to affect change, we try and we try and we try. But they, the people in power, don’t believe us.

Even though it seems like all our efforts for peace and justice aren’t working, please be encouraged.

The more irritated they, those in power, are annoyed, the more we know our message is being heard. When the woman was loudly crying out to Jesus, that is when they, the disciples, those in power, got the most annoyed. That is when they wanted to silence her. But she kept crying out. She kept after Jesus. She begged, she demanded, for him to listen to her. She persisted and her daughter was healed.

If you are discouraged in your efforts to work for peace, be the Canaanite woman. If you are frustrated in your efforts for reconciliation, pursue with the same fervor you would if life depended on it. Because lives do depend on our work for justice.

Staying positive, staying hopeful, feeling close to God- none of these are markers of great faith. Instead, great faith is marked by persistence, by pursuit after God’s will.

Let us all persist so that God’s kingdom will come and God’s will be done.

Holy God, teach us through the story of this woman in our passage today. Show us how to love and advocate for those who need you to intervene. Show us how to pray on behalf of those who suffer. Forgive us when we are complacent and recharge us when we are tired.

Amen

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The Occupation

 

Text: Acts 1:6-14

Today, we find the disciples gathered together again, and Jesus was among them. The resurrection happened 40 days ago and for the past few weeks, Jesus had been tying up loose ends, so to speak.

This time, the disciples ask him, “So, now will you restore the kingdom to Israel?” Jesus responds, “It’s not for you to know what the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you.” After he finished speaking, he was lifted up and a cloud blocked their view of him. Two men in white robes appeared and said, “why do you stand looking up toward heaven? Jesus has been and he will come back the same way you saw him go.” And just like that, Jesus left them.

Some of the disciples had expected Jesus to restore political balance. All the times that Jesus referred to the kingdom of God or the kingdom of heaven, they assumed this meant a political change. For some of the disciples, that’s why they followed him around on his three year ministry. They wanted political change.

Me too, disciples, me too.

These disciples didn’t quite know he was God’s son or that he was the one saving them from the destruction of sin. They hadn’t quite made that leap that eternal life was theirs because of their relationship with him. They were still waiting to see what Jesus would do here on earth. What was Jesus going to do about their lives today?

They assumed that Jesus was supposed to specifically dismantle the Roman occupation.

In the book of Luke, the first time the followers of Jesus encounter him post death and resurrection was on the road to Emmaus. It was the afternoon after the empty tomb was discovered by the women. They say to him then, “We thought he would be the one to redeem Israel.”

In the next few hours, Jesus walks with them, explaining the historical context of the prophets’ words and how they laid out the case that Jesus was in fact the one to redeem Israel. But it became clear, the redemption wasn’t happening the way they originally expected it to.

Jesus then began his 40 day journey around the countryside, passing through walls and transporting from place to place, connecting with and encouraging his followers. Today, we find ourselves back with the questioning disciples and Jesus is wrapping up his resurrection encore.

I imagine the disciples saying to each other and to Jesus, “We waited 40 days while you made your rounds. Surely, restoration and redemption happens now!” I sense their frustration and impatience.

The disciples were hoping that Jerusalem would receive political independence. They were just there during the Passover festival and the Roman occupation was very apparent. They could see the beefed up military presence everywhere they went. They witnessed the Romans’ power when they hoisted Jesus up on the cross. The person who was supposed to dismantle the Roman power was the one who lost his, it seemed.

The followers had a clear expectation of Jesus: he was to give them a new and independent kingdom. Not run by Roman guards, but instead by a compassionate and liberating leader who cares for the poor and the sick. The rich would finally be taken down. The poor would finally be lifted up. This was a leader of and for the people- not the lobbyists or corporations! They wouldn’t even need universal health care because their new leader was a miraculous healer! They knew that, with Jesus in power, the rich would finally pay their fair share of taxes.

There was hope for some kind of change. Some kind of liberty even. They could practice their faith. They would have a voice. There was hope!

But. But then the occupiers killed their leader. Their hope was in Jesus and now he was dead. Hope laid with Jesus in that tomb. Shock and silence replaced that hope.

It turns out that Jesus wasn’t dead after all. And he was now making the rounds. So, they wondered, is it that time now? Is the time now for the occupation to end? Is the time now for the evil leaders to be overthrown? Please, make it be that time.

And Jesus responds with, “God’s timing is not for you to know.” What do you mean, we can’t know God’s timing? You’re here with us right now. You just defeated death! Surely, timing of the restoration is something you could share with us- those of us who were at the cross with you, met you on the road, gave you a second chance when we realized you weren’t actually dead. Surely, we could be trusted with this information. Just tell us, will the occupation ever end?

Jesus continues, “But. You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” Theirs was a different occupation.

