Sermon for 8/28/16 Luke 14:1, 7-14

One of the years that I was a student at Northwest Missouri State University (the finest division 2 college in all the land) I invited a friend home for Thanksgiving break. Angel and I lived on the same floor of our dormitory and she was from the east coast. Thanksgiving break was short and Angel would have just stayed around had she not come home with me. I was nervous for her to come home with me because she is African American and my grandma was, well….raised during a different time. But, Angel and I were close friends, involved in a lot of the same things. We even had cute nicknames for one another: she was Pepper and I was Salt. The nicknames weren’t because what you think. It’s because she’s black and I’m white (oh….that’s what you thought, huh)? We sat down to a wonderful thanksgiving feast and my Nannie says “someone please pass me some more turkey.” And someone asked her “do you want white meat or dark meat?” And she responded (I think without even thinking) “I don’t care. I’m not prejudiced.”

Today’s gospel reading focuses on two themes: hospitality and humility. One of the things that might help you to understand this reading a bit more is to understand weddings during the time of Jesus. As you may know, they lasted for days. The most important person invited (usually it was a government official) sat in the middle of the table. And this person didn’t necessarily sit, but they were lounging. It helped with digestion. Seating at a wedding was a show of status and wealth. The poorer you were or the less status you had, the more likely you were to be sat far far away from the center of the room. Jesus observes that those invited to a dinner assumed the place of honor. Jesus, being Jesus, challenges these ideas. “What if” he says “those of you who normally sit at the head of the table instead sit at the end of the table and save the head for someone who wouldn’t normally have such an honor?” That kind of thinking is what got Jesus a one way ticket to crucifixion.

I think when we hear this gospel, we often put ourselves in the place of the one offering hospitality. We may think of ourselves as the party thrower, the “inviter” instead of the “invitee.” In many ways, it can be helpful to think of ourselves that way on occasion. It’s good to be reminded that hospitality is a form of ministry. It’s important that people feel welcomed. Hospitality is more than opening a door for someone. Hospitality, when it comes down to it, is helping others to fully live into who God created them to be. Let me give you an example or two.

I said at our semi-annual meeting that I feel like we’re inching closer and closer to an interesting time as church. I’m excited but also scared to death (in a good way, if that’s possible). Because of God, and thanks to the Holy Spirit, we are experiencing an influx of new members, visitors, and maybe just curious passer-bys. Whatever the case may be, if you’ve started coming to church here since I became the pastor (and that means you’re “new”) I want to thank you. You make us better. At the same time, we might be coming close to experiencing growing pains. We might be inching closer and closer to that moment where, if you’ve been here for a long period of time, you may think “this growth thing is great, but these new people are coming, they’re sitting in my pew, things are changing, Pastor is changing things, everything is changing and this isn’t my church anymore.” While I can understand, appreciate, and sympathize with you if that’s how you feel, I also feel it’s my duty to remind all of us that this isn’t “our church.” It’s God’s church. This is where the humility part of today’s Gospel comes in.

Hospitality in this place might look like offering your bulletin to someone who doesn’t have one. Offering to either sit with someone you may not recognize or inviting them to sit with you. Explaining how communion is taken. So many times in church we use “church” language that doesn’t mean anything to anyone outside of these doors. If you used the words “intinction or narthex” outside the church, you’d get strange glances. Offer your hymnal (if there’s not one near by). Introduce yourself. I know this is a tricky subject for some of you. I often hear you worry that if you introduce yourself to someone who’s been coming here for a while then embarrassment and maybe even shame might follow. Take the risk. Blame me if you want. Show people to the bathroom, invite them to coffee, and show them the 43 ways to get downstairs. All of these small things may seem insignificant to you. But to someone else, it takes the pressure off worrying about “doing things right” and instead, being able to be fully present in worship. God created us to be in community; help one another to be a part of this community.

But where this text trips us up is that we’re not the “inviters” to any party, to any table, to anything where God is present and the guest of honor; this is especially true in church. This isn’t your church, our church, or my church; it’s God’s church. It’s not your table, our table, or even my table, this is God’s table. And the thing is, we shouldn’t be sitting at the head of this table, we shouldn’t be sitting at the end where we barely get crumbs, heck, we don’t even deserve to be invited to the table. And yet…yet, because of, and only because of God’s grace do we get an invitation. I don’t invite you to this table, you’re not drug to this table by your parents or spouse, you don’t come to this table out of a sense of guilt or duty. You come because God has invited you.

