Sermon for 9/30/18 Mark 9:38-50

This reading from Mark makes me nervous. I don’t think that Jesus speaks in hyperbole lightly. When he spoke about cutting off limbs, it was to speak to the severity, the seriousness of what it means to follow him. Jesus wasn’t joking. This reading also makes me nervous because I feel like I recently followed Jesus’ command to cut things off by limiting my stomach. After all, it did cause me to stumble many times. Might Jesus expect me to follow suit with the rest of my limbs? This wasn’t a hyperbole. Jesus was speaking truth. It is harsh. It is difficult to hear. It is even more difficult to follow. Perhaps the truth is so important that Jesus felt it necessary to speak the way he did, as in cutting off limbs, gouging out eyes, and he did so in order to get our attention. Can you imagine the reaction of the crowd? “Whoa Jesus. That’s a little harsh don’t you think? You certainly don’t mean all of that. Cut it out.”

So it is not hyperbole. It is a consequence of truth telling. Jesus says that if we are the ones to get in the way of others discipleship, we must face consequences. And that, my beloved, is difficult medicine to swallow. We don’t want to think of ourselves as stumbling blocks. It is much easier to point to the people in our own lives that are stumbling blocks instead of the other way around. But we cause others to stumble. And if you stumble and fall enough, you may just give up. A stumble can quickly turn into a fall that someone cannot recover from. The disciples were stumbling blocks.

The disciples were upset that other people were casting out demons in Jesus’ name. Now, the disciples tell Jesus that they tried to stop this man because “he was not following us.” Jesus, we tried to stop him because he wasn’t one of us. Jesus, we tried to stop him because he wasn’t part of our group. Jesus, we tried to stop him because he’s an outsider. Jesus, we tried to stop him because he’s not part of the establishment. Jesus, we tried to stop him because he’s not part of the ol’ boys (or ol’ gals) club. Jesus, we tried to stop him because we’re the best at this casting out demon business. Because discipleship is a competition or something.

And Jesus loses it. If someone is casting out demons, why not let them? So what if he’s not an official disciple? So what if he hasn’t been following Jesus. So what if he isn’t familiar with Jesus’ teachings? By casting out demons he has been more of a disciple than the actual disciples. But no! The disciples weren’t going to have any of that. And like that, they became stumbling blocks. But we would never do that, would we? We would never get in the way of someone trying to follow Jesus, would we? Oh but my beloved, we do.

Being Christian is not a competition. But we do try and out-Christian one another. Sometimes we even try and out-Lutheran one another. It’s as if Jesus were giving away trophies or ribbons and we aren’t going to settle for anything but first place. A disciple is a disciple and it doesn’t matter how you go about it. But we put stumbling blocks in the way of others. I’ve heard the phrase “stay in your own lane” used quite a bit. I think it’s a nice way of saying mind your own business as well as speak only to your knowledge. Like if I told someone how to perform brain surgery, I would most definitely not be staying in my own lane. Anyway, we often just need to stay in our own lane.

We, or maybe it’s just me, throw stumbling blocks by discouraging or bad mouthing other denominations, churches, or even church leaders. “They have a praise band that just sing the same three songs over and over…that’s not worship.” Or “I went to a funeral there once and the pastor said this one thing and I swore to myself I’d never step foot in that church again.” Maybe “I just don’t understand their fascination with Mary. I just can’t get behind that.” It’s as if we believe that our version of Christianity is the best and everyone should worship, sing, and do liturgy just like we do. But instead of doing whatever we may think we’re doing with these words, people get discouraged and don’t return to church at all. When we put stumbling blocks out, we are not building the kingdom of God.

Perhaps we, maybe it’s just me, even throw stumbling blocks when we are within these four walls. When a new disciple enters our midst, do we look for opportunities to learn, grow, and travel with this disciple, or do we throw stumbling blocks? Did you see what they wore? They didn’t even know how communion works! Those kids were so misbehaved. I knew her mom and she was a mess! Stumbling block after stumbling block after stumbling block. We are not perfect Lutherans and we are not perfect Christians. It’s amazing we all have any limbs or eyes left.