Jesus knew that they weren’t really needing to know God’s timing. They might have asked for the details of the plan- How long, Oh Lord, how long? They might want to know what is coming next, or how it will all shake out. Jesus knew that their questions about the occupation and restoration and timing, all actually were attempts to meet an entirely different need. A need that they weren’t quite aware of yet. A need met by the Holy Spirit.

So, Jesus, able to sift through their anxiety, responds, “You don’t need to know God’s timing.” God will handle the timing of the restoration. God is in control over this and God is with you. You’re not going to be left alone. And this is sure, God will make all things right.

He tells the apostles that they will be receiving the Holy Spirit and with that, they will receive power.

The ministry of Jesus didn’t stop with his death or even his resurrection. And the ministry of Jesus doesn’t end with the ascension. We know what will happen next. We know that the disciples will begin forming the church soon. We will hear next week that the Holy Spirit comes down on all the believers and empowers us to do God’s work in the world.

Just as those two men sat in the tomb and asked the women on Easter morning, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” We see those two men show up again, asking “Why do you stand looking up toward heaven?”

The disciples had asked Jesus, “Is the time now? Is restoration going to happen now?”

Looking out over the church, we can answer the disciples’ question. The time is now, the day is today. Today, we will work for the restoration of all of God’s people. We are under a new occupation- one where the Holy Spirit and love have the power.

The road will be tough. It’s hard to work for peace and restoration when the world seems to want tear itself apart through violence. But this work that we are called to, isn’t just up to us. We aren’t working on our own. We have been given the Holy Spirit and we have each other.

We are reminded in our Epistle reading today, “after you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, support, strengthen, and establish you.”

The restoration of the world isn’t completed in just one act. As we surrender our desire for control, we will find that we can trust the slow work of God. We work towards this restoration, one day at a time, not seeing the whole picture, but we trust that God is knitting it together alongside of us.

May God grant us all the courage to continue to pursue restoration, even when the path or timing aren’t clear to us. And may we all bear witness to the power of love.

Amen.

 

BYOF: Bring your own friend

Luke 24:13-35 The Road to Emmaus

We find two disciples walking along a road on that same day Easter Sunday. The women had just discovered an empty tomb that morning and the male disciples had verified what they heard from the women.

We can imagine that there was still a group of the followers sitting together in a room, stunned and confused, trying to figure out what had happened. Were the angels and the women telling the truth? Did we actually witness a resurrection? What does all of this mean?

We catch up with two disciples on a seven mile walk from Jerusalem to Emmaus. We don’t know who they are. One of them is named Cleopas and this is the first and last time we encounter this particular disciple. He has a friend with him, unnamed.

[We often talk about the twelve disciples who joined Jesus in his ministry but we forget that there were actually many more followers. Cleopas was one of them. Close enough to know all about the events that had transpired, but not quite famous enough to get any other mentions throughout the gospels.]

This walk took the two crestfallen disciples around two hours. And they were discussing everything they had encountered over the last week. The donkey ride into Jerusalem, the public crucifixion of their lord, the empty tomb just discovered that morning. They had a lot to cover. As they were walking along the road, Jesus appears to them. But they don’t recognize him at all. Apparently, resurrections make folks unrecognizable.

Jesus asks them, “What are y’all talking about?” and they recounted the events of the week. They say, “We had hoped that Jesus was the one who would redeem Israel.” It would appear that Jesus was triggered by that statement because he then says, “You foolish people! Your dull minds keep you from believing everything the prophets talked about!” Jesus sounds a bit defensive here.

I don’t know about you, but when I’m grieving or confused, I don’t respond well to being called foolish and being shamed about not understanding prophecies. “Well, you should have known better,” Jesus seems to say.

Jesus walks with them to Emmaus, explaining the words of the prophets- what we call the Older Testament- and how what they had written had been fulfilled by the events of the weekend. The disciples then say to Stranger Jesus, “Stay with us. It’s nearly evening and the day is almost over.”

This is the part that I’m surprised by. Even though Jesus calls the disciples stupid and shames them for not understanding his death and resurrection, they still invite him to stay with them in the village.

This extension of hospitality and appreciation for the bible study floors me. I can promise you that if my lord and savior was killed in front of me, his body was missing, and I was sad and confused, processing with my friend while on a 7 mile walk, then a stranger calls me stupid, inviting him into my home is not on the forefront of my mind.

But something, maybe someone, compels them to extend this offer of hospitality. And boy are they glad they did.

They walked into Cleopas’ home, the door squeaked open. They had been gone for over a week, so the air was a bit stale. Cleopas opened up the windows and his friend cleared off the table and prepared dinner. Cleopas placed the bread and the wine on the table as his friend brought in the food. They were at the table and Jesus blessed the bread and broke it. At that moment, the disciples recognized the stranger to be Jesus. As soon as their eyes were open, Jesus vanishes. Isn’t that how it goes when you encounter the incredible?

