Sermon for 11/26/17 Matthew 25:31-46 Christ the King

I am sure most of you have heard this story, but it deserves to be told again. “An old man was walking on the beach one morning after a storm. In the distance, he could see someone moving like a dancer. As he came closer, he saw that it was a young woman picking up starfish and gently throwing them into the ocean. ‘Young lady, why are you throwing starfish into the ocean?’ ‘The sun is up, and the tide is going out and if I do not throw them in they will die,’ she said. ‘But young lady, do you not realize that there are many miles of beach and thousands of starfish? You cannot possibly make a difference.’ The young woman listened politely, then picked up another starfish and threw it into the sea. ‘It made a difference for that one.’” (adapted from the original by Loren Eiseley)  The temptation of this scripture is to either read it and be quick to pat ourselves on the back or read it and be shamed for all we haven’t done. I am hoping to help us all orient ourselves to an uncomfortable yet soft place somewhere in the middle.

          I feel it’s important to look at this scripture today as part of the whole of Matthew’s gospel. There are bookend verses that I believe we need to remember as we read much, if not all, of Matthew. Matthew 1:21-23 “’She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.’ All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: ‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,’ which means ‘God is with us.’” And Matthew 28:18-20 “And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’” Those two verses frame everything else in Matthew. We are reminded of who Jesus is (Emmanuel, God with us) and what our call is (to make disciples).

          We are living in a time of great divide, my beloved. Am I wrong about this? The gap between left and right, black and white, male and female, gentile and Jew, seems to be getting wider and wider every single day. News pundits make lots of money reporting on stories that has only one simple goal: vilify the other. It doesn’t matter who “the other” is, the most important thing we can do, according to the media, is to prove them wrong, even if they’re right. So, our call as Christians to make disciples and serve all in need is complicated. And I fear that being right has won out over being loved and loving others. I don’t doubt our desire to serve is genuine. But, somewhere along the way, we decided that in order to be worthy of our love and help, those in need had to look a certain way, act a certain way, live a certain way, or even speak a certain language.

          “How can that person be poor? They have an iPhone.” Or “if things are really tight at her house, maybe she should sell that Michael Koors bag she carries.” Maybe you’ve heard “All” (fill in the blank here) are just free-loaders. All welfare babies. All blacks. All Mexicans. All section 8 moms. All whatever… I can’t ever remember reading anything in the Bible that God calls us to serve others, as long as they look poor. Or act poor. Or act sick. Our call is to serve others, end of story. No stipulations. No catches. So for us to dare ask Christ “when was it that we saw you…” means that we just aren’t paying attention. Plain and simple. Because if we believe that Jesus Christ, God incarnate, really is God with us, then that means God is in every face of every human being, no matter their label. We may be too busy looking to serve a king, that the real king is in the face of the peasant.

          And the reason I shared that starfish story is because when Christ calls us to serve the world, it can seem overwhelming. The need is so great. We may look around and not even know how or where to get started. But, we shouldn’t forget that while yes, the world needs saving, we are not the ones to do it. We are not the saviors of the world. We already have one of those in Jesus Christ. But, we can make a difference to one or two in the world. And if you weren’t here on Thanksgiving Eve, I talked about this a bit too. But, to be part of a community, to be seen as human, is the first step in assuring all have a small amount of dignity. The human and the divine in me desires to see the human and the divine in you. And the human and divine in me desires to be seen as well. We have all been in a place where we’ve been the ones providing care. But, we’ve also been the ones in need of care.

          Christ calls us to care for what is known as “the least of these.” We are called to care for those who live on the margins of society, who are forgotten, who have lost all hope. And we are called to do it because if we are all made in the image of the divine, which we are, then we are caring for God when we care for the other. We should start to see one another not as problems to be solved, but as opportunities to serve the divine. This is Christ the King Sunday after all. What might the world look like if we started to ignore the labels and instead paid attention to the person. We’re so busy wondering “when was it that we saw you…” because we’re busy looking for a king. A king wouldn’t have died a gruesome death for all of humanity. Instead of looking for a King, let us look for the divine in everyone. Look past the labels. Look past left, right, black, white, documented, undocumented, married, single, gay, straight, educated, undereducated, whatever…and instead look into the eyes of a fellow human to see the divine. And allow yourself to be vulnerable enough for others to see the divine in you.

