The Works of Grace

Luke 16:19-31

One bright afternoon in heaven, three people showed up at the Pearly Gates at the same time. St. Peter called the first person over and said, “What did you do on earth?” “I was a doctor,” she replied.  “I treated people when they were sick and if they could not pay I would treat them for free.”  “That’s wonderful, Doctor,” said St. Peter. “Welcome to heaven, and be sure to visit the science museum!”  Then he called the second person over.  “What did you do on earth?” he asked.  “I was a school teacher,” he replied.  “I taught educationally challenged children.”  “Oh, well done!” said St. Peter.  “Go right in!  And be sure to check out the buffet!”  Then St. Peter called over the third person.  “And what did you do on earth?” he asked.  “I ran a large health insurance company,” said the man.  “Well, you  may go in,” said St. Peter.  “But you can only stay for three days.”

Some people think that the parable of the rich man and Lazarus is about heaven and hell.  And in a way, maybe it is, but not in the obvious way.  Like all good parables, this story where the poor man is comforted after death and the rich man is left languishing alone in Hades is another one of those Jesus stories that should make us stop and rethink what we believe and what role that belief plays in our lives.

We Lutherans and many other Protestants are big on Grace.  This was Martin Luther’s big breakthrough after all—the understanding that we don’t earn our salvation, but that God’s love, God’s grace is what saves us. 

When I was in confirmation class many, many years ago, our whole class was required to memorize Ephesians 2:8-9: “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God—  not the result of works, so that no one may boast.”  The Lutheran curriculum we were following wanted to make it crystal clear that being saved was entirely dependent on God’s grace.  For most of us at that age, being saved simply meant that you get to go to heaven when you die, and no one suggested that there might be richer or more nuanced ways to understand it.

So Grace, we were taught, is your ticket to heaven and the only way in.  The formula was pretty simple.  You might do all the nice and good things it’s possible to do in the world, but that won’t get you into heaven because no matter how good and nice and helpful you are, you’re still going to sin.  You can’t help it.  It’s part of human nature.  And sinful people can’t go to heaven, because no sin is allowed there.  But, if you believe in Jesus, then God will forgive all your sins!   You get a free pass.  You get Grace with a capital G.

The problem with our Protestant theology of Grace is that too many people stopped with that overly simple middle-school understanding.  Too many people came to believe that all they have to do is accept Jesus into their hearts as their personal Lord and Savior, and that’s it.  Done.  

This truncated understanding can lead to what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace,” a belief that what you do or don’t do doesn’t matter because God will forgive you for Christ’s sake simply because you say you believe.  This is like setting off on a thousand mile hike and stopping after the first 20 yards.  At best, “cheap grace” leads to a very shallow personal theology and a me-centered spirituality.  At worst it lays a foundation for an “anything goes” way of life with no sense of accountability. People who believe in this kind of “cheap grace” can sometimes do atrocious things, or leave very necessary things undone, and still think of themselves as “saved.”  

Many of us cling to the gift of grace promised in Ephesians 2:8-9, and rightfully so, but too many of us stopped reading too soon;  we failed to read on through verse 10 where it says,  “For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.” (NRSV) 

I particularly like the way the New Living Translation renders verse 10:  “For we are God’s masterpiece. He has created us anew in Christ Jesus, so we can do the good things he planned for us long ago.”

We are saved—rescued, healed, made whole, restored—by grace through faith.  But “through faith” doesn’t just mean that we intellectually accept the idea of grace.  Real faith opens our eyes to God’s grace at work in our lives and the world around us.  Real faith moves us to embody and to enact God’s grace.  Real faith moves us to do the good things God planned for us long ago.  If we don’t do those good things, then faith becomes nothing more than a security blanket of wishful thinking to wrap around ourselves on dark nights of doubt and fear.  As the Book of James says, “we are shown to be right with God by what we do, not by faith alone… For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is also dead.” (James 2:24-26)

One of the themes in Luke and Acts is the presence and work of the Holy Spirit, and yet Luke doesn’t let us “spiritualize” things that put us on the spot.  The examples of the “work of the Spirit” in Luke and Acts, especially as that work plays out in the ministry of Jesus, are practical, concrete, and challenging.  As much as we might want to spiritualize the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus, it’s tough to explain away its central message, especially in light of what Jesus has to say about wealth and poverty throughout the entire Gospel.  

The Gospel of Luke emphasizes that the status of the rich and poor is reversed in the kingdom of God.  In the opening chapter of Luke, Mary sings, “He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly;  he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.” (1:46-55)

 In the Sermon on the Plain, Jesus says, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled,” and then “woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry.” (6:20-25)

Luke makes it clear that “the poor” receive special attention in the ministry of Jesus and in the kingdom he is announcing. When he stands up to preach in the synagogue in Nazareth, he reads from the scroll of Isaiah,  “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.” (4:18)

When John the Baptist is in prison and sends one of his disciples to ask Jesus if he really is the one they’ve been waiting for, Jesus says, “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them.” (7:22)

When he is a dinner guest at the home of a Pharisee, Jesus tells his host and others, “Don’t invite all your friends to your banquets, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind.” (14:12) – because that’s who is invited to God’s banquet (14:21).

When the rich young ruler asks Jesus how he can inherit eternal life he is told to go sell all he has and give it to the poor. (18:18-30)

In Luke’s gospel Jesus makes it clear that having “treasures in heaven” is not just about piety; it is also about selling possessions and distributing wealth to the poor. (12:33; 18:22) 

In Luke’s gospel, conversion doesn’t just mean accepting Jesus as your Lord and Savior or asking Jesus into your heart. When Zacchaeus the tax collector is befriended by Jesus, he gives half of his possessions to the poor and repays anyone he has defrauded four times over.  