“Did we really see Jesus?”

“Did that actually just happen? Did you see it too?”

“You know, I do seem to recall that my heart was burning in my chest as he spoke.”

Cleopas and his friend immediately returned back to Jerusalem- another 2 hour walk, though I suppose they went faster this time, and found the eleven to report what had happened to them. As they walked in the door, they heard the eleven discussing the fact that Jesus just had made another appearance, this time to Simon.

This story changes my view of Jesus. He’s still the snarky savior we met on his ministry and have grown to love. He still has a commitment to the truth. He is still teaching. But now, we’ve got a resurrected Jesus who appears in multiple locations at the same time.

We can see, for the first time, the revelation of Jesus in the breaking of the bread. This is a revelation that is still happening Sunday after Sunday as we break bread together.

Do you remember the first time you took communion? Or do you remember the first time that communion meant something? I do.

It was the first time I was permitted to serve communion. I came from a faith tradition where women weren’t allowed up front unless they were in the choir. We couldn’t serve communion, we couldn’t read the scripture, certainly couldn’t preach.

But that night, I was serving communion at Mercy Seat Lutheran Church in Northeast. I was holding the bread, breaking off smaller pieces, while my church friends walked up to me with their palms open. They made eye contact with me and I said, “This is the body of Christ given for you in love.” I placed the bread in their hands and they dipped it in the chalice next to me. I repeated that message 25 times that night, each time it was as if I heard it for the first time.

“This is the body of Christ given for you in love.”

My heart was broken open and was on fire. By the end of Communion, I was shaking. My throat was tight and my eyes filled with tears. I believed it. I believed that this was Christ’s body. I believed that it was given out of love. I believed that as we partook in this ancient tradition, we were becoming the body of Christ, together.

This is why, every time I preside over the table, I stumble over the words. This is why I never can quite tear off the right size of bread- it’s either too large, too small, or too crumbly. This is why I try to slow down the line.

“This is the body of Christ, given for you in love.” Do you hear these words? Do you believe them? Is your heart on fire at this table?

Each week, we partake in this moment. Someone tears the bread and puts it into your hand. Someone reminds you that the wine is the blood, Christ’s life force, being poured out for you. We pray a prayer, asking God to strengthen us by this meal. This tiny piece of bread and this tiny drop of wine, gets us through the week. Piece by piece, dip by dip, we encounter Jesus.

This is why we want to invite everyone we’ve ever met to this table. By extending welcome, we share in God’s welcome as well. Our hospitality is how others will experience God’s hospitality. As we saw in today’s gospel, God is made known in the breaking of the bread. Who will you invite to the table? Either at home or this table here. Who, in your life, needs to be invited into God’s presence?

The gospel subverts our understanding about Jesus. He’s not some legalistic dude trying to get us to do the right thing, be righteous, be perfect, follow all the rules.

No, he’s a guy, our savior, who desires to be known. He was irritated and ticked at the disciples on the road because the one thing Jesus wants, the reason why he is God-made-flesh, is because he wants to be known. And the disciples didn’t recognize him at first. So, instead of giving up on them, he spent time with them, explained the scriptures once again, and then broke bread.

They met Jesus that day at their table and Jesus, to this day, meets us here at this table.

So, when you come up for communion today, hear these words, “This is the body of Christ, given for you in love. This is the blood of Christ, poured for you.” Then, ask yourself, who else could I invite to this table? Who else needs to encounter the presence of Jesus?

This is the gospel: the Lord has risen and he is made known in the breaking of the bread.

Amen.

We all can tell this story: a feminist perspective of the resurrection

Luke 24:1-12

Women haven’t been taken seriously for quite a while now.

In ancient Jewish Law, a woman couldn’t testify in a trial. She had to bring two male witnesses to testify on her behalf. Hence why the writer of Luke has the women in our gospel reading today bringing the men back to verify what they saw.

2000 years of so-called progress later, America isn’t much better.

It wasn’t until 1971 when states could no longer bar women from practicing law and in 1975 when it was decided that states do not have the right to exclude women from juries.

It’s safe to say that, according to the legal system, testimonies just don’t mean as much coming from a woman. The testimony so much more credible if it comes from a man. We see this bias in legal systems and we see it in our gospel reading today.

I used to work in the corporate world- you know where you have meetings about meetings and that someone will follow up with an email to schedule another meeting. My boss didn’t take me seriously in these meetings. If I made a proposal, he would say, “We will come back to that.” But if my male counterpart proposed the exact same idea, the boss would attend to him. So, in order to get anything accomplished around the office, I would have a pre-meeting with my male colleague and present to him the solution to whatever problem we were working on. My male colleague would then present it to our boss, where it would be approved and celebrated. Projects that I worked on for 6 months were credited to my junior male colleagues.

Every woman can tell this same story.

