Sermon for 8/25/19 Luke 13:10-17

Not to long ago, I started watching a new series on Netflix called “Diagnosis.” It is a documentary series that features real people dealing with real physical ailments. These people usually have been suffering for years but with no relief and no diagnosis. With the help of a doctor and The New York Times, these people and their stories are shared world wide in the hopes of finding a diagnosis. And it happens and it’s so amazing. I wondered if the internet or The New York Times would have existed at the same time as Jesus if the woman in today’s gospel would have suffered for 18 years. 

Think about this, she was bent over for 18 years. There was the physical pain, I’m sure, that accompanies being bent over for that long. I mean, I think many of us take for granted all of the ways we are able to bend and stretch. It’s only usually when we are unable to do those things that we learn how important they are. But, there also had to be an emotional, mental, psychological, and maybe even spiritual component to her ailment. Think about this: she was literally hunched over. Her world view consisted only of what her eyes could see. For 18 years, she hadn’t been able to see the sun or the stars. She may have struggled to look into the eyes of her loved ones. Because of her ailment, she was most likely shunned by those around her in the community. She was avoided, ignored, or maybe even shunned. While the text does not say as much, I can only imagine the kind of toll that took on her mental health. 

Enter Jesus, of course. He was in the synagogue teaching. The woman shows up. Now, we are not told if this is her first time at the synagogue or if she is a regular attendee. What I do know is that no matter if she’s a visitor or a regular, it takes a lot of courage to show up. I commend her. And Jesus, of course, sees her. And Jesus, of course, does what Jesus does, and heals her. But he goes a step further and lays hands on her. Her healing takes place immediately. All of her 18 years of trouble are gone in an instant. The woman’s response is to praise God. This is where our language lacks (once again). The idea behind this praising verb is that it is continual. This praising is not a one time thing. She praises God and praises God and praises God and on and on. 

But there are the naysayers. There are always the naysayers, aren’t there? We so badly want to side with Jesus on this one, don’t we? Well, at least I do. Of course he’s going to heal on the sabbath. Jesus sees someone in need and responds to that need. That’s what Jesus does. But, I have also sounded like or at least thought like the leader of the synagogue too often. Sunday is the day of sabbath. Scripture tells us we are to observe the Sabbath and keep it holy. There are very few places any more that are actually closed on Sunday. Sunday has become the day when we grocery shop, do the laundry, catch up on that yard work, participate in the club sports, prepare for the week ahead and on and on. I even engage in a lot of these things once my work here is done many Sunday’s. 

At the same time, it’s not unheard of for me or any of my other colleagues to lament the attendance at church. Maybe you’ve done it yourself. People say “church just doesn’t seem to  be the priority of families any more.” Or “the only time available to have youth group is Tuesday nights at 10pm or Thursday morning at 530 because these kids are so busy.” By saying or thinking these things, we are just like the leader of the synagogue. So, I am actually understanding the lament of the synagogue leader here a bit. I understand why Jesus did what he did but I also understand why the leader feels the way he did. It’s a bit of a conundrum really. 

For Jesus, it wasn’t a matter of obeying the sabbath, it was a matter of life and death. The fact that he brings up obtaining water for the animals is his way of trying to convey this message. Remember, his audience were people that live in a very hot and humid climate. Having water for your animals (animals, I might add, that will provide sustenance for your family) is a matter of life and death. If the animals die, the families might not have food or a way to monetarily support their family. Others might argue though that keeping the sabbath is a matter of life and death. Luther says that following the sabbath means that “We should fear and love God so that we do not despise preaching and His Word, but hold it sacred and gladly hear and learn it.” There are many who believe that attending church, listening to God’s word, feasting at the table, and being in Christian community with one another is a matter of life and death.

What are we to do then with this conundrum? Well, it should be no surprise to any of you that I am going to preach and encourage us to look on the side of grace. I say it shouldn’t surprise you because if you’ve been here longer than a minute you know that my sermons,my life, my “brand” so to speak is all about grace. While Jesus gives the crowd and the synagogue leader what sounds like a lecture, it really is an invitation to grace. Jesus highlights the ways that they are not living into a sabbath by feeding and watering their animals. Although it may not sound like it, this really is grace. Jesus is inviting them to continue living into grace instead of  always trying to live by the law. The law is great. God’s laws are there to protect us and guide us. But trying to live our lives by the law can be exhausting because it is practically impossible. I know many of you would love a true sabbath day; a day when literally nothing has to be done other than the spiritual, physical, emotional, and mental feeding of your body. That sounds amazing. But, I also know that it is impossible. There is always something that has to be done. 