          This isn’t easy work. As I said, society is working really hard to pit us against one another. If we all suddenly started getting along, what in the world would the news have to talk about? But remember, we are promised from the very beginning that Jesus will be Emmanuel: God with us. In those moments that we are scared to see the divine in the other or to have the divine in us seen, God is there, with us. And if we’re serious about making disciples, which is what Christ calls us to do, then it starts by seeing everyone as an equal. This scripture evens the playing field. We are all sheep. We are all goats. We all need cared for. We all have done the caring. We all are hungry, thirsty, a stranger, naked, sick, and a prisoner. And all of us need a savior. We cannot save ourselves. And we may not be able to serve everyone. But, we certainly can start by serving our neighbors without any expectations of being served in return. And what a relief as well, to be served knowing we don’t owe anyone anything. The price has already been paid by Christ.

          In this meal, we meet the one who is with us, Christ the King. The thing he looks nothing like a king. He looks nothing like royalty. Instead, he looks like the man on the corner with a cardboard sign. He looks like the woman in the WIC office for the third time this week trying to get her benefits figured out. He looks like the undocumented migrant worker, sending 98% of his money back home so his family can have a better life. Christ looks like those falsely accused sitting behind bars waiting on a break. But, he also looks like those sitting behind bars waiting for death. Christ looks like those that have been shamed. Christ looks like those who have been told time and time again “you don’t matter.” All it takes is one person to say “you matter to me. You matter to God, and you matter to me.” In this meal, we are reminded that we all matter. No matter our status here on earth, in God’s kingdom, we matter. In God’s kingdom, we are all royalty.

 

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Sermon for Thanksgiving 2017 Luke 17:11-19

A few years ago, my brother Jon was living in Burlington, Vermont. He was new to the area and new to his position at work. As such, he didn’t have any place to go for Thanksgiving nor did he have the time or funds to come home for the holiday. So, Jon found himself out and about just strolling through the quiet streets of Burlington when he stumbled upon an open restaurant. He walked in and was immediately welcomed and shown to a seat. He made friends with his fellow diners and had a fantastic meal complete with all of the fixings. When he was done, he found the woman that he originally met at the door. “how much do I owe you?” He said. “Oh! No one told you” she said? This is a free meal. Jon was immediately taken aback. He said “but I can pay.” He was starting to feel a little guilty. The woman said, “it’s free. This meal is for anyone who doesn’t have any place else to go. Some are homeless, yes. But some are business travelers going from point A to point B.” The dinner was run by volunteers. “This is our family this day. Our community” she said. Jon left full and thankful. What he needed that day, he received. He didn’t want a meal. He didn’t want pity. Whether he knew it or not, he desired to be part of a community. In a way, I think we all desire that. We all want to be part of something.

As Jesus was in his travels, we are told that he goes into the region between Samaria and Galilee. To go between these two regions wasn’t really necessary for the average Joe traveler. It was desolate, mostly forgotten, and not well traveled. I say it wasn’t necessary for the average traveler, but it was necessary for Jesus. In the region, he came across ten lepers. We don’t use the word “leper” any more. But, these are the forgotten of society. These are the people that have been abandoned, forgotten, even disavowed from their families. They didn’t chose to become lepers, that’s for sure. No one would purposefully choose to be shunned. No one purposefully chooses to be shamed, forgotten, abandoned, or have their humanity outright denied. In our current day context to be a leper can look like a variety of things depending on the community.

For our immediate area, to be a leper means to be homeless, maybe have to stay long stretches of time at the Victory Center. It means that you’re hustling to get money for your next hit of meth or cocaine. To be a leper means that you’re doing things to your body you never said you’d do just to make ends meet. To be a leper means that you may have HIV. To be a leper means you hang out under the bridge, waiting for the ladies from the Canticle to bring you a sack lunch. Maybe it means being a transgender teenager on the verge of suicide daily thanks to teasing. To be a leper could just mean you’re an African American male who gets pulled over all too often for “DWB” (that’s driving while black, in case you didn’t know). What a leper desires is the same thing all of us desire: we want to be seen.