It was early in the morning after a long night of grieving. The female disciples woke up, eyes still sticky from crying. They had a procedure for this, when someone dies, they go and anoint the body for burial. The women brought the fragrant spices and myrrh to honor the body of their Teacher and the stave off the stench of decomposition.

When they arrived at the tomb, they discovered that the stone had already been moved and the body was gone. Stunned, the women wondered what happened and what they should do next.

Luckily, two men appeared to explain the situation to the women. They said, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He told you that he would rise from the dead.” Thank god, there were two men conveniently placed in the tomb to explain the situation to the women.

The men in the tomb assume that the women are idiots and don’t remember anything that they learned while joining Jesus on his ministry. They say, “Well, actually, the son of God had planned this all along. Weren’t you paying attention? Here, let us explain it to you.”

Why couldn’t the men just let the women be terrified and remain bowed to the ground for a moment? The women were faced with men in dazzling clothes, sitting in the tomb where their leader, their God, had been laid to rest. The body was missing. The women were afraid of what would happen to their bodies, too.

“If you took our Jesus, will you take us, too?”

The writer of Luke uses these women as a rhetorical device- a way to explain to his readers what had happened and to refresh our memory for what Jesus had previously said. Often, in the bible, women are used in stories. Their witness and agency aren’t seen as important or credible on their own. Instead, Luke has us look to the men in the tomb to tell us what happened. And we wait until the male disciples come back to verify what the women said happened. The women’s testimony doesn’t stand on its own.

On the other hand, Jesus chose women to be the first witnesses to the resurrection. The most important event of history- maybe even eternity- was revealed first to women.

The women ran back to the male disciples and reported what they had seen and heard. The men didn’t believe them, so they had to check for themselves. When Peter saw it, he went home, amazed. It wasn’t until Peter saw it for himself that he actually believed what had happened.

 Were the men more surprised that the ladies were telling the truth or that Jesus actually rose from the dead?

Every woman can tell this same story.

 Y’all, we are living in an age of alternative facts and I don’t like it at all. I want true things to be true and lies to be lies. But what’s happening in our country right now is that those in power are creating their own truth. They just decide what they want us to believe and then make that fake reality.

I’m having a problem with this age of alternative facts because the public is believing the bullshit they read on Facebook and what they hear on the news. We aren’t critical thinkers anymore. We are reactive- looking for sides to take. We want to be on the winning side, so the one thing that is supposed to stay constant- reality, is something we rewrite so we can win. We recreate our realities and whatever gets the most shares amongst our friends on our news feeds becomes real.

What are we supposed to believe? What is reality? What is credible?

On Easter, even the thing that we are supposed to be totally sure of- that dead people stay dead- is not a for-sure thing. Jesus died, in front of God and all of those witnesses.

Everyone was sure he was dead.

The soldiers sliced open his side and blood and water poured out. He breathed his last and then was dead. He was put into a tomb, where dead bodies go to lie for all eternity. A huge stone was rolled in front of the tomb to keep the dead body in and the scavengers out. We learn from the women at the burial place is that everything has changed. The dead person didn’t stay dead and the tomb was opened up.

Even more, this person who died- conquered death, that one thing we all thought was for certain- was conquered. He locked the gates of hell and breathed a resurrecting life into all of us.

So, like Jesus, that when we die, the story is not over. When we die, the story has just begun.

In 1851 at the Women’s Convention in Akron, OH, Sojourner Truth gave a speech we now call, Ain’t I A Woman? Her words ring as true today as they did when she first spoke them 166 years ago. I’d like to read a portion of it for us today:

Well, children, where there is so much racket there must be something out of kilter. I think that ‘twixt the negroes of the South and the women at the North, all talking about rights, the white men will be in a fix pretty soon. But what’s all this here talking about?

Then that little man in black there, he says women can’t have as much rights as men, ’cause Christ wasn’t a woman! Where did your Christ come from? Where did your Christ come from? From God and a woman! Man had nothing to do with Him.

If the first woman God ever made was strong enough to turn the world upside down all alone, these women together ought to be able to turn it back , and get it right side up again! And now they is asking to do it, the men better let them.

God revealed evidence of the Resurrection to female disciples first for a reason. This wasn’t accidental. A God who can come back from the dead can decide this and we should take note. Why did God choose women to be the first witnesses to the resurrection?

So, no matter how the government might spin the alternative facts, and no matter what your Facebook feed might say, this is certain: Jesus died. Jesus was buried. Jesus rolled the stone away. The women told the truth and Jesus actually rose from the dead.

 As Ms Truth says, “If the first woman God ever made was strong enough to turn the world upside down all alone, these women together ought to be able to turn it back, and get it right side up again! And now they is asking to do it, the men better let them.”

That’s the thing. The women at the tomb aren’t trying to silence the male disciples or take their power away. These women are bearing witness to a resurrected God. And we should pay attention.