Discipleship is a team effort. God did not design us to do this alone. We cannot build the kingdom of God all by ourselves. We aren’t expected to. This is why it is so important to be church together. It is important that we are the people of Elvira Zion, that we are the people of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and that we are people of the cross: Christians. Washed, claimed, loved, forgiven, and set free to serve others. Will every disciple do things the way we do? Nope. And how great is that! Can you imagine! The kingdom is going to be full of the most amazing and wonderful people because we are all so different! How glorious!

Once again, my beloved, Christianity is not a competition. When a disciple comes along, trying to further the kingdom and they don’t do things like you would, watch and learn. You don’t have to like how they’re doing it, or even what they’re doing. But as long as all disciples, including us, reach out and attempt to do Christ’s work in this world, then what does it matter? Under the shadow of the cross, we are all equal. At the table, we are all equal. At the font, we are all equal. God doesn’t hand out ribbons and trophies for best Christian. However, God does shower us with love. And when God showers us with love, grace, mercy, and forgiveness, it is done evenly.

None of us are forgotten. None of us are forsaken. There are no stumbling blocks between us and God’s love. Perhaps this is where the good news lies, my beloved. The stumbling blocks thrown in our path and even the stumbling blocks we throw in the paths of others will never be a stopping point for God. Perhaps Jesus isn’t asking us to cut off our limbs or take out our eyes. Maybe we’d be better off in exposing our hearts: opening our hearts to love that knows no limits. Maybe we’d be better off removing our fear and exposing our courage.Perhaps Jesus is challenging us to remove our pride and expose our humility. Christianity isn’t a competition, my beloved. In God’s kingdom, we are all God’s favorite.  

Sermon for 9/16/18 Mark 8:27-38

Many of you know my mom because you’ve talked with her or at least seen her on her many visits up here to see Ellen. What you may not know is that the majority of her career in education was spent as a school counselor. So, of course, when anything went wrong in my life (related to school, that is) mom would often put on her counselor hat and offer up advice. When it came to teasing and bullying (as I fear we all were victims of at some point in time) mom would say “their actions and words say more about them than they do you.” That didn’t always make me feel better, but bless her for trying. I thought about that this week as Jesus’ question “who do you say that I am?” echoed in my head. And I was challenged. Could I answer that for myself? Who do I say that Jesus is? Then the challenge and the scary part is wondering “what does that say about me and my identity?”

I am going to weave a bit today between the Gospel reading and that reading from James. So, if you have a bulletin available, you may want to have that open. Otherwise, I’ll try my best to reference the scripture I’m speaking about. Who do I say that Jesus is? It’s not as easy of a question as you might think initially. If I say “Jesus is my savior” then is he only my savior? What about the rest of you? If I say “Jesus is the source of all grace” but I’m too quick to believe that I actually am not a recipient of that grace, then what? If I say “Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life” yet I take life from others with the harsh use of my tongue (like it says in James 3:9) then what? You can understand my dilemma here. Who and what we say Jesus is says a lot about us. And who and what we say Jesus is and our actions and words often don’t mesh very well.

When Jesus asks his disciples who they say he is, Peter anxiously speaks up “you are the Messiah.” But I wonder if Peter had any idea what that actually meant until Jesus told him. The Messiah (as Peter called him) will undergo trial, suffering, be killed, and rise three days later. And of course Peter tells Jesus he is wrong. What kind of Messiah would let themselves go through that? A Messiah was supposed to be a conqueror, a hero, the one who saves the day. A Messiah certainly isn’t someone who lets themselves be killed. Because we know the end of the story, it may be tempting to roll our eyes once again at Peter and sigh because he just doesn’t get it.

But, let us not be too quick to claim that we “get it” my beloved. After all, I think we would answer “who do you say I am” one way in public and another in private. In public, I may say “Jesus is the savior of the world” but in private I may confess that “Jesus is on my side and I hope he crushes my enemies.” It doesn’t work like that. Remember, if you and God hate the same people then you’ve most likely fashioned God in your image and not the other way around. Jesus tells the disciples of his fate because they are his disciples. And he expects them to follow his lead. Which means, if we fancy ourselves as disciples, we are expected to follow Jesus as well. This does not mean that we are to clothe ourselves in sackcloth and ashes, making martyrs of ourselves. To take up our cross does not mean that we are to suffer like Jesus. Rather, are we willing to suffer the consequences of what it means to follow Jesus?