Don’t you desire to be seen? And I mean to be seen in a genuine God-like fashion. When was the last time you felt like you were seen? Not “hey! It’s good to see you, I’ve been meaning to ask something of you.” But, a genuine “hey! I see how you’re struggling and I know you’re doing the best you can.” When was the last time the Holy Spirit, God-filled person in you saw the Holy Spirit, God-filled person in me. Or anyone for that matter? When you see those people begging with their cardboard signs on the corners, do you think “those free-loaders need to get a job.” Or do you wonder “what circumstances lead them to that?” And maybe you might give them a buck or two. But, what if, instead of giving them money, or maybe in addition to giving them money, you said “hey. I don’t know what lead you to having to be out here on this corner, holding this sign, and begging for money. But, I know it can’t be easy for you. I appreciate that you’re willing to do whatever it takes for your family. I have a family too and I don’t know what I’d do if I couldn’t provide for them. Just wanted to let you know that I see you.”

When you’re a leper and society has told you over and over and over again that you mean nothing, that you’re worth nothing, that you contribute nothing, and that you basically are nothing, you may start to wonder why you bother living. All we need is for someone to see us. In the midst of the darkness, in the midst of that void between Samaria and Galilee, in the midst of the nothing that is existing but not totally living, God meets us there. God meets us there through Jesus Christ and says “I see you.” By curing the lepers, Jesus healed them, yes. But more importantly, Jesus made it such that they could be brought back into community. They could be part of something again. He cured them so that they finally could be seen. Before they were cured, they were part of a small community of lepers. But once they were cured, they were able to be reunited with the ones who had the power to love them. The shame and stigma of being a leper had been removed. To be brought back into community means a literal and metaphorical place at the table.

The leper turns back and thanks Jesus for the healing. And while I am sure he’s grateful for the physical healing, he throws himself at Jesus’ feet for more than just that. He has been made whole physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. He has been brought back into community. His dignity has been returned. I am wondering what it would look like for us to recognize and thank Jesus for seeing us just as we are. How can we possibly thank God enough for seeing us as both broken and beautiful? How do we respond to Jesus who continues to make us part of a community. We are part of the community of saints. We are part of those whom Jesus never forgets. But you know what, so is everyone else. The people we wish to forget are first and foremost remembered by Jesus and part of this Holy Spirit community that makes no sense.

A community of believers makes no sense because the only thing we all have in common is Jesus. And maybe, just maybe that’s enough. Maybe we can thank God for bringing us all together despite the differences. No matter what we do, what we look like, who we voted for, how old we are, no matter what, we are first and foremost children of God and part of God’s community. That is worth thanking God. God meets us in the midst of our Samaria/Galilee desert, no matter what that looks like, and brings us back into community. God meets us in the desolate and promises us “you have not been forgotten.” God meets us in the darkness to remind us that God is the light that no darkness can overcome. God meets us where we are and says “eat. Drink. This is my body. This is my blood. And you, you my child are forgiven and set free.” In those holy moments, we are part of a community. Thanks be to God.

Sermon for 11/19/17 Matthew 25:14-30

From the book of Marvel, the Spider-man chapter: “with great power comes great responsibility.” That’s right. I just quoted Spider-man. Also, from the book of Vinnie (my dad) “there’s nothing I hate more than to see good talent wasted.” (This is usually said while watching sports or listening to a sports report.) Let’s jump right in because there is a lot to cover with today’s text. It’s probably best if we start by talking about what a talent is at least in the context of Matthew’s gospel today. A talent, in this context, isn’t about things we’re good at. It’s not talking about your ability to play ball, quilt, cook, or a sense of humor. A talent is a coin. But this isn’t about our skills or money. The talents are about our callings. It’s about being put into positions where we can use our power to be influential. Fear often keeps us from using our talent. This parable aims to help us, even empower us, to use our resources for the sake of the gospel. At the same time, we can’t afford (pardon the pun) to waste any time. We don’t know when Jesus will be returning. We cannot wait another minute before sharing the good news.

Talents are usually something we have from birth or because of birth. It could be another word for vocation. What are the things God created  you to do or be? Once you figure that out, then comes the difficult task of figuring out how to use that talent to share the gospel, further the kingdom of God, and general praise of God. Here’s the other thing: some of your talents may be something you have no control over. We may call this privilege. Men, you didn’t ask to be born male. But, here you are. And you have privilege. None of us asked to be born white. But, here we are. And that comes with privilege. Sometimes we may have power because of someone else or because of someone else’s perception of us. What I mean is this: if you have a good reputation to your family name, it is most likely thanks to years of hard work. You may use that to your advantage every once in awhile. As far as perceptions, the best way I can think about how I use this is with my title. When I feel like I may not be listened to or taken seriously, I often introduce myself as Pastor Jealaine Marple. Emphasis on the “Pastor.” Yep…I call up the powers of the office.