So, we can either beat ourselves up knowing that we’re not obeying and keeping the sabbath holy or we can live into the grace God through Jesus Christ invites us to. While we may not be physically impaired like the woman in our story, our focus can tend to be like hers prior to healing. We are only able to see so much. It is only when Jesus heals us and lays hands on us that our perspective opens up. Sometimes we are so focused on the law, the must-dos, and, unfortunately, shaming those who do not live by the law (including ourselves) that our focus gets to be like tunnel-vision. Jesus invites us to open our eyes and our minds. When we engage in confession of the things we have done and the things we have left undone, we confess in the ways we have lived by the law, or not, and the ways we might have demanded others live by the law. And through the saving and redemptive power of the cross, we are forgiven. When we are splashed with those baptismal waters, we are reminded that even when we desire to live by the law and fail, God will be there, naming and claiming us each time. When we are fed at the table, we are reminded of God’s grace that is for us, despite us, every single time. 

If trying to be a perfect Christian (whatever that is) and trying to live perfectly under God’s law has you bent over, my beloved, I invite you to live into grace. It is a gift from God. It is given to you freely. We need not ask for it (the woman didn’t ask for healing, Jesus just did it). But here’s the thing about grace: it will mess you up. In the best way. Grace allows us to be free to love ourselves and our neighbors. Grace is what allows us to stand upright, praise God continually, and rejoice at all the wonderful things Jesus has done, is doing, and will continue to do. 

Sermon for 8/18/19 Luke 12:49-56

This is a cheery little piece of scripture, isn’t it? Aren’t you excited you came to church today? Jesus sounds a little…. un-Jesus like today, doesn’t he? I know what you’re wondering. “How in the world is Pastor J going to spin this so I don’t leave here wanting to burn the whole world down?” Because if Jesus is supposed to be good news, then where in the world is the good news in this scripture? I mean, what are we supposed to think when the first thing we hear in this scripture is “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!” That’s not fuzzy warm Jesus! Once again, there isn’t necessarily a way around this. Being a follower of Christ isn’t about ease. God isn’t looking for Monday morning quarterbacks. The call to discipleship is one that demands we get in the game, get dirty, and also be willing to lose. 

At first glance, division may not seem comfortable. But, when I really started to think about it, it occurred to me that division is actually our normal way of life. We may not think of it that way necessarily, but we all make choices on a daily basis that may put us at odds with one another. Now, these choices aren’t always going to cause a riff at the Thanksgiving or Christmas table, but it’s possible that other choices might. In our house, it has to be Jif peanut butter, Crest toothpaste, Charmin Ultra toilet paper, and while we didn’t plan it this way, ever since Chris and I could drive, we’ve never driven anything but a GM car. Other things could cause division: cats versus dogs, Cyclones versus Hawkeyes, even (gasp) green versus red. But there are other divisions that do cause heartache and even pit family member against family member. All we have to do is look at the most recent election to know this to be true. These divisions prevent us from really seeing and feeling the presence of God and seeing the kingdom here on earth. 

It wasn’t Jesus purpose to set family member against family member. At the same time, Jesus hasn’t come to “validate human institutions and their values but to initiate God’s radical will” (Carlson, 363 Feasting on the Word). Maybe what Jesus says here seems radical. At the same time, if the disciples (and us, honestly) had been listening all along, this actually wouldn’t seem like such a crazy idea. We first hear of these divisions early on in Mary’s song of praise. The Magnificat, which we normally hear during Advent, speaks of division. She says that God, through Jesus Christ will bring the powerful down from their thrones, separating those who are in power from their places of power. Mary’s song goes on to say that the lowly will be lifted up and the rich will be sent away empty. The divisions that normally divided people will be reversed and God’s reign will be the only thing that makes sense. 