Are we willing to be ostracized? Are we willing to to associate with people society would rather forget? Are we willing to forget about our own goals, our own mission, our own purpose and instead focus solely on the purpose, mission, and goals of Christ? When we lose our lives for the sake of Christ, we are gaining time to do all the things Christ calls us to do. When we are no longer the most important people in our own lives, we can use our resources so that others may come to know the love of Christ. But who do we say Christ is? The thing is, that reading from James should convict us. When we say who Christ is and at the same time curse those made in the likeness of God, are we really the disciples Christ is calling us to be?

Maybe it’s not so much who we say Christ is, but how we talk about Christ and how we treat Christ. Let’s say that we believe and confess that Jesus is Lord of the oppressed. That’s not wrong, after all. But if we say Jesus is the Lord of the oppressed but then ignore the fact that African American men are incarcerated at a higher rate than any other group in this country then who are we saying Christ really is, moreover, who are we saying we are? Perhaps we confess that Jesus is Lord of the marginalized. Again, this isn’t wrong. But, if we confess that Jesus is Lord of the marginalized but blame an addict when a pimp beats her again, who are saying Christ really is? Who are we saying we are? If we victim shame and victim blame then what do we really think of Christ? If we were all made in God’s image, yet we shame those who are victims, what do we really think of a man who was crucified? My beloved, what we say, what we believe about Christ says more about us than it does about Christ.

But the good news is that God, through Jesus Christ, is faithful. God keeps God’s promises. Even in the times we fail, which we will, God will remain steady. When our words confess one thing but our actions confess another, Jesus still meets us at the table and in the waters. Because we have a God of infinite chances. No one said that discipleship was easy. In fact, being a disciple should be the most frustrating job you have. Christ’s constant call on your life might have you feeling torn or afflicted. Following Christ, taking up your cross, isn’t for the faint of heart. When Christ died on the cross, he died the least heroic death possible. Crucifixion wasn’t meant for heroes or leaders. But, in the cross, we got a new definition of a hero and leader. We are able to see what it looks like when self sacrifice leads to the good of all. The promise of the cross is this: even in our moments of denial, like Peter, Christ does not forget us or abandon us. And on the third day, we were shown that God’s power is stronger than any attempt at power that we may ever have. God’s power is stronger than our best and our worst. We are reminded at the table, in the waters, and at the empty tomb that nothing separates us from God’s love.  

Sermon for 9/9/18 Mark 7:24-37

It seems to never fail that when religious nerds get together (these are my kind of people) and the group is made up of various denominations, the question eventually comes around. The question is “what kind are you?” This always makes me chuckle a bit. What kind of Baptist are you? What kind of Presbyterian are you? What kind of Lutheran are you? Sometimes you can tell how people feel about the denomination by the way they react to your answer. And honestly, I don’t know why it matters in the long run. Sure, we may not always agree with other denominations on things like baptism, communion, and even women clergy. But, I think we can agree on big worldly issues: feeding the hungry, working for justice, and caring for the environment. And I’ve said this before, but I really believe this: I doubt, or maybe more appropriately, I hope that God’s kingdom isn’t divided into denominations. There is no Lutheran heaven, no Methodist heaven, no Roman Catholic heaven. Today, I want to expand the question and idea of “what kind are you” from specific individual denominations and instead focus on just the general umbrella label of “Christian.” So, my beloved, what kind of Christian are you?

I wonder what is your first reaction to that question. What kind of Christian are you? As I was thinking about that this week, I thought of a few responses. What kind of Christian are you? What do you mean? What kind of Christian are you? Ummm…..Lutheran? What kind of Christian are you? Why do you want to know? And of course, doing the thing that our teachers always told us not to do: use a word to define a word. What kind of Christian are you? Well….I’m the Christian kind…you know. I want to pause and give you a moment to answer that question for yourselves. What kind of Christian are you? Now, tuck that answer away in a safe-keeping pocket in your brain.

We have two stories of healing this week. On the surface, that’s probably not surprising. After all, Jesus healed a lot of people. This was kind of his thing. If we just looked at these stories as stories of healing, we’d probably miss a lot. While the healing is important, the conversations and actions that lead up to the healings are almost more important. Everything we need to know about the first healing is told to us in some simple words. Verse 26 “now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin.” Those gathered listening to this story would immediately hear and know that this woman had three strikes against her. First, she was a woman, which meant she was less than. Additionally, she approaches Jesus without a husband or other male relative, which was a no-no. Second, she was a Gentile, which meant she’s not Jewish. She would have been viewed as impure. Lastly, she was Syrophoenician. She lives outside Israel, not under Jewish law. Then, there’s the reason why she’s approaching Jesus in the first place: her daughter has a demon. This fact also further drives a wedge between her and those gathered around Jesus. This woman was a Christian with nothing else to lose.