But, the point is we all have talents, privilege, and resources that have been given to us by God for the glory of God. God gives us these talents, just like the slave owner gives actual talents to his slaves. Just one actual talent (coin) was worth 20 years of work. So to receive 5 talents was the equivalent of receiving payment for 100  years worth of work. The servants who received 5 and 2 talents grew their talents. They grew their investments. Meanwhile, God gave the last servant 1 talent and he buried it. He had his reasons, sure, but the point is, he didn’t grow it at all. The book of Esther, which I’m sure so many of you are familiar with has this great verse that I call on often. “Who knows? Perhaps you have been born for such a time as this.”

Have you ever thought about God’s purpose for your life? I think we all struggle with that from time to time. Sometimes it’s a midlife crisis. Sometimes it’s just deciding where to go to college. God does have a mission for your life. You identity, your calling starts at baptism. From that moment on, your task it to make sure people come to know God not through anything you do, but for the ways that God moves through you. Let’s think about this in more practical purposes.

From our very first moments, God creates us to be creatures who love and who are loved in return. Part of our task while we are on this earth for no matter how long we’re on this earth is to love. So, picture God giving you, literally handing you a big heaping cup full of love. Most of you know what a measuring cup looks like. You can go out and share this love and maybe even double it, triple it, or let it multiply numerous times. Or, you can keep that love to yourself…just in case. Because, what if God runs out of love. What if God decides to hand out more love, at least you’ve got a little bit to add to it. Are you mentally picturing this now? Maybe you can start to understand then, why the slave owner, or in this case, God, was upset with the slave for burying the talent. The slaves had the opportunity to further the kingdom of God and one chose not to. What has God called you to do but you have either denied the opportunity or ignored it?

See my beloved, instead of looking at the world and the way it is wondering “what can I do” we can look at the world and boldly declare “why not me?” But all too often, we do nothing. We do nothing to save face. We do nothing to save friends. We do nothing to save money. We do nothing out of fear. We have been given great power, whether we realize it or not, and yet, we bury our powers, our talents and hope that no one will notice that we’re not doing what God has called us to do. The power of sin is so strong that we would rather be liked, be loved and adored even, over furthering the kingdom of God. In our baptismal promises, we enter into a covenant to “proclaim the good news of God in Christ through word and deed, to serve all people, following the example of Jesus, and to strive for justice and peace in all the earth.” But, we like to pick and choose who we share our Jesus with, who we serve, and who we think deserves justice and peace. We cannot afford to be on the wrong side of this my brothers and sisters, because the wrong side of this is literal hell.

The good news is that we aren’t in this alone. We can help one another. Furthering God’s kingdom here on earth isn’t something we must do all by ourselves. This is why we come to church. We need the reminder that this difficult work isn’t something we do solo. And even though our temptation may be to stay quiet, God reminds us that he indeed is “Immanuel: God with us.” God is God with us from the waters of baptism to our very last breath. God is God with us when we are striving to bring in the reality of “on earth as it is in heaven” and in the times when we are tempted to bury our talents. You have been created for such a time as this. And with great power comes great responsibility.

Sermon for 11/5/17 Revelation 7:9-17

My alarm went off on the cold morning of January 12, 2010 and I rolled over, turned it off, and started to read through the notifications that had come on my phone. I was living in Sumner at the time and doing my internship. Thanks to Facebook and twitter, I immediately learned the news of the devastating 7.0 earthquake that shook Haiti that day. One of my classmates was in Haiti with her internship congregation. Three other students were there doing a January term class, or J-term. The following day, I read the emails from our seminary president. Renee, Ben, and Jon were okay. They were figuratively shaken but they were okay. And then another email followed. It stated that Renee and Jon were well, but Ben’s status was unknown. Then a final email came confirming that Ben was one of hundreds of thousands killed in the earthquake. Ben was killed after being trapped in the building that the three were staying in. In his final minutes of life, as he was being crushed by concrete, rebar, and debris, Ben was heard singing the tune of “Where Charity and Love Prevail.” The last words he sang were “Lord Jesus you bear all the sins a world away. God’s peace to us we pray.” With the help of the Haitian people, mourning their own losses, and volunteers from the Lutheran World Federation, Ben was one of the first people actually recovered from the rubble. By then, of course, he was long gone.