How about this? How about we all join together and support women who are bearing witness to the resurrection? What if we read this story differently and assume these women were telling the truth? How about we all back these women and say, “I believe you!”?

Let’s come together and turn this world back and get it right side up again, together, because of what we’ve witnessed on Easter morning.

The resurrection of Jesus shows us that this is possible. Because we worship a resurrected God, we know that redemption and new life are possible and they will happen.

The dead don’t always stay dead- especially not anymore.

We all can tell this same story. Together.

Amen

The power of love > the love of power

Donkey-Small

Palm Sunday: Luke 19:28-44

Grace and peace be yours from God our heavenly parent who loves you more than you can measure or even imagine.

Jesus was on the move again.

He approached a couple of villages called Bethphage and Bethany on the Mount of Olives. He delegated a task to two of his disciples. He said, “go into that village and find me a colt tied up. No one has ever ridden it. Bring it to me. If anyone asks what you’re doing, just tell them that I sent you and that I need this colt.”

So, the disciples did as he asked and they stole him a colt. They brought it back to Jesus and placed him on it. Jesus rode into town and before him, members of the crowd created a red carpet of sorts for him by laying their coats along the road.

Crowds began gathering and yelling loudly. They shouted praises up to God because they had witnessed all the miracles Jesus had performed the last few years. There was a huge crowd that day because it was the time of the Passover festival. Many people had come into town for the week-long celebration.

We can suppose that the former leper from Galilee was there- his life forever changed by Jesus. He used to be banned to outside of the city walls because of his illness. But Jesus changed that. The paralyzed servant was thrilled to be attending his first festival in years since he now could move on his own. Peter’s mother-in-law was probably there because Jesus healed her. The formerly dead son of the widow, very much alive, was there- because of Jesus. The woman with her excessive bleeding all dried up, was actually able to attend the festival this time. Her disease otherwise kept her unclean and unable to be there. Mary of Magdala was there, freed from the evil spirits, she had been able to follow Jesus’ ministry around the countryside and now was able to attend Passover with her community. The man who received his sight back from Jesus was now able to see Jesus on that colt, riding down the red carpet into Jerusalem.

All these people and even more who had experienced the power of Jesus, gathered together and formed this crowd. They hollered in their loudest, “I’ve been saved by Jesus” voices, “Blessings on the king who comes in the name of the lord. Peace in heaven and glory in the highest heavens!”

Jesus is their hero and he’s returning back to Jerusalem from his mission to save and to heal the sick. They rolled out the carpet, thrilled to see their hero come back. They had met him once before, that time that he healed him. Now, with a throng of newly healed and newly saved people from all over, they proclaimed their joy and their thrill to see him again.

They shared their stories with the person next to them. “That’s the guy I was telling you about, Jesus. He is the one who made this bum leg work again.”

“No way! That’s the guy I told you about, too! He made it so I can hear all these people yelling!”

What would you be telling the person next to you, if you were in that crowd? Would you tell the story about how Jesus restored a relationship between warring family members? Would you tell the story of how Jesus made sure you were fed during your unemployment? Would you tell the story about how Jesus carried you through that significant grief and now you can see the sun again? What story would you tell the person next to you in the crowd?

Over the hubbub, Jesus hears a few Pharisees tell him to quiet down the crowd. They are afraid that the powers that be would hear what these people were saying about Jesus. The Pharisees worried that Caesar might hear this crowd claim that Jesus was the king who comes in the name of the lord. That’s a statement only to be used for the emperor. The Pharisees know that this kind of treason could get Jesus killed. “Tell them to quiet down, Jesus, for your own safety.” They call him Didaskale- Teacher of God.

Looking at the crowd, the faces turned toward him, filled with gratitude and honor, Jesus knew they couldn’t be silent. There was the guy who used to have debilitating seizures, smiling and cheering. There was the man who used to be chained up in the graveyard, clapping his hands, hugging the people around him. These are lives that have been changed and people have been restored to their community. Do you know what that does to a person? No, this crowd couldn’t be silent.

Jesus and the baby donkey continue on their slow journey up the road. The city of Jerusalem came into view.

Bursting into tears, Jesus wept, his heart breaking. He said to the city, “If only you knew what was happening today. You could have been on the path to peace. But, completely unaware of what has happened to this crowd, completely unaware of what will transpire on Friday, you are completely unaware that God is visiting you now. You will be destroyed by your thirst for war. Your walls will be torn down and your enemies will crush you.”

Jesus’ heart breaks. He sees the joy of the crowd, but he also sees how that joy will come to an end. He sees that, even though these individual lives have been changed, so much more needs to change. Humans still need to be freed from their thirst for violence and greed for supremacy. The system still exploits the vulnerable and kings of this world still only want more power. So, his heart breaks.