Concern for the poor is a central part of the ministry of Jesus, but it wasn’t invented by Jesus.  Jesus himself stresses that it is the commandment of Torah.  In Deuteronomy, Moses states: “If there is among you anyone in need, a member of your community in any of your towns within the land that the LORD your God is giving you, do not be hard-hearted or tight-fisted toward your needy neighbor.  You should rather open your hand, willingly lending enough to meet the need, whatever it may be.  Be careful that you do not entertain a mean thought, thinking, “The seventh year, the year of remission, is near,” and therefore view your needy neighbor with hostility and give nothing; your neighbor might cry to the LORD against you, and you would incur guilt.  Give liberally and be ungrudging when you do so, for on this account the LORD your God will bless you in all your work and in all that you undertake.  Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, ‘Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land.’” (Deut. 15:7-11)

This parable of the rich man and Lazarus raises important questions.  We’re not told that Lazarus did anything particularly noble or good.  He was just poor.  So why is he carried away by angels to be nestled and comforted in the bosom of Abraham after he dies?   We’re not told that the rich man did anything particularly horrible, he’s just self-centered.  So why is he in anguish in the flames of Hades after he dies?

Lazarus benefits from the default of grace.  He is a descendent of Abraham, so he is included in God’s covenant with Abraham.  He hasn’t done anything to remove himself from the covenant so he will spend eternity “in the bosom of Abraham,” enjoying companionship with others who have kept the covenant.

The rich man, on the other hand, removed himself from the covenant when he failed to “open his hand” to the poor and needy neighbor on his doorstep.  He failed to even see Lazarus, much less see their kinship in the covenant of Abraham and the covenant of humanity.  Instead of using his resources to help Lazarus, he used them exclusively to feed his own appetites. He is condemned to live forever in the burning loneliness that he, himself, created.  By focusing only on himself during his life, he created a great uncrossable chasm which now separates him forever from the companionship of eternity. 

“Some people, we learn, will never change,” says Amy-Jill Levine.  “They condemn themselves to damnation even as their actions condemn others to poverty.  If they think that they can survive on family connections—to Abraham, to their brothers—they are wrong.  If they think their power will last past their death, they are wrong again.”[1]

There is a sad “too-little-too-late” moment at the end of this short story by Jesus.  The rich man, realizing that there is no reprieve for him, asks Abraham to send Lazarus to warn his five brothers so they don’t end up “in this place of torment.”  Abraham reminds him that Moses and the prophets have already warned them, and the rich man replies, “No, Father Abraham!  But if someone is sent to them from the dead, then they will repent!”  Abraham says simply, “If they won’t listen to Moses and the prophets, they won’t be persuaded even if someone rises from the dead.”

“We are those five siblings of the rich man,” wrote Barbara Rossing.  “We who are still alive have been warned about our urgent situation… We have Moses and the prophets; we have the scriptures; we have the manna lessons of God’s economy, about God’s care for the poor and hungry.  We even have someone who has risen from the dead.  The question is: Will we—the five sisters and brothers—see?  Will we heed the warning before it’s too late?”[2]

[1] Short Stories by Jesus, p. 271, Amy-Jill Levine

[2] Working; Barbara Rossing, Commentary on Luke 16:19-31, September 25, 2016

No One Can Serve Two Masters

Luke 16:1-13

“There was a certain rich man who had a manager handling his affairs. One day a report came that the manager was wasting his employer’s money.”[1]  That’s how one of the most confusing and challenging of all the parables of Jesus begins.  

A rich man discovers that his manager is squandering his assets, so he decides to fire him and insists on a final accounting so he can audit the manager’s books.  The manager, realizing that his future is suddenly not too bright, decides to curry favor with the people who are in debt to his boss by reworking the books in their favor.  To everyone’s surprise, the boss admires the manager’s shrewdness.  Even more surprising, Jesus tells his followers that they could learn a thing or two from the crooked manager.  

So what do you think Jesus is trying to tell us here?

Before we dive too deeply into this odd story, I want to say a word about parables in general.  As I mentioned, this is one of the most confusing and challenging of all the parables,  but frankly, all of Jesus’s parables should challenge us if we’re listening to them properly.  If we think we have found an easy explanation for a parable, we’re probably short-circuiting its power.  Parables are supposed to stick with us and needle us and make us ask ourselves tough and touchy questions.

“What makes the parables mysterious, or difficult,” says Amy-Jill Levine, “is that they challenge us to look into the hidden aspects of our own values, our own lives.  They bring to the surface unasked questions, and they reveal the answers we have always known, but refuse to acknowledge.  Our reaction to them should be one of resistance rather than acceptance.”[2]  John Dominic Crossan says that a parable “shatters our complacency” and forces us to look outside of our comfortable assumptions about life.  Robert Funk said that a parable asks us to “cross over” into the kingdom, the mysterious land that Jesus is trying to evoke for us and in us. 

“A parable,” says Thomas Moore, “is the opposite of a gentle teaching story.  It confronts us, asking us to change our way of seeing things.  It turns conventional ideas upside down.  Its very point is to make us uncomfortable.”

So think about this parable of the dishonest manager again.  Who do you side with?  Who in this story are you inclined to like?  Who are you inclined to dislike?  Is there someone in this story you maybe identify with?  The rich man who discovers that his manager is squandering his assets?  The manager, himself, who cooks the books when he finds out he’s getting the sack?  The debtors who have their debts reduced, who, by the way, don’t object even a little bit to what the manager is doing?

Would it surprise you to learn that the people who originally heard this story in the first century—people listening to Jesus tell it or listening to it being read from Luke’s gospel—those original listeners probably didn’t feel any sympathy for any of these characters.

The common belief in their world was that there is only so much good stuff to go around.  If someone was wealthy, it was usually assumed that they had accumulated their assets by cheating someone else out of theirs, or by flat-out stealing.  So the people who originally heard this parable would not have felt any sympathy for the rich man whose assets have been squandered and who ends up with a reduced payback on the loans he’s made.