I had known Ben Splichal Larson since before seminary. When Chris and I were touring seminaries, it was Ben and his cousin and best friend, Jon, that took us out for drinks at the Busted Lift in Dubuque. I think I knew then that I was in the presence of people who were special. Not just Ben, but Jon is pretty awesome as well. I thought of Ben as I read that Revelation reading. Ben was quoted as saying that when he dies he wants to go out singing. And that he did. It is a beautiful picture, at least to me, to picture all of our Saints singing the praises of God together.

The Revelation reading says there was a great multitude, so large that no one could actually count how large the crowd was. The multitude was from every nation, and spoke every language, and they were all colors, and abilities, and statuses. It continues saying “and all the angels stood around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, singing, ‘Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.’” They are everybody. These saints that sing the praises of God look like us and at the same time, look nothing like us. And the most astounding thing is this: they sing.

My Chris has too many stories of students he has worked with that have been told somewhere along the way that they cannot sing. It usually happens when a person is young. A likely well-meaning choir teacher pulled the student aside and, for whatever reason, told them that they cannot or should not sing. It breaks his heart when he hears these stories and it breaks mine when he relays them to me. In fact, a lot of his doctoral research is going to focus on why people don’t sing…especially why men in church don’t sing. But in the midst of everything else, believers should and do sing. This isn’t a case of just knowing about salvation and God’s goodness, but knowing it so well and being filled with such joy that you simply must sing. “Revelation overcomes such trickery with the  music of the heavenly choir reminding the saints–living and dead–that the good news is heard, even overheard. The saints’ cry may not always come in four-part harmony, but it is always a joyful noise. So the saints listen while they join in the song.” (Tom Tate, Feasting on the Word p220)

This reminds me of that hymn “how can I keep from singing?” In the midst of good and evil, war and peace, feast and famine, wealth and poverty, in the midst of life, no matter what comes across the path of the saints, they just cannot help but to sing. And at the same time, the saints, living and deceased cannot help but listen. And so why do we listen? We listen because by listening we hear the good news. We can experience the good news. We can experience the empty tomb. We can see it with our eyes. We can smell the slight hint of death but we don’t see the body. We can taste the confusion of knowing a man was crucified and laid in a tomb, but now he is no longer there. We can feel the radiance of joy starting to creep into our bodies and shine on our faces through the light that is Christ. But, but! Not until we hear the triumphant cry of “Alleluia! He is risen!” (He is risen indeed, alleluia!) Do we actually dare to believe it.

We gather here, week in and week out, despite what is going on, because we need to hear the good news. It’s one thing to show up. It’s another to show up and hear “you are forgiven. You are loved. You are freed from your sins.” And as if that isn’t good news enough, we sing this good news. We sing it so we ourselves can hear that good news and we sing it so those around us can hear it. Sometimes we may not believe it for ourselves, so we need to hear it from someone else. So we sing. And we show up here, on the first day of the week, just like the women at the tomb, to show ourselves, to show others, to show the world that death, no matter what it may look like, never has the final word. To show up to worship is an act of courage. So much goes on in our weeks that can easily crush us. Life is hard, friends, I get that. Many of us experience highs and lows in our 6 days that follow Sunday. We show up on Sunday as a sign of defiance. We renounce the devil and all the forces that attempt to defy God. We renounce the powers of this world that rebel against God. We renounce the ways of sin that draw us from God. All of that defiance is tiring and can make us weary and weak spiritually speaking. So we show up in the hopes that even the smallest glimpse of hope will encourage us for the week ahead.

And we sing. We sing with our saints. We sing because of our saints. We sing in the hope of joining the saints. The Lamb is already on the throne, in charge of everything we are and everything we need. That Lamb, Jesus Christ, is our shepherd and we shall want for nothing. And our troubles won’t disappear. Evil will do everything it can to attempt to sway us away from God. But our tears, when they come, are wiped away by God. What a powerful image. In our suffering and joy, God is there. Our song is one of salvation. Our song is one of hope. Our song is one of love. Our song is one of peace. And our song has the power to transform us and the people around us. Our song is sung, with joy, in the face of death, knowing that death never has and never will have the final word. We sing, my beloveds. We sing with the saints, for the saints, and surrounded by the saints.