The love of power always destroys cities. The thirst for power, to win over, to rule, destroys real lives. The gospel subverts our understanding of power and should subvert our understanding of how to be powerful.

We see this subversion in Jesus’ vehicle choice for his triumphant entry. Celebrities drive powerful, nice cars. The president shows up in a motorcade. A war hero rides a powerful stallion back from conquering the enemy. And Jesus rides a gangly colt that has never been ridden before. This colt would be confused and inefficient. This is an unimpressive vehicle for the hero to ride through the crowds. And yet, the crowd is thrilled to see Jesus. They know him! This is their hero. That’s the guy who healed them.

We see the subversion of power in the Pharisees’ concern for Jesus. Normally, this is the group who doesn’t want Jesus to get attention or success. But now, they call him Didaskale, teacher. A term of respect. They speak to him out of concern. “Tell them to be silent, we don’t want the Romans to hear what they are saying.” This powerful hero needs to be protected. This hero is in danger.

We see the subversion of power in the depth of compassion Jesus has for the city of Jerusalem. “If only I could protect you all. If only you knew that God is visiting you right now. God is here.” The presence of God is so quiet and so unassuming, that they don’t even know he’s there. His heart breaks because his work is not finished. It has only started and the pain and destruction that will follow will be catastrophic.

What difference would it make to the world if we accepted compassion, not violence, as strength? What if we saw in this moment, not Jesus being weak or helpless, but what if we saw the power of love being played out? Would we be compelled to join in with this crowd? Would we run ahead to Jerusalem and bang on the doors? “Let us in! We have something to tell you! God is here! God is visiting us! God has brought us peace! We don’t have to kill each other anymore. We don’t have to turn on our neighbor! We don’t have to destroy everything. God is here and God loves us.”

What would happen if we told people our stories of how God’s love changed our lives? What if we put down our guns and gave up our thirst for power and instead, we were overwhelmed with compassion for others, so much so, that we burst into tears?

What if we believed that the power of love is so much greater than the love of power?

 

No reason

“How long have y’all been married?” he asked from across the desk.

“10 years,” I answered, looking at my husband. We smiled at each other, proud of our accomplishments.

“Do you have any kids?” the banker asked.

“No,” I responded. I saw the wheels turning in his head. He started to say something, then remembered that it’s not polite to ask.

He changed the subject, “Do you like the Vikings?”

Today is Pregnancy Loss Awareness Day. Well, on social media it is. For me, every day is Pregnancy Loss Awareness Day.

You don’t realize how many times a day you’re asked about your parenting status by well-meaning small talkers until you’ve experienced pregnancy loss. And being open about it invites many hurtful comments and questions.

Most people want to know 2 things when they hear about our loss:

  1. Why did you lose the pregnancies?
  2. How many?

Neither answer is satisfying to either party.

  1. We don’t know.
  2. We don’t know for sure, but at least 3, probably around 6.

“Well, what does the doctor say?” is ALWAYS the follow up question.

“The doctors say that for 5 of them, they don’t know for sure and there’s no scientific explanation for the losses. 1 of them was due to a subchorionic hemorrhage– cause of which is unknown.”

Then they realize that they feel sad and anxious, so they try to make me feel better.

“Maybe God has a plan…”

“Maybe God doesn’t want you to have children.”

“Well, I know this one couple who couldn’t have kids and then they adopted and then, lo and behold they got pregnant.”

“Well, just keep trying. You’ll be a great mom.”

And so many other well-meaning but not helpful comments.

I usually only respond with a smile and a nod when I hear these comments. I don’t want to get into an argument about my experience. Here’s what I wish I could say, though:

  1. If God planned for us to experience this level of grief, I want no part of that kind of God. You describe a really mean God and I can direct you to some theologians who could help you explore theodicy in a more robust and satisfying way.
  2. I don’t believe that adoption is a consolation prize. I believe that adoption is a calling and adoption is my preference for growing our family.
  3. I won’t keep trying to carry a bio child. I don’t want to. That is a good enough reason. You do not have my permission to try to talk me into it.

For people who have experienced pregnancy loss, I want you to know that you can talk to me about your grief. I know it hurts. I know the days are dark and silent. I am familiar with the isolation. I know the oscillation between pain and relief. It’s all really hard and really shitty and if you need someone to sit in the cave with you and keep watch to make sure you’re safe, I am willing to be that person.

For my pregnant friends who are excited about the life growing within you, I want you to know that I am so excited for you. I did the grief work and I am able to handle hearing about your pregnancy. If you’re anxious, you can voice your concerns with me. You can trust me. I can’t wait to meet your baby and snuggle him or her.

For those of you on the outside, but who want to be supportive of your friends who have experienced pregnancy loss, I want you to know you can talk to me about it. Everyone who grieves needs something different, and I would be honored to help you navigate those muddy waters. For us, the support we received in the form of lasagna, Moscow Mules, and monster cookies, was key. Our best friends sat in our cave with us and kept watch. They let us process our feelings and they trusted us to ask for what we needed.