But what about the debtors?  Well, did you notice that the commodities they owe are in really large quantities?  The first borrower owed 800 gallons of oil.  This isn’t some poor schmo who borrowed a cup of oil to do a little cooking and keep the lamps lit for an evening.  Same with the guy who has borrowed the wheat.  He owes a thousand bushels of wheat—that’s 60 thousand pounds of wheat.  So, who borrows these kinds of goods in such large quantities?  Commodities traders.  Or merchants.  And people didn’t generally have a high opinion of them, either, because they marked up the prices on everything they sold as much as the market would bear, and with daily necessities like oil and wheat, the market would bear a lot, especially since the empire was the biggest customer for those things.  

There is also another important economic dynamic in the background of this parable that the original audience would have been well aware of but that we wouldn’t know about just from reading of Luke’s text.  Remember, Jesus was a Jew and most of his audience were Jews.  They would have assumed that the characters in the parable were Jews, too.  There were very clear laws in the Torah, in Exodus, Leviticus and Deuteronomy, that prohibited charging interest.[3]  The Jewish Virtual Library[4] sums up those laws this way: “The prohibition on interest is not a prohibition on usury in the modern sense of the term, that is, excessive interest, but of all, even minimal interest.  There is no difference in law between various rates of interest as all interest is prohibited.”

All interest on loans was prohibited.  And yet we know from abundant records that wealthy landlords in Jesus’ day were often loan sharks.  Since charging interest was prohibited, they created ways to charge interest without it looking like they were charging interest.  Most often they did this by rolling the interest into the principal.  New Testament scholar William Herzog says that the hidden interest rates appear to have been about 25% for money and 50% for goods.  The rich man’s manager would probably have also been taking his own cut of the profits on top of that 50%,  and then on top of all that there would be taxes owed to Rome.  And all those costs got passed down the line to the eventual consumer.

The upshot of all this is that when the crooked manager cuts the oil merchant’s debt from 800 gallons to 400, he is extracting his boss’s interest so that the oil merchant now owes something closer to what he actually borrowed.  Same thing with the wheat merchant, although the crooked manager doesn’t give him quite as big a break.

By reducing the debts of the oil and wheat merchants, the manager is bringing their debt more into conformity with the law—with Torah.  This is why the rich man who made the original loans can’t be seen to complain about it.  It would expose his own violation of the law.  So he smiles, takes his lumps, and admires the shrewdness of his former manager. 

So what does Jesus want us to get from this parable?  When you have all the information, none of the characters comes off looking like a role model.  It’s true that the crooked manager did a small good deed, a bit of a mitzvah, for the two merchants, but giving them a break was all about his own self-interest, and he gave his former boss the shaft in the process.  

 “If you’re not faithful with other people’s things, why should you be trusted with your own?” said Jesus. That question sounds like it’s directed at people like the dishonest manager.  But biblical scholar Barbara Rossing has suggested that Jesus might really have someone else in mind with that question.  She suggests that he’s talking to the the wealthy landowners of this world, that he’s  talking about being faithful to what rightfully belonged to the peasant farmers who were being financially squeezed into giving up their land by people like the rich man in this parable.  

When we read this parable it’s tempting to ask ourselves, “How does Jesus want me to judge these people?”  But maybe what Jesus is really asking us to evaluate is the economic system they’re all trapped in.

Even the most benign economic systems create a kind of bondage.  In this parable Jesus was painting a portrait of common economic practices that trample on the poor, practices that lock them into bearing the heaviest load of a debt-driven economy in which the bondage of financial obligation rises all the way up to the bankers at the top.  And, of course, the Empire gets its cut.

It’s not all that different for us in today’s world.  Almost all of us live with some degree of debt—car loans, mortgages, credit card debt, student loans.  According to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, as of June 30 of this year, household debt in the U.S. reached an all-time high of $16.15 trillion.  That’s up from 15.6 trillion last year.  According to, that averages out to $90,460 of debt per person.  

Credit card balances this past year saw their largest year-over-year percentage increase in more than twenty years, and aggregate credit limits on cards saw their largest increase in over ten years.  All this debt is a major contributing factor to the top-heavy disparity in wealth distribution in this country, a system in which the gap between rich and poor keeps getting wider while the middle continues to shrink.

In this parable, Jesus was telling his followers—telling us—to pay attention to the world’s economic dynamics, to pay attention to how the game is played.  He’s telling them, as Professor Matt Skinner said, “You either play the system or the system plays you.”[5]  

“No one can serve two masters,” said Jesus. “For you will hate one and love the other; you will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and be enslaved to money.”   If we’re not careful, money can become a kind of religion.  But it’s a religion that enslaves.  So pay attention.  Use your worldly resources to benefit others and make friends.  And keep an honest eye on who you’re serving, because no one can serve two masters.

[1] New Living Translation

[2] Amy-Jill Levine; Short Stories by Jesus, Introduction, p. 3

[3] Exodus 22:25, Leviticus 25:35, Deuteronomy 23:20

[4], Usury

[5] Matt Skinner, Sermon Brainwave #862, Luther Seminary

The Joy of (Re)Connecting

Luke 15:1-10

So this one time, some Pharisees and religion teachers were getting all cranky because Jesus was having way too much fun with the wrong crowd.  Tax collectors and known sinners—you know, those people who color outside the lines where the religious boundaries are concerned—these kinds of people kept coming to listen to him and he didn’t shoo them away or disrespect them or anything. On the contrary, he would welcome them and invite them to join the discussion!  Sometimes he would even break bread with them.  Basically, he treated them like they were all old friends at a reunion.

This didn’t sit well with the holier-than-thou guardians of propriety.  They didn’t think associating with “those people” was appropriate for a well-known rabbi, especially one with such a growing following.  They thought he should be setting an example for the rabble.  Well, he actually was setting an example, it just wasn’t the one they wanted him to set.   So they were grumbling about him.

Jesus overheard all their crabby comments, of course.  He thought about calling them out on their snooty attitude, but what good would that do?  It would just make them defensive and even more stand-offish when what he really wanted was for them to loosen up and join the party.  So he tried to reframe their thinking with a couple of hypothetical scenarios.