John the Baptist continues this idea of the upheaval of social norms. He says (using the words of Isaiah) that Jesus will come and that valleys will be filled, mountains and hills will be made low, the crooked made straight and the rough ways made smooth. And, in good John the Baptist style, he calls the crowd a brood of vipers. He challenges them to bear fruit worthy of repentance. In short, demolish the walls of division for the good of the kingdom. Jesus himself has challenged societal norms since he started preaching and teaching through Nazareth, Galilee, and all through Israel. In one of his first times preaching at synagogue, he tells those listening that the spirit of God is upon him because he has been anointed to bring good news to the poor, proclaim release to the captives and give sight to the blind. Again, the idea is that whatever divisions we try to put in place as humans, God, through Jesus Christ, has come to demolish. The question that we struggle with today is this one: what do we value more, those divisions or furthering the kingdom of God?

I have this theory. I don’t know that we, at least in the western world, know how to live in peace. We only know how to live in conflict avoidance and instead call that avoidance “peace.” No one actually like conflict and division. At least, I’ve never met anyone who has claimed to like it. Instead, we drum up ideas and reasons to avoid conflict, just not deal with it, perhaps even ignore it, and then say “we’re good” and move on. But, in our attempt to avoid conflict and division, we may be the hypocrites Jesus spoke of in verse 56. “we fail to recognize that Jesus’s ministry itself may be responsible for stirring up that conflict, bringing both heat and light to how sin, death, and the devil are at work in our communities. The ministry of the king of peace (Luke 19:37) often hides under the sign of its opposite” (Chan, Working Preacher). Jesus comes to bring peace but we can’t see it because we’re too busy hanging on to being on the right side of division (whichever side that may be). We’re worshiping being right rather than succumbing to Jesus literally shaking us up for true peace built on confession, forgiveness, and repentance. 

In order to have the kind of peace that only Jesus can bring, we have to be willing to engage in the tough work of confession, forgiveness, and repentance. Confession is wonderful but if we only say “I’m sorry” and our actions prove otherwise, God may continue to cause division. We are called to forgive, truly forgive one another. We can’t say “I forgive you” and continue to hold whatever it is over one another. Repentance is the even more difficult work of healing relationships that have been divided only by our actions or inactions. This work of being in community together is hard and can create a crisis feeling. 

In the midst of all that divides us and in the chasms that form between us, when chaos is swirling all around us, there is Christ. No matter what side you find yourself on, there is Christ. And Jesus is willing to stay with us until we get it right. Jesus is willing to love us until we let go of what divides us and instead work for what unites us. Jesus’ peace is wrapped up in the fire he brings through the Holy Spirit. Fire is what burns away all of the noise, all of the walls, all of the divisions that stop the kingdom from being on earth as it is in heaven. And it’s not always fun. And it doesn’t always result in warm fuzzy feelings. But in our attempt to find peace, whatever that may look like, Jesus is always there. Division doesn’t have to be the norm of our lives. Christ has set his face to Jerusalem, to the place where he will be crucified, the saving action for all the world. We could fight it. But, “a God willing to die for us and for this creation is” a “singular matter. That Jesus has no patience with those who do not grasp the urgency of his pilgrimage to Jerusalem, his mission there, and his life’s work” (363 Lull, Feasting on the Word).  Sometimes the things that make for peace are fire and Jesus’ harsh words. Getting our attention has never been so crucial. 

Sermon for 8/4/19 Luke 12:13-31

Look, I’m gonna be honest with you this morning. You’ve come to expect nothing less, right? I wasn’t initially real excited to preach on this text from Luke today. I looked at the other texts for inspiration. I thought about a nice, good old-fashioned hymn sing. But this darn text kept calling me back. But it didn’t excite me. The last thing I want to do is stand up here and talk about the rich farmer; especially with the year so many of you are having. I don’t know all the details. But, I’ve heard the whispers. I’ve seen the worry lines on your faces. I know it isn’t a great year. And then the farmer in the text has such a huge yield of crops that he has nowhere to put them. Oh darn (sarcasm). He has so much corn and beans or wheat or whatever else that he has no choice but to tear down his barns (barns plural) and build newer larger ones. Oh goodness. That poor poor farmer. What a burden a large harvest and yield must be. 

Now look, there is no sin in being rich and having wealth. I am not calling us all to take vows of poverty. There is no sin in being successful. And I am not going to be the one to define success for you nor will I tell you how to define rich. It looks different for everyone. But it is how we treat those riches and success that can create problems. Our riches and success can create idols and turn us in ourselves. Listen once again to what Jesus said in the parable. The rich man thought to himself “what should I do, for I have no pace to store my crops…I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods.” If you didn’t get the emphasis, the focus is on the rich land owner. “Those who have possessions in abundance risk the sin of greed: ‘enough’ is never enough, ‘more’ is only to be hoarded, and ‘I, me, and mine’ matter more than anybody else” (West, 310 Feasting on the Word). I, I, I, the man has done nothing but turned himself into an idol. That is sin. 