Because she has nothing else to lose, the woman does something that was quite rare: she went toe-to-toe with Jesus. She challenged Jesus. But why wouldn’t she? If Jesus had turned her away, denied her request for the healing of her daughter, she probably would have been no worse off. When is the last time you went toe-to-toe with Jesus? When was the last time you wondered and questioned God’s mission in this world? The Syrophoenician woman knew that there would be enough on that table that it would spill over and even those seated underneath the table, even the beggars would get crumbs. Do we truly believe that God’s grace is so great that even those that don’t deserve it receive God’s grace? Do we truly believe that God’s grace is so great that even we receive God’s grace?

I wonder if we would be brave enough to be this kind of Christian. It’s scary to think about challenging God, isn’t it? Our brains and hearts may immediately jump to consequences. Usually these consequences are self-centered. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, it’s actually pretty natural. When I think about challenging God, I think “if I do that, God won’t love me anymore.” Or I think “if I challenge God, I may not get to heaven.” Sometimes I think “if I challenge God, God will punish me or someone I love for my disobedience.” And I wonder if our faith isn’t actually weakened when we don’t question God. After all, when you start to chalk up every bad thing as “God’s plan” eventually you might snap.

I mean, let’s say you had a relative die of cancer and said “it was God’s plan.” And then your dog died and “it was God’s plan.” Perhaps then your car got stolen and “it was God’s plan.” You went bankrupt, your house burned down, and your spouse left you and it was all “God’s plan.” Wouldn’t you be the slightest bit angry with God? Our God is big enough for us to be angry with God. Our God is loving enough for us to question God. What would happen if we were the kind of Christians this Syrophoenician woman is? What if instead of rolling over and accepting life the way it is, we challenged God? When was the last time you yelled at God? When was the last time you complained to God? Our fear of not being loved is so strong that we often keep our anger to ourselves and it effects our faith. That’s not a relationship with God. God loves us no matter what. God will love us even in the times we are angry with God or challenging God.

I wonder if this world actually needs us to be the kind of Christians that challenge God. I think this world is hungry for Christians who will question Jesus and say “but isn’t there enough for even those under the table?” Prayer changes the world, friends. I really believe that. What if we were the kind of Christians who, in love for our neighbors, cried in anger to God over hunger, war, and poverty? What if we were the kind of Christians, who, in love for our neighbors, yelled at God for injustice, racism, sexism, and classism? What if, we just were the kind of Christians, out of our love for our neighbors and our belief that our God is a God of love, that we were just to frustratingly say “nope. This isn’t fair, God.” But I must caution you. When we challenge God, which we should, God may then turn around and challenge us. There is a reason Jesus had the disciples. And there is a reason God created us. If we challenge God, God will, by grace alone, give us the resources and tools we need to answer the challenge. And even if we don’t, even if we fail in doing God’s work in the world, God still moves and acts. Jesus, despite being challenged, still cured the Syophoenican woman’s daughter. Nothing stops the love of God through Christ Jesus. We aren’t that important or that powerful to stop God’s love. Believe it or not, that is good news. So, my beloved, the next time you are asked “what kind of Christian are you?” will you be brave enough and bold enough to answer “the kind that will dare to go toe-to-toe with God. The kind that will yell at God, get angry with God, and beg of God. The kind that refuses to take ‘no’ for an answer. The kind that questions God’s will. The kind whose faith is stronger because of all those things.” What kind of Christian are you?


Sermon for 9/2/18 Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

I wonder how many of you are of a certain age to answer this question: “Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men?” (“The Shadow knows!”) The Shadow was a night time vigilante, fighting for justice, and terrifying criminals. This type of character isn’t a strange concept. Batman operates in a similar way, after all. But, I kept thinking about evil hearts and the Shadow off and on this week as I’ve thought about this scripture from Mark. It’s almost enough for me to want to go back to teaching and preaching about bread. What Jesus is asking the Pharisees, his disciples, the crowd gathered, and us to do in this scripture is have a nice, long, hard look at our own hearts.