“Suppose a guy has a hundred sheep,” he said, “and one of them wanders off and gets lost.  “Won’t he leave the other ninety-nine in the wilderness to go search for the one that is lost until he finds it?  And when he finds it, he will joyfully carry it home on his shoulders.  And when he gets home, he will call all his friends and neighbors and say, ‘Rejoice with me because I have found my lost sheep!’  It’s like that.  There is more joy in heaven over one lost sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people.

“Or how about this—suppose a woman has ten silver coins on her necklace and she loses one.  Won’t she light a lamp and sweep the entire house and get down on her knees to sweep under furniture until she finds it?  And when she does find it, she’ll call all her neighbors and friends and say, ‘Rejoice with me!  I’ve found my lost drachma!  It’s just like that!” said Jesus.  “There is joy in the presence of God’s angels when even one sinner repents!”     

Now I am absolutely sure that some of the people listening to Jesus spin these hypotheticals were chuckling, and I am just as sure that some of them were scratching their heads because there is some obvious craziness in these little stories.  Leave ninety-nine sheep in the wilderness while you go off searching for one?  Who would do that?  And sheep don’t repent.  Coins don’t repent.  And is it really repentance?  The sheep didn’t do anything to help himself be found—he didn’t wander home all sheepish about being lost.  The silver coin didn’t roll itself over to rejoin the other nine coins on the necklace. 

Or are these stories allegories maybe?  Is the shepherd God?  But does God leave ninety-nine obedient sheep at risk in the wilderness to go find the one that’s lost?  Maybe.  But that does raise questions, especially if you’re one of the ninety-nine.  

So maybe God is like the reckless shepherd who puts everything at risk to find the one lost sheep. Maybe God is like the woman who drops everything and lights a lamp and cleans house until she finds that lost silver drachma.  Maybe.

Or maybe something else is going on here.  Sheep and coins don’t repent—at least not the way we usually understand repentance.  They don’t apologize.  They don’t have a change of mind or a change of heart.   

But what if Jesus is giving us a new definition of repentance?  What if repentance is not about clearing some kind of moral bar?  What if it’s not about moral rectitude or moral correction?  What if repentance is about being brought back to where you fit in God’s grand design, being brought back into the community and communion?  What if repentance is about crossing all those artificial barriers we put up between each other, those barriers that divide us into opposing camps?

Maybe repentance is about being brought back together.  Maybe it’s about reconnecting.[1]

That would explain this other thing.  Did you notice how many times Jesus mentions joy in these two little stories?  Five times!  The shepherd carries the sheep joyfully! He calls out to his neighbors to Rejoice with me!  Jesus says there is joy in heaven when a lost sinner is reconnected with the community.  The woman who finds her lost coin calls out to her neighbors Rejoice with me!  And once again, Jesus says there is joy in the presence of the angels when even one lost sinner is reunited with companions.  It’s all about the joy!

Jesus wanted the Pharisees to understand that they were missing out on the joy!  He wanted them to understand that there is joy in making connections with people you might ordinarily be reluctant to associate with.  There is joy when we step out of our clique or private club to go out and meet the wider world.  

Matt Harding is a guys who knows all about that.  

Matt was living the dream.  He was working as a Video Game Developer, creating new games for Activision, one of the biggest companies in the business.   He was kicking around ideas for a new game with his team one day, when somebody suggested, “Let’s do a ‘shoot ‘em up’ game.  Those are very popular.”  Matt said sarcastically, “Sure.  How about Destroy all Humans?[2]  Matt was being facetious, but the boss liked the idea and gave the game a green light. And that’s when Matt quit.  “I didn’t want to spend two years of my life writing a game about killing everyone,” he said.  

Now Matt had time on his hands, and a fair bit of savings, so he decided to see the world.  One day in Saigon, Matt was in kind of a goofy mood so he did this funny little dance in front of a restaurant, which his travel buddy caught on video.  It gave them a good laugh, so they decided that they would do this everywhere they were going on their trip around the world. 

When they got home, they cut together all these fun little clips to create a three minute video of Matt dancing in all kinds of interesting places all over the world.  And that would have been the end of it, except that Matt’s sister uploaded the video to this new thing called YouTube™.     

Dancing Matt became an internet phenomenon almost overnight.  So Matt decided to go out into the world and do it again, only this time he would invite people to dance with him.  And dance they did.  Over a period of about 15 years he recorded and posted six Dancing Matt videos which have brought joy to people all over the world.  (You can find all of them at 

When NPR asked Matt what he had learned as he danced through the world, he said, “Here’s what I can report back: People want to feel connected to each other. They want to be heard and seen, and they’re curious to hear and see others from places far away. I share that impulse. It’s part of what drives me to travel.”

In her TED talk about Vulnerability, Brené Brown said, “A deep sense of love and belonging is an irreducible need of all people.  We are biologically, cognitively, physically, and spiritually wired to love, to be loved, and to belong.  When those needs are not met, we don’t function as we were meant to.  We break.  We fall apart.  We numb.  We ache.  We hurt others.  We get sick.”

Right now our country is in a grumbling mood…and so is much of the rest of the world.  We’re not functioning as we were meant to.  We have found too many ways to separate ourselves from each other.  We have turned too many people into “those people,” the ones we don’t want to be seen with. As a result, we’re missing the joy.  We’re missing the celebration.

We need to repent, not with apologies or penance, but by reconnecting.  We need to find our way back into where we fit in God’s grand design, into community and communion.  We need to bring ourselves back together.  And maybe even dance with strangers.  Because that’s where the joy is.

[1] Special Thanks to Prof. Matt Skinner and Sermon Brainwave for this perspective.

[2] Destroy All Humans is in its 7th version and is available on multiple platforms.  Clearly there’s money in nihilism.

How Far Will You Go?

Luke 14:26-33

When I was 19, my best friend, Mackay, and I decided that it would be all kinds of fun to ride our bicycles from Long Beach, California to Ensenada, Mexico.  And so one sunny morning in June, we set off pedaling down the Pacific Coast Highway with sleeping bags, a 2-person tent and a few other necessities strapped to our bikes. 