Is the rich man wise and responsible? Sure. He’s smart to store up what may be needed in a year of drought. He has a thriving farming business. I know enough farmers to know that farming isn’t a sport for idiots and dummies. He is trying to do what most of us do: set aside a little bit for the future. I am guessing most of us do this in one way or another. IRA’s, stocks, bonds, land, whatever; it’s smart and prudent to prepare for the future. It’s not what he is doing that is wrong. But he is only living for himself. He also seems to believe that he can secure his future with his barns full of abundance. But his life is now. We all know too well that tomorrow isn’t promised. There are very few guarantees in life. You have your body and you have time. Sadly, when one of those things runs out or runs down, your invitation to the kingdom is delivered. This is exactly verse 20 says “you fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” 

Being rich isn’t a sin. Being smart with your investments isn’t a sin. Having an amazing year with a bumper crop isn’t a sin. But, oh my goodness, my beloved, none of this has anything to do with us. We are so quick to forget that. When things are going terribly, we love to blame God. Another diagnosis? What did I/we do to anger God? A new mother taken too soon?  Why does God seem to hate me/us? But when things are going well and we are successful. Well! Look at what I’ve done! I am amazing! I made the right decisions! I bought the right seed! I used the right version of roundup. I made the best investments. I am so smart and so amazing! I should be giving you advice. Um…who? We should not be so confident, so cocky, so sure of ourselves that we forget that what we have is not ours, including our lives. Our lives, our possessions, everything we have and everything we are is Gods. And this is troubling and yet, also a relief: God can demand any and all of it back at any time. Think about that for just a moment. Everything we have and everything we are is Gods and God can demand any and all of it back at any time. 

Being rich is not a sin. I want to repeat that several times so you hear me. Being successful is not a sin. However, it is when we think our successes and riches secure us a position with God or a place in God’s kingdom is when our thinking goes wrong. Again, it’s not that God doesn’t desire for us to do well. Yes, we should save for retirement. And yes, we need to plan for our future needs. But, it is about our priorities. Our priorities tell us very clearly if we worship god with a lowercase “g” or if we worship God with a capital “G.” Because if our priorities are only saving, hoarding even, and self then we worship god, lowercase g. But if our priorities are saving, future planning, and doing that with our neighbors and God’s mission in mind, then we worship God with a capital g. Our “capacity to trust in God can deepen only as other matters lessen their grip in our lives” (Lull, 312, Feasting on the Word). 

Our text today is challenging and we shouldn’t shy away from it. I can’t promise that I’ve made any sense of it or made you feel any better about it. But, if we lean in together and start to read this as the challenge it is, perhaps our lives may take a different shape. This parable “calls on all, rich and poor alike, to reflect carefully about what we want and why we want it” (West, 314, ibid). It is possible that if our hearts are hungering for what only God can give, and that is unconditional grace, mercy, and love, then there are no purchases, no amount of wealth, no amount of stuff that will ever fill that desire. The economy will fluctuate (I don’t have to tell you all that). The price of corn, beans, hogs, and cattle will be a roller coaster. Again, I don’t have to tell you that. But what never changes, what is constant and reliable is God. And as hard as all of this has been to hear and comprehend about riches and storehouses and self focused thinking, the constant and reliable love, grace, and mercy of God is the good news that we need to hear. When we can’t count on anything else, not even our own bodies or time, God’s love, grace, and mercy are reliable. Every. Single. Time. 

Soon, you will be invited to the table. You will receive the body of Christ given for you and you will receive the blood of Christ shed for you. You did nothing to earn it. You receive it if you have $2 or $2 million in your bank account. You are fed the same meal as dignitaries and outcasts. You are fed the same meal given to revolutionaries and the status quo. We dine on the same meal given to the disciples and to dictators. Now if that’s not enough for you to believe in God’s offensive and abundant love, I don’t know what is. What is ours is not ours alone. It has been given to us by God. God’s love, mercy, and grace are the only for sure thing in life that we can bank on.