God invites us, despite ourselves, and not because of who we are, but because of whose we are, to a table and a feast unlike any we could ever have. God invites us, despite everything we have done. God invites us, despite what the world may say about us. God invites us, despite what we may say about ourselves. God invites us when everything else says “you’re not worthy.” God invites us even when we have no clue why we were invited. And God invites us over and over and over again because there’s no such thing as too much grace. One of my favorite hymns is “Chief of Sinners Though I Be.” The words are “Chief of sinners though I be, Jesus shed his blood for me, died that I might live on high, lives that I might never die. As the branch is to the vine, I am his, and he is mine.” Chief of sinners. Not “captain” or “sergeant” or anything else. Chief, the biggest one there is. But, God, who knows that because of our sins we are: poor in spirit, crippled by our sins, lame thanks to constant temptations, and blind to the hurting world around us, invites us to a feast. In that moment, it is about you. The body of Christ, hung on a cross, beaten, bruised, mocked, stabbed, and stripped bare: given, for you. The blood of Christ, poured out, spilled, wasted, drained out: shed, for you. In that moment, there’s nothing more humbling, nothing that can knock a full grown man (or woman) to their knees more than “for you.” None of us deserve it. And we sit at the head of the table because that’s where God puts us.

 

Sermon for 8/21/16 Luke 13:10-17

“I don’t know that I want to go to the ER,” I said, “there are a lot of people out there worse off than I am.” That is exactly what I said and an email to my doctor earlier this week. I was going on my 72nd hour of having a migraine. I could no longer function like a normal human being functions. I had already been to the emergency room once, but the migraine still persisted. This was the worst migraine I had experienced since giving birth to Ellen. And that also (at the time) put me back in the hospital. I was at a loss and had no idea what to do. The truth is, I was willing to try anything. But I did not like the idea of going back to the ER. I had gone just the day before and had to share a room with someone. That itself was not terrible. The fact that she had to bring her for-year-old daughter who knew only one volume for her speaking (which by the way, was obnoxiously loud) was what I was afraid of happening the second time around. In addition, this migraine caused me to be sensitive to light, sound, and smell. Going for a car ride was actually torture. If you have never had a migraine, I do not actually recommend it. But the doctor called me into her office. The nurse said we can give you something called Toradol for pain and something for the nausea. So, being willing to try anything at that point in time, I let the nurse stick two big needles in each arm. I had only been in pain for about four days. But the relief I received was almost instantaneous. I was never so glad to feel normal again, whatever that means.

The woman in our story today had been bent over and hurting for 18 years. 18 years. Can you imagine? Can you imagine being in pain for 18 years? For some of you, I know that this is not something you have to imagine. Some of you have been in pain for 18 years or longer. Some of you have been fighting one element after another, after another, after another. You seem to have one issue resolved, just to have another one pop right back up. If someone offered you relief, wouldn’t you take it? It wouldn’t matter what the circumstances would be, would you jump at the opportunity to be pain-free?

Maybe you have not been in physical pain for 18 years, but mental pain. Maybe you fight the demons of depression, anxiety, or other mental health issues that have you running to dark spaces. Maybe you fear to name your demons because then they become all too real. Maybe you keep to yourself because the shame and stigma associated with people like you is just too much to bear. Maybe you can name off all of your meds on one hand like they were the name of candy. Perhaps you thought about ending your life before God has called you home. Maybe you’ve thought about it more than once. Maybe you thought about it this morning. Maybe those demons are so dark that you dare not tell anyone else for fear of being chastised.

Maybe you are not in physical, or mental pain, but emotional pain. Maybe you are suffering from broken relationships that go longer than 18 years. Maybe you haven’t spoken with someone who you call “family” in over a generation. Maybe you know you have a brother, sister, mom or dad, or other relations that live close by, but never darken your doorstep. Maybe you have broken Friendships that are just too painful to speak of. Maybe you recall having a good friend who did something to betray your trust and that friendship is no longer. 18 years can seem like a short time when you think about denial or betrayal.

Or maybe, dare I say, you are not spiritually well. Maybe you have not been spiritually well in a long time. Perhaps the church made a decision you did not agree with, or a pastor did something that greatly disappointed you, and you have not been the same since. Maybe you decided that one Sunday you would just not come to church. And one Sunday turned into two Sundays, turned into three Sundays, turned into 18 years. And for some reason, God called you to this place this morning.