The hills of Laguna slowed us down a bit more than we had anticipated, but it was still too early for lunch when we reached San Clemente, so we decided to push on and have lunch in Oceanside.  But at the south end of San Clemente, we ran into a very big obstacle that we hadn’t planned on.  Camp Pendleton Marine Base.  

We knew we wouldn’t be able to ride through Pendleton on the freeway, but we thought we could ride through the base on the old highway, which, according to our maps, still ran alongside the freeway.  The very nice Marine guard at the entrance to the base told us that that was not going to happen–  because the old highway was long gone.  

After some begging and pleading and a few choruses of “Gosh, We’ve Ridden All This Way,” he got on the phone and managed to get permission for us to ride through the base.   He sketched out a map for us and gave us very strict instructions to stay on the route he had outlined for us,  making it clear that straying off that route could have grave consequences, including but not limited to death, dismemberment or being imprisoned.  

An hour and a half later, we were utterly lost on a winding dirt road when a very perturbed Marine in a jeep came roaring up to us and asked us what the H-E-DOUBLE-Q we thought we were doing.  He also told us that we were perilously close to a live-fire range, then threatened to throw us in the stockade or make us enlist or both before finally deciding to guide us down to the southern end of the base.  He sent us off with a warning that if we ever set foot or bicycle tire on the base again there would be dire consequences unless, of course, we were in a Marine uniform.  

We had lost a lot of time on the confusing roads of Pendleton, so we powered through Oceanside and into San Diego without stopping for lunch.  Then came the ordeal of getting through San Diego on surface streets which proved to be far more complicated and took much longer than we had planned.  And just so you know, not even the military had GPS yet in those days, so we were at the mercy of outdated gas station roadmaps.  

The sun was getting ready to call it a day by the time we crossed the border into Tijuana.  We grabbed a couple of tacos from a taco cart then raced the sun for the last 14 miles to Rosarito Beach where we camped for the night.

The rest of the trip was pretty uneventful.  The ride from Rosarito to Ensenada on the old road up across the mountain—the only way bicycles were allowed to go—was a challenging but beautiful ride.  After a night in Ensenada, we turned around and headed for home.  

We spent the night at Rosarito Beach again, had a good breakfast at the cantina, then set out for the border.  We made good speed and got to Tijuana at about three in the afternoon which gave us plenty of time to make it to Silver Strand State Beach in San Diego where we planned to pitch our tent for the night.

And that’s when we ran into another obstacle we hadn’t planned on.  There were three long lines of cars waiting to cross the border into California.  We rode our bikes up between the lines of cars to the state line expecting that the border guard would just wave us through—after all, where would a couple of guys on bicycles hide anything?   But the guard at the border wasn’t having it.  He gave us a lecture about trying to cut the line then told us to go all the way back to the end of the line.  Two hours later after standing in the heat astride our bikes and breathing exhaust fumes from all the cars, we finally got back to the border where the same guard just waved us across without even asking for our I.D.   

At that point, we pulled over to the side of the road and took stock of where we were and what lay ahead of us.  We were exhausted, hot and sweaty.  Our legs were trembling and aching.  We didn’t even want to think about trying to get through Pendleton again.  What we wanted most was a good shower, a long, cold drink and a good meal. What we wanted was to be home.  

The bicycle ride that we had thought would be all kinds of fun had turned out to be all kinds of challenging.  Our stamina had evaporated in the exhaust fumes and unrelenting sunshine while we waited at the border.  We were fresh out of  possibility.  Our ride was over.  We made our way to the airport and, grateful for small miracles, managed to snag seats on a flight back to Long Beach.  

“Who would build a tower without first figuring out how much it’s going to cost?” asked Jesus.  “What king would go to war without first figuring out if he has a chance of winning?”  Who would ride a bicycle to Ensenada without making sure that they could actually get there and back?

Luke tells us that large crowds were traveling with Jesus as he made his way toward Jerusalem.  They had been watching him heal people.  They had been listening to him as he taught them about the kingdom of God and how radically different it is from the kingdom of Caesar.   The crowd was drawn to him.  They liked him.  They liked the different world he described, the better world that he told them is possible.  A lot of them were probably wondering what it might be like to be part of his inner circle—to be his disciple.

But there’s a big difference between being a fan and being a disciple.  

Jesus wants to make it clear to the crowd that becoming a disciple means putting him and the kingdom of God first.  Jesus wants them to understand that  becoming a disciple means you join him in making the kingdom of God a reality on earth as it is in heaven.  And Jesus wants us to understand that the other kingdoms of this world are going to resist you when you do that.  

The kingdom of family may be perfectly happy for you to be a fan of Jesus, even for you to embrace some of the things he teaches.  But they may not be so happy when you start giving away time and resources that they feel they have a claim to.  “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple,” said Jesus.  And no, he didn’t mean a disciple has to have some kind of intense animosity toward family, but he did mean that you, as a disciple, have to be willing to turn away from them, to let them go, when what they want is trying to pull you away from where Jesus is leading you.

The kingdoms, the empires of this world will resist you when you become a disciple of Jesus and set to work in earnest to make God’s reign a reality in your life and in the world.  

The kingdom of consumerism will sneer at you for not having the newest, shiniest, most fashionable, most advanced everything—clothes, gadgets, house, car or whatever when you, as a disciple of Jesus, learn to be satisfied with what you have and to give away what you don’t really need. 

The kingdom of capitalism will call you a socialist or maybe even a communist when you, as a disciple of Jesus, insist that those who have more should contribute to the well-being of those who have less.  When you remind them, as Jesus did, that God did not intend for the bountiful resources of the earth to enrich only a few, they will call you a radical and try to silence you.

The empire of power will oppose you when, as a disciple of Jesus, you call for liberating the oppressed and setting the captives free.  When you, as a disciple of Jesus, insist that all people are equal and beloved in God’s sight so the opportunities and benefits of life together in a civil society should be equal, too, regardless of race or gender or color or sexuality.  They will call you a trouble-maker and try to put a stop to you…one way or another.

“Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple,” said Jesus, and those people in the crowd, especially the wannabe disciples, knew he wasn’t just using hyperbole.  They knew that the cross he was talking about wasn’t a metaphor.  He was telling them there would be a real cross with real nails and real pain…because when you try to establish the kingdom of God in the midst of the empire of coercive power, coercive power will try to stop you.  Brutally.  

If you want to be my disciple, then stop and think about what that might cost you says Jesus.  There’s no shame if you can’t go that far.  There’s no shame if you just want to follow in the crowd and listen from a safer distance.  But you should know, eventually that won’t be enough.  

Eventually the Word of God will bring you to a place where either you will summon up the stamina and will to finish the ride… or call it quits.  Eventually either the vision of the kingdom of God will become all-consuming for you, or you will dismiss it as a nice but unobtainable ideal—or maybe some kind of prize in the afterlife if you are nice enough to qualify.

Traveling with Jesus sounds like all kinds of fun.  And it does have its rewards.  There are healings along the way.  He’s a marvelous teacher and the kingdom he envisions is beautiful.  He loves you and isn’t shy about making that known.   Jesus loves the crowd… but not everyone in the crowd is ready to go all the way to discipleship.  

Lots of people can ride a bicycle.  Comparatively few can ride it all the way to Ensenada and back.

How far will you go?

Entertaining Angels

Hebrews 13:1-2, 15-16; Luke 14:7-14

“Let mutual love continue.  Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.”  (Hebrews 13:1-2, NRSV)

“The next time you put on a dinner, don’t just invite your friends and family and rich neighbors, the kind of people who will return the favor.  Invite some people who never get invited out, the misfits from the wrong side of the tracks.”  (Luke 14:12, The Message)

These texts this week reminded me of Eric.  I think about him a lot.  Eric showed up one Sunday night when we were doing Stories, Songs and Supper.  He stood at the church door and asked what was happening as he saw people gathering, greeting each other, laughing, and we told him, “It’s a thing we do called Stories, Songs, and Supper.  We share a meal then sing a bunch of old familiar songs, then someone tells a story, then we sing a little more.”  We invited him to come in and join us.  So he did.

I was pretty sure he was homeless, although to be fair, his clothes were neater and cleaner than most of the other unhoused people who came to the church.  Eric had a gift of gab and while we were eating he told us a bit about himself.  That’s when he told us that this dinner was special for him because it was his birthday.  So we all sang Happy Birthday to him.  After supper, he helped to clear the tables, then joined us in the sanctuary for the singing and storytelling. 

Eric showed up for worship the next Sunday morning and also joined in our Adult Education class.  He joined in with one of our small groups in the volunteer work they were doing with Lutheran Social Services.  In almost no time Eric became an important member of our little family of faith at Gloria Dei.

 “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers,” we read in Hebrews, “for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.”

Well,  Eric was no angel…but then again, maybe he was.  In ancient times the word angel had a double meaning.  It could refer to a supernatural being who served God, or it could simply mean a messenger.   Eric was, in and of himself, a message to us—a gift to us all at the little church with a big heart.

We learned a lot from Eric.  We learned a little about life on the streets.  We learned more than we wanted to know about our neighbors’ attitudes toward the unhoused.  We learned how the police and the justice system in our city respond to those who are experiencing homelessness.  We learned about our own attitudes toward those living rough.  Most of all, though, we experienced an energy and vitality that’s been missing since he left us.  All this because we welcomed one gregarious man into our party on his birthday.

“The next time you put on a dinner,” said Jesus,  “don’t just invite your friends and family and rich neighbors, the kind of people who will return the favor.  Invite some people who never get invited out, the misfits from the wrong side of the tracks.  You’ll be—and experience—a blessing. They won’t be able to return the favor, but the favor will be returned—oh, how it will be returned!—at the resurrection of God’s people.” (Luke 14:12-14, The Message

“You will be—and you will experience—a blessing.”  Eric taught us just how true that is.

Jesus loved sharing meals with people.  Think about all the stories in the gospels that involve eating!  Jesus distributed food to multitudes.  Jesus dined with Simon the Tanner and Zacchaeus.  And, of course, there was that last Passover meal with his disciples.  After the resurrection he broke bread with the Emmaus travelers and cooked fish on the beach for the disciples.  Jesus shared a table with Pharisees even though some Pharisees had criticized him for sharing a table with “the wrong kind of people.”  “This fellow eats with tax collectors and sinners!”  There are so many Jesus stories that revolve around eating that some have suggested that his primary work was organizing dinner parties. 

Sharing the table—issuing a wide and inclusive invitation—this was one of the ways Jesus embodied the kingdom of God. 

“The gospel,” wrote Rachel Held Evans, “doesn’t need a coalition devoted to keeping the wrong people out.  It needs a family of sinners, saved by grace, committed to tearing down the walls, throwing open the doors, and shouting, ‘Welcome!  There’s bread and wine.  Come eat with us and talk.’ This isn’t a kingdom for the worthy, it’s a kingdom for the hungry.”

In the earliest days of what we now think of as the Church, many—maybe most—groups of Jesus followers were dinner-party groups—they organized their fellowship and worship around sharing a table, and everyone brought what they could to the banquet.  We see hints of this in 1 Corinthians 11 when St. Paul chastises the Corinthians for bringing their divisions to the table, but even more sternly for failing to make sure that the have-nots were included in the celebration when the haves were feasting.

“When you meet together,” he wrote, “you are not really interested in the Lord’s Supper.  For some of you hurry to eat your own meal without sharing with others. As a result, some go hungry while others get drunk.  What? Don’t you have your own homes for eating and drinking?  Or do you really want to disgrace God’s church and shame the poor? What am I supposed to say? Do you want me to praise you? Well, I certainly will not praise you for this!” (1 Cor 11:20-22, NLT)

The practice of early Christianity was centered around the table.  When it worked it was egalitarian, transformative, and beautiful.  When it didn’t it descended into another bad example of classism.  But the evidence suggests that most of the time and in most places it worked.  