We planted an apple tree in memory of the pregnancy (no. 4) we lost in October 2013. Every October, the apples ripen and we eat them together, thankful for the life we have gained through that loss. Because of what we have experienced together, these last 10 years have been rich and sweet. Our love for each other has grown. Our understanding of grace, grief, and hope has deepened. Our universe has expanded.

 

 

Do this and they will live

 

(sermon preached 7/10/16 at St John’s of Mound ELCA.)

Link to texts used today

I was standing in the self-help section of my local bookstore the other day. The shelves looked disheveled, riffled through. Brightly colored hardcover books, promising just a few habit changes will bring you success, make you lose 30 pounds, help you gain personal acceptance, help you be more productive, teach you how to slow down, how to empty your closet and fill your bucket. I saw how I could get over my anxiety, how I could quit smoking, how I could start working out, and why I should eat kale.  

Raise your hand if you’ve ever purchased a self-help book. It’s okay. You are in a safe place.

Raise your hand if you’ve ever purchased a book that promises, “You can achieve ABC in just 30 days if you XYZ.” Have you picked up a book with the author and his smiling face, nice looking suit, on the cover, inviting you to become a better you? There’s no shame in wanting to improve. It’s probably a good idea to want to increase your happiness, improve the quality of your life, decrease health concerns. If you’ve ever purchased one of these books, you’re not alone. In fact, the self-help industry receives $10 billion a year. I know I’ve contributed $128 this year to the cause.

My favorite self-help book experience, back when I used to work in a bookstore, was the customer who ordered 4 different books on how to declutter her life. I wanted to say, “I’ll save you $60 and help you declutter- don’t buy those 4 books.”

Our old testament passage is from the book of Deuteronomy and has been used in what is called the prosperity gospel. Often times, you can find prosperity gospel books in the self help section of the bookstore.

“and the Lord your God will make you abundantly prosperous in all your undertakings.”

The prosperity gospel teaches that God wants you to become wealthy and that he has prescribed a way for you to become wealthy. If you follow his commandments, you will be rewarded with good things. A nice home, a nice car, honor roll students, a golden retriever that walks nicely on leash. Your success is God’s way of putting a gold star on your report card for life. But this is taking the verse out of the context it was written in. It’s essentially making the bible a self help book.

But the bible isn’t a self help book.

The bible is a story of how God is madly in love with the world and goes extra lengths to make that love abundantly clear.

This text was written to a displaced and oppressed people. These people were slaves who just recently experienced their emancipation from Pharaoh. And if there is any correlation between the release of the Hebrew slaves to the emancipation of slaves in the American South, their ultimate freedom didn’t come immediately. African Americans are still fighting for their fair treatment in this country. And technically, they were freed 153 years ago.

Our old testament text for today was a sermon Moses gave to the people of Israel, after they had wandered the desert for 40 years. He brought them together and said, “We had this old way of life, enslaved, then wandering. Now we are going to establish ourselves. God has given us his word, he has given us the Law, and we are now going to put down roots. Things are going to get better.”

This isn’t a promise that God is going to make these people rich. This isn’t a verse we can take out of context and say that God is going to reward us for going to church and being good little Christians. This is a text that identifies who the people of God are, who God is, and that this God is a God we are in relationship with. Even more, this text is binding us together. All of the “yous” in this passage are plural.

“You all will prosper.”

“The commandment is near to you all.”

The Israelites, and even us today, are all in this together.

This week, our gospel text is a very well known story, that also reminds us that we are all in this together.

A lawyer comes up to Jesus and asks, “What must I do to gain eternal life?”

Jesus responds with another question, “Well, what have you read in the law and how do you interpret it, dear lawyer?”

The lawyer responds by quoting Deuteronomy chapter 6, verse 5, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. And love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus confirms that the lawyer knows what he’s talking about. He says, ‘Yes, do this and you will live.”

Wait.

Do this and you will live.

I want that. I want to live.

The lawyer wants to live, too.

The lawyer asks Jesus, “So, who is my neighbor?”

If this is a matter of life and death, I need to know who my neighbor is.

 

Jesus tells a parable. There was a man who was beaten and robbed and left for dead.

A priest notices and walks on by.

A Levite notices and walks on by.

Then a Samaritan notices, and was moved to compassion. He used his own money to patch the man up, to get him a safe place to rest and to heal.

 

Jesus asks the lawyer, “So, who acted as a neighbor?” The answer was obvious.

But the lawyer had asked, “Who is my neighbor?” The answer is implied, the man left for dead is our neighbor. He is our responsibility.

The Good Samaritan went above and beyond what is nice.