The Pharisees weren’t trying to keep the law as a way of earning salvation. In fact, they were attempting to keep the law (that is, the supposed law around hand washing) because they understood the law to be a gift. It provided order. They hoped that following the letter of the law would bring glory to God. However, the Pharisees were so focused on keeping the law and on external faithfulness, that they didn’t make time to examine the darkness of their own hearts. This question of clean versus unclean hands was just a way of dividing the followers of Christ and further fracture the kingdom of God. Of course, that was not the Pharisees intent. It’s probably never our intent either.

The church of this country has undergone several reformations since its founding. And in that time, I am guessing there were heated debates over what people believed to be God’s law. However, the obedience of the law did nothing but put up walls. The question of how we honor God with our hearts must have come up time and time again. But, time and time again, people who, most likely, called themselves “good Christians” defiled God with the thoughts of their hearts and words of their lips. How did slave owners reconcile their actions with what Jesus teaches? How did men justify keeping silent while women protested the right to vote? How did whites sit in church praising God on Sunday and then go spit on blacks Monday afternoon during the civil rights movement? Lest we think we’re immune, how have we, in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America reconciled and wrestled with the fact that we are one of the whitest denominations in America and we are responsible for raising and educating in our own Sunday school rooms the murderer of the Charleston 9? How do “good Christians” still protest women preachers when women were some of first at the empty tomb to proclaim the good news? Without women preachers, we would have never known the tomb was empty.

It’s not fun to examine our hearts. It’s not fun to reconcile the thoughts of our inner darkness. But being honest with ourselves and with God is an important step in reconciliation. This is one of the reasons we start our service every single Sunday with confession. But, can you imagine having to confess the darkest parts of your heart out loud? Imagine hearing “let us confess our sins before God and one another” and then hearing your neighbor confess, out loud, every short coming they have had in this past week. Would you listen in or would you focus on your own heart? It would be tempting to listen in, wouldn’t it? I confess to you, my beloved, I’d listen. Because I would rather focus on your sins, then face the darkness of my own. And if I started to confess my sins out loud, wouldn’t you listen in? We’d rather point on a little bit of dirt on the hands of others rather than see the mud that is coating ours.

What might it look like if we took the time to examine our own hearts? Can you imagine if we held ourselves to the standards we hold others to? Could you survive the judgement you yourself place on others? Would your soul survive the tongue lashings you give others? Is it possible that the gossip we spread has the power to crush us? Would our constant desire to have more, be more, demand more, and take at all cost bury us? I cannot speak for you, my beloved, but I would not be able to withstand the judgement I place on others. My soul and spirit would be crushed by my mouth that is too cruel, my heart that is to hard, and my actions that are too selfish. Perhaps that is why I don’t want to examine my heart. I would be forced to my knees, crumbled, broken, destroyed by the truth of my own darkness. What comes out of my heart, what comes out of my mouth, I would finally realize, does nothing but defecate all over the body of Christ. I would be forced to examine my heart and wonder “is this any place for God? Is there any room for God?”

The answer, of course, is yes. We are a fallen and broken humanity. All of us. Whether you want to examine your hearts or not, we are broken. And when things are broken, when things are cracked, then there is room for other things to sneak in. And in the cracks of our hearts, in the brokenness, God fills us up with God’s love. What we see as broken, God looks at as another opportunity to infiltrate with love. What we see as irreparable, God sees as mercy worthy. When we are holding the pieces of our lives in our hands, God gets out the grace duct-tape and makes something even better than we ever could. When we start to encounter the darkness of our hearts, God sheds a light. When we come face to face with the darkness of our sin, God shows us the cross. When all hope is lost, we encounter Jesus and his amazing grace.  When we seem to encounter dead end after dead end, God opens a pathway we didn’t even know existed. When we are knocked to our knees by the hardness of our hearts, we’re in the perfect position to pray for forgiveness. Are you willing to give up the ideas of right and wrong for the idea of loving your neighbor? Are you willing to respect human law but live and die by God’s law? At this table, God offers forgiveness. In these waters, God showers us with mercy. Even when our attempts to cleanse our hearts fail, God remains steadfast. That’s the amazingness of our Lord: love despite all our failings.