The table of Christ was the one place in their world where they were all equal.  It was the one place where it didn’t matter if you lived in a mansion or sheltered under the eaves of the town hall.  It was the one place where it didn’t matter if you were a slave or a free person.  It was the one place where it didn’t matter if you were male or female—at least not in those earliest days of the Jesus followers.  

At the table of Christ, all were equal and all shared in what was brought to the supper—but most especially, all shared in the bread and the wine of Christ’s presence.

In his book The Forgotten Creed: Christianity’s Original Struggle against Bigotry, Slavery, and Sexism, Stephen J. Patterson has recovered what is believed to be the earliest baptismal creed of the Jesus followers:

“For you are all children of God in the Spirit.

There is no Jew or Greek,

there is no slave or free,

there is no male and female;

for you are all one in the Spirit.”

If that sounds familiar, it’s because St. Paul quotes this creed in his letter to the Galatians with a slight twist at the end.  Instead of saying “for you are all one in the Spirit,” Paul writes, “for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28)

“The creed’s basic claim,” writes Patterson, “is that baptism exposes the follies by which most of us live, defined by the other, who we are not.  It declares the unreality of race, class, and gender: there is no Jew or Greek, no slave or free, no male and female.  We may not all be the same, but we are all one, each one a child of God.” 

In Journey With Jesus this week, Dan Clendenin described how a friend of his daughter wanted to invite everyone in her church to her wedding but the budget wouldn’t allow it.  So instead of having a fancy wedding meal for just a few family and close friends, they got the police to block off the main street in downtown Waco, Texas.  Guests danced in the streets and ate ice cream from a Baskin Robbins ice cream cart.  The wedding cake was under the gazebo in the park and they cut small pieces so everyone could get a taste.  The groom, a pastor, had worked a lot with homeless people and many of them showed up for the wedding,  then helped to clean up the streets afterward.  The little African-American girl who lived next door to the bride brought her mother and her grandfather along to the wedding.  The grandfather quickly became the center of attention as he danced to the street music and soon the college girls were lining up to dance with him.  Passers-by strolling on the street were invited to join in the party.  And everyone was welcomed as an honored guest.

This is what the kingdom of God looks like.  A celebration that’s open to everyone.

It’s a family of sinners, saved by grace, tearing down the walls, throwing open the doors, and shouting, “Welcome!  There’s bread and wine.  Come eat with us and talk.

This is what the church of Jesus is supposed to be about:  radical hospitality.   

A kingdom for the hungry.

So let mutual love continue. 

But don’t forget to show hospitality to strangers.

Who knows… they just might be angels.

image © Hyatt Moore

Bent Out of Shape

Luke 13:10-17

Here’s a quick recap of today’s Gospel lesson.  One Sabbath day Jesus is teaching in the synagogue when he sees a woman who has been bent over double for 18 years.  Jesus calls her over to and says, “Woman, you are released from your weakness.  He lays his hands on her, and instantly she stands up straight, and starts praising God.  But not everybody is happy about this. Now the leader of the synagogue is the one who is getting all bent out of shape.  He thinks healing and/or being healed on the Sabbath is a violation of the law.  “Now is not the time,” he says.  “Come back some other day.”

Why is it that no matter what good thing you’re doing or trying to do, somebody is going to get bent out of shape about it?

When the whole country was bent out of shape with the Great Depression of the 1930s, President Franklin D. Roosevelt tried to straighten things out with a whole package of programs called The New Deal.  This package included the Works Progress Administration to provide jobs in a country where 24.9% of the workforce was unemployed and those lucky enough to have kept their jobs had seen their income cut by 42.5%.  The New Deal package also included Social Security to provide a guaranteed minimum income for retired workers or those too disabled to work.  

The well-off people of Roosevelt’s own social class opposed the New Deal.  They said that it was Socialism and un-American.  They said that putting people to work with the WPA would put the government in competition with private industry.  Other critics, like Huey Long, said the New Deal  didn’t go far enough or do enough.  Voices from a number of quarters said it was too expensive for a country suffering through a depression.  “Now is not the time,” they said.

When President Dwight D. Eisenhower decided to champion the interstate 

highway system, his critics called it “another ascent into the stratosphere of New Deal jitterbug economics.”  People who were concerned about the stability of the post-war economy said that the country simply could not afford it.  “Now is not the time,” they said.

When President John F. Kennedy declared in his State of the Union address in 1962 that we were going to go to the moon and take on other ambitious goals “not because they are easy but because they are hard” and because they would “organize and measure the best of America’s energies and skills,” he summed up his challenge by asking, “If not now, then when?  If not us, then by whom?”

“If not now, when?  If not us, then who?”  

I can imagine Jesus saying that to the synagogue leader who is upset with him for healing the woman who had been bent over for 18 years by “a spirit of weakness.”  

“You hypocrites!” he says. “You’ll untie your donkey on the Sabbath, you’ll let your ox out of its stall on the Sabbath and lead it out for water, but you don’t think this daughter of Abraham,  your sister, should be released from her bondage on the Sabbath?  What, 18 years bent over in pain isn’t long enough for you?  Now is not the time?  Well, if not now, when?”

“This woman, a daughter of Abraham,” he said “has been held in bondage by Satan for eighteen years.  Isn’t it right that she be released, even on the Sabbath?”  

Held in bondage by Satan.  The implication of what Jesus was saying was that anyone who would oppose her being freed from the “spirit of weakness” that had been keeping her bent over would be collaborating with Satan.  

There’s something evil about prolonging someone’s pain when you have the means and opportunity to provide relief.  

There’s something evil about prolonging someone’s bondage when you have the means and opportunity to set them free.  

More than 100 million people in this country are now dealing with some degree of medical debt.[1]  62% of those with medical debt had medical insurance when the debt was incurred but found that their insurance did not cover the expensive treatment, meds or procedures they needed.  Some will experience bankruptcy because of medical debt.  Some will lose their homes.  All of them are in bondage to a for-profit medical system.  But when we talk about Medicare for all or some other form of universal health care like the kind every other industrialized country in the world provides for their citizens, the insurance companies all say in unison, “We can’t afford it.  The economy won’t sustain it.  Now is not the time.”  