No matter what our ailments might be, my friends, I daresay, we all are battling something. And I think we may all be able to name something in our lives, that given the chance, we would jump at the opportunity to be healed. So for this woman who has been suffering for 18 years, and for us, it does not matter that Jesus comes to us on the Sabbath day. The leaders of the synagogue want him to obey the law to keep the Sabbath holy. But see Jesus sees the opportunity to do exactly what Jesus does: care for others. He cares not that this opportunity comes on the Sabbath. What if this woman had been suffering for 18 years and one more day would have literally killed her? Our call is the same as Jesus’: when the opportunity comes to heal or be healed, take it. And what does the woman do when she is healed? She immediately rises and begins to praise God. Now, I know it doesn’t say this in English, but in the original Greek text, the praising is in the form of ongoing praise. So this woman didn’t praise God once and walk away, but she praised God and praised God and praised God and praised God and continued on and on.

Those in the synagogue wanted to remind Jesus of the Jewish law. But, Jesus calls them out, asking them if they wouldn’t help one of their animals if it needed it. So we should do with humans. Then Jesus calls this woman a “daughter of Abraham” further shaping and molding the relationship at hand. God, through Jesus Christ, has freed her. In an unlikely place (a synagogue–not a hospital), on an unlikely day (the sabbath), and with an unlikely person (a woman), God makes God’s-self known. So often we want to place limits on what God can do, or the time in which God can do it, or even the people God can act through. What happens when we finally get to that point where we’re willing to do anything?? So is God. What do you need to be freed from today?

Do you need to be freed from frustration? Do you need to be freed from toxic relationships? Do you need to be freed from shame? How about doubt, do you need to be free of that? Do you need to be freed from unrealistic expectations or criticism? Maybe you need to be freed from yourself. Are you the thing that’s holding you back from God? Whatever it is you need freed from, God is here, in this place, at this time, and nothing can stop God. Lay what has you bent over at the foot of the cross and be free. Raise up your hands and eat. Open your mouth and drink. Splash in the waters and be reminded that no one, no thing, no illness, no powers on this earth have any claim to you. The one who claims you and calls you by name, who calls you “my daughter” or “my son” and who calls you “beloved” is waiting for you. God is waiting for you to free you. Freedom, for you. Given, for you. Your expectations, broken, for you. Your wholeness, for you.

 

Sermon for 8/7/16 Luke 12:32-40

“Do not be afraid,” and I stopped right there. Sure, Jesus. Whatever. Maybe you haven’t watched the news lately, God, but there’s plenty to be afraid of. Where do we even start? If you’re voting one way, you’re afraid of Hillary, if you’re voting another, you’re afraid of Donald. Maybe you’re afraid of both. There’s wars, black unarmed Americans dying at a staggering rate, police officers being killed in the line of duty, the zika virus, dirty drinking water in Flint, terrorism in general, hate, xenophobia, and not to mention stories on the news every single night over what I should and should not be eating. There is plenty to fear.

In the time of fear, there is a tendency to hold on to what we know is true, to what we know is pure, to what we know is maybe even permanent. When someone is having an anxiety attack, there is a practice called grounding to help that person feel in control again. Remember that sometimes anxiety is just fear rearing its ugly head. So the practice is that you have the person look around and name 5 things they can see, 4 things they can touch, 3 things they can hear, 2 things they can smell, and 1 thing they can taste. The idea is that this might help someone feel in more control. When fear sets in, we want things that seem steadfast. And if we’re going to be honest, there is a lot of fear in our rhetoric these days.

I don’t know how many of you have seen this bumper sticker (“Jesus is coming. Look busy!”) but it always makes me laugh. The idea is that we should be prepared for Jesus’ return by not slacking off, by looking busy, by being busy. As if we aren’t busy we’re going to be doomed to a lifetime of eternal damnation. What if, instead of talking about Jesus’ return as dreadful and a time of judgement, we spoke of it as a time of anticipation, joy, and spoke of readiness in terms of being ready for blessings? And so, as we prepare to be ready, we are told “for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