Last week, as I walked into work, I stepped around a man passed out on the sidewalk. That was nice of me. I checked to see if he was breathing. That was also nice of me. But I didn’t get him breakfast, or take him to an AA meeting, or offer to pay for a hotel so he could sleep it off in comfort. Nope, I just walked around him and thought to myself, “He’s not my responsibility.” I wonder what it would have been like to be moved to compassion so much that I would have been compelled and unsatisfied until that man on the sidewalk was safe, healthy, and sober.

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. And love your neighbor as yourself. Do this and you will live.

This past week, two more men were left by the side of the road.

Well, when I say, “left by the side of the road” it makes the events sound too passive.

Alton Sterling and Philando Castile were shot and dumped on the side of the metaphorical road by those in power. They were left there and they died. They were left there by a system that says, “My life is more valuable than your life.”

Many white people filed by clicking their tongues, saying, “Well, they had it coming.” They walked by the man in the ditch and said, “Well, the officer was just doing his best.” White people walked by and said to each other, “What was he doing with a gun, anyway?” The white people sighed and said, “Well, he was just black at the wrong place and the wrong time.” The white people shook their heads and walked on. Not one of them stopped.

No one said, “Oh! You’re black! Let me protect you from this system.” No one said, “Let me surround you while the storm of racism threatens to destroy you and your family.” No one said, “I believe you.” No one said, “I believe you when you say that injustice happened.” No one said, “I believe you that he shouldn’t have been killed.” No one said, “I believe you that you are scared that this might happen to you or your sons.”

Self-help books seem to make our problems all about us. I gained these 40 pounds, so I need to lose the 40 pounds. I want to be a better person, so I’m going to become a better person. But self help doesn’t go far enough.

The more I think I’m responsible for myself, the more I am isolated, and my neighbor is isolated. The more I think my neighbor is responsible for himself, the more he is going to be isolated and the less likely he is going to receive help. My neighbor is my responsibility. Your neighbor is your responsibility. We are responsible for each other.

The first step of solidarity, is to say, “I believe you.”

We can’t stand by and say this is just a black problem. That people of color need to help themselves or read a book, or change their habits, or become a new you, or become white. We, as white people, can’t sit in our safe houses and safe cars and only offer our thoughts and prayers to those affected by the violence in Orlando, in Baton Rouge, in East Tennessee, in Minneapolis, in St Paul. We can’t just sit here and think about it and pray about it. This violence is happening to our neighbors.

And our neighbors, the safety of our neighbors is our responsibility. This requires more action from us than just thoughts and prayers. Though thoughts and prayers are so needed right now.

As the Rev Dr Martin Luther King jr wrote as he sat in the Birmingham Jail,

“I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial ‘outside agitator’ idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.”

Let me repeat Dr King’s poignant words, “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” So, when Philando was shot in St. Paul, we are indirectly shot. Our trust in the system should be broken, too.

Are you overwhelmed? Are you like me, just treading water and praying for inspiration? What can we do? Is there anything we can do? How can we dismantle this deadly system? Is it possible for us to fix it?

The Gospel should compel us to fix it. The bible tells us that with faith we can move mountains and it’s time to move this mountain.

Let me read our old testament passage once again for us today. This time, I will read it in the Common English Bible, to give us a fresher perspective.

 

This commandment that I’m giving you right now is definitely not too difficult for you. It isn’t unreachable. This mountain is movable. We can do this. But it’s going to take all of us participating- not a single person in this space can duck out.

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. And love your neighbor as yourself. Do this and you will live. Better yet, do this and THEY will live.

God has called us to be agents of peace. God has called us to protect those who are vulnerable. God has commanded that we be his protective arms around all his children, especially God’s children of color. And this isn’t too difficult for us. The word is very close. It is in our mouths. The word is in our hearts. The word is waiting for us to do it.

Peace, equality, hope, healing, dismantled racism, it’s all possible. It’s all at our fingertips. We have been equipped to make this change. God is very, very close to us. The spirit is in all of us and we are the answer to all those thoughts and prayers. God is using us as the answer to all those thoughts and prayers. God is calling us to make a difference. We will make a difference because God will answer our prayers and God will answer the prayers of our black brothers and sisters.

As Reverend King said, “Oppressed people cannot remain oppressed forever.” All humans have the desire and the calling to be free.

And those of us who are free- it is our privilege to bring about God’s freedom to all people.

It is our privilege to do God’s commands.

It is our privilege to put our arms around God’s black children and say, “We want to make this better for you. We will make this better.”

The Lord your God will help you succeed in everything you do.

We prosper because we are doing God’s commands, which are all about caring for one another and looking out for the outsider. This week, look for the outsider. Look for the men in the ditch. Look for opportunities to bring about healing into this world.

We have got to “Be the change we want to see in the world.” It is a matter of life and death. Do this and they will live.

Amen