Many preachers may use this text to guilt you into opening up your wallet. That’s not me. I want to take a different look at this verse today. What is it that you hold close to your heart? Most of us, if push came to shove, wouldn’t name the obvious material things. These are the things, that on the outside, look like nothing to someone else. But to us, they mean the world. For me, it’s my Grandmother’s bible, my grandfather’s bible (that he got at his own confirmation and carried through Korea), and a birthday card from my nannie that she signed in her own hand long after she could no longer see. And what you hold close to your heart says a lot about how you describe those possessions. My grandmother’s bible means so much to me because her notes are in it, she took it to Bible study every Sunday. It was the passages she underlined that got her through the death of my grandfather. When I see that Bible, I think of her strength. My grandfather’s Bible means so much to me because he hung onto it from confirmation, through a war, through adulthood. When you open it, you get the smell of must and mold, and I love it. When I see that Bible, I think of my grandfather’s gentleness and commitment to everything he did. That birthday card from my nannie means so much to me because she was at an age when she was having aids and family members do all of her writing for her: checks, letters, other correspondence, etc… She did this because at this time and until her death, she had lost the majority of her sight. But this birthday card she signed herself. I can picture her tracing the outline of the card and placing the pen carefully as she wrote “love, nannie.” This card reminds me of her perseverance in the face of challenges.

These possessions remind me more of my grandparents than anything else, it is a snapshot of all three of them. What is it then, Jesus asks us, that might be your treasure? What might it be that is a snapshot of the kingdom of God for you? What material possession could you point to that would be an outward sign of your faith? Something you received for your confirmation? That picture of Jesus that hung in Grandma’s house until she passed? The Bible that belonged to a trusted neighbor that taught you about faith and Jesus? “What is the one thing that if someone asked you about it, you would be able to give witness to your faith in God, your belief in the work of Jesus, your confidence in the presence of the Spirit?” (Karoline Lewis)

This thing, whatever it is, is a reminder of our own personal interpretation of the kingdom of God. It shapes the way we speak about God, about Jesus, the work of the Spirit, and the coming kingdom. And when it comes down to it, would you be able to put into words what your own personal spiritual vocabulary is? Because here’s the thing, when Jesus comes again (and he will come again) nothing else matters. It doesn’t matter how “good” you were, how many “holy” acts you think you’ve done, how much money you’ve put in the offering plate, not even how many cute little old ladies you helped to cross the street. What matters is this: what do you believe about God and can you articulate that?

The fear, of course, may not be that we can’t do it, but that we’ll get it wrong. We don’t want to articulate our faith because then that opens us up for criticism and critique. What if what I believe about Jesus and God isn’t the same as what my friends, spouse, family, or even pastor believes? What does that say about my faith? What if what I say is wrong? What if what I say isn’t really “Lutheran”? What if what I say is heretical? This is not a test over whether you know your catechism, whether you have memorized the ten commandments, or even if you know books of the bible. But what is it, what are the words that are on your heart, that express your faith? When I was getting ready to head to seminary, my home pastor, Pastor Ernie, said “if all else fails, remember this ‘Jesus loves me, this I know. For the Bible tells me so.’” That carried me through many rough times in seminary.

In seminary we had to articulate our faith many many times. We had to state, out loud, what it is we believe about God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit. And then, more than once, we were questioned about that faith. We were questioned, not because we were wrong, but because this is our faith, and the words we use are important. I don’t know about you, brothers and sisters, but I am finding that we are living in an age where words are getting to be more and more important. Every single word we say is weighed with great importance. So when Jesus comes again, the treasure of your faith is all you will have. So, what do you have?

Here is my current working statement of faith. I say current and working because I realize that as I grow older, gain more experiences, and interact with more people, all of those things shape my faith and the way I see God acting in the world. My statement of faith is simple, I think. I believe that God loves all of God’s people with no exception. I believe that God’s grace is for everyone (whether you want it or not) and that the promise and hope of the resurrection is for all people who believe. That’s it. We are called to be disciples; to be witnesses to God’s redeeming work in this world for all people. The way we talk about that matters. God doesn’t expect us to have all the answers. God expects us to be a witness. That’s it (again).

Our faith is a treasure in and of itself. Our heart is in that treasure. We normally talk about Christ coming during Advent, but the truth is we should be prepared at any time. We should be prepared to welcome the King who will expect not to be waited on, but expect, maybe even demand, to wait on us. The master is coming to serve the servants. The way you think about your faith and the way you articulate your faith will directly affect the way you speak of Christ’s return. It will either be (fear) “CHRIST IS COMING!!!” or (joy) “Christ is coming!!”