There’s something evil about prolonging someone’s pain when you have the means and opportunity to provide relief.  

There’s something evil about prolonging someone’s bondage when you have the means and opportunity to set them free.  

We seem to be perpetually caught between factions that want to bring healing to our over-heating planet and forces who are worried about the costs and the changes that would come with fixing the problems we have caused.   As we talk about funding new infrastructure for producing renewable energy, as we talk about ways to make more electric vehicles and make them more affordable so we can reduce the pollution that produces global warming, as we talk about more mass transit, there is a chorus of voices saying, “It’s too expensive.  The economy won’t support it.  The technology is not all there yet.  Now is not the time.”

When we talk about how we can address the lingering and malignant nastiness of racism, and antisemitism, we run headlong into people who want to remove the books and curricula that teach about these things from libraries and schools.  They don’t want their children to feel bad about the way their forbears treated people who were different from themselves.  They don’t want their children to know about our legacy of slavery, and they really don’t want them to know how de-humanizing and violent slavery really was.  They don’t want them to know about Jim Crow laws and segregation.  They don’t want them to know about all the ways that racism is still making life difficult to impossible for people of color.  “They’re just children,” they say.  They’re too young to be exposed to those things.  Now is not the time.”  

Well if not now, when?  If they don’t learn about the ugly hate and violence of our shared past, how will our children know not to make the same horrible mistakes in the future?  How will they understand the hate and violence they still see today?  

And what about the Black children and Brown children and Jewish children and Muslim children who are still living with the challenge of all that racism.  The redlining may be gone on the map but the neighborhoods it created linger on along with their diminished opportunities and services and quality of life.  These children of God have been held in bondage for centuries.  Isn’t it right that they be released?  Isn’t it right that they be freed from the things that have bent their lives out of shape?  Isn’t it right that in the name of Jesus and in the name of our common humanity we should stretch out our hands and help them stand up straight…even on the Sabbath?  If not now, when?  If not us, then who?

How will our children understand how destructive and wrong it is to treat others as something less human, something less than children of God, something less than their siblings in Christ if they don’t learn about it when they’re still young enough to have some empathy?  How will they understand the brokenness of the world they are inheriting from us if we don’t teach them about the mistakes we made?

Yes, they will feel bad about it.  Yes, it will make them sad.  That’s the point.  That’s how they will be moved to do better.  

Those who don’t want to see us address racism and antisemitism and all the other destructive and violent isms that are tearing our country and our world apart try to disparage and belittle those of us who are trying to create awareness and change things for the better.  They try to dismiss us by saying we’re “woke.”  They say it like it’s a bad thing.  

Do you know what woke means?  It’s a term that originated in the Black community.  Woke means you are awakened to the needs of others.  Woke means you are well-informed, thoughtful, compassionate, humble and kind.  Woke means you are eager to make the world a better place for all people.  Woke means you are aware of the systems we live in and how they can produce unequal opportunities and outcomes.

Jesus told us to be woke.  He told us repeatedly to stay awake.  Jesus told us to read the signs of the times.  Jesus told us to pray for God’s reign of love and respect to become a reality on earth as it is in heaven.  

Jesus himself ran headlong into that all-too-human propensity to defend the status quo.  He was continually challenged by people who were upset because he didn’t play by the rules.  “There are six days of the week for working.  Come on those days to be healed, not on the Sabbath.”  But Jesus didn’t think anyone should have to wait for healing or to be set free from bondage.  Not even on the Sabbath.

Today’s Gospel tells us that the things Jesus said to the synagogue leader shamed his enemies.  Nobody likes to be shamed.  But sometimes that’s what it takes to humble us.  Sometimes that’s what it takes for us to learn.  Sometimes that’s what it takes to wake us up.

There is so much that needs the healing, freeing and restoring touch of Christ in our world.  There are so many who need to be freed by the love of God.  When we follow Jesus, we are choosing to do these things “not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”  When we follow Jesus, we are choosing “to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills” for the healing of our communities and our world.  When we follow Jesus we are choosing to let the shame of our history teach us to follow a more generous and loving Way through our present time and into the future.  When we follow Jesus we are choosing to help a society that is bent out of shape to stand up straight.  

If not now, then when?  If not us, then who?

[1] Los Angeles Times, June 23, 2022


Note: This is a transcript of an extemporaneous sermon

Jeremiah 23:23-29; Hebrews 11:29-12:2; Luke 12:49-56

I confess I hardly know where to begin today.  The three readings that we have this morning are the kind of texts that are very easy to take out of context and twist them to whatever end someone wants.

In the first reading, Jeremiah is calling out the false prophets.  He was speaking at a time when the false prophets were telling the people of Israel and the political powers that be that they didn’t have anything to worry about from the approaching Babylonians because God was going to save them.  And Jeremiah was saying, No, that’s not how it’s going to happen.  You haven’t listened to God’s warnings, you’re completely unprepared, and that’s just not how it’s going to happen.  He reminds them that the Word of God is like a fire or a hammer that can smash through the rock of our denial.

And then we come to the lesson from the letter to the Hebrews.  It starts off with this wonderful remembrance of all these heroes of faith, people who stayed faithful.  The passage starts off talking about how they were rewarded for their faith.  Some of them were given kingdoms. Some of them made great accomplishments.  But then it quickly turns and talks about martyrdom.  

It’s so easy, sometimes, to think of ourselves as martyrs when things are not going our way.  Or when we find ourselves facing forces or circumstances in the culture or in life that put undue pressure on us, especially if it happens because of our faith.  We forget that that letter was written at a time when people really were being tortured for their faith.  Hebrews was written probably around 63 or 64 CE, when Nero was the emperor—Nero, who would light his garden parties by putting the bodies of Christians on poles and lighting them on fire as human torches—Nero, who executed Paul by beheading and Peter by crucifying him upside down—Nero, who sent Christians to the arena to fight wild animals without any weapons.

And then come the words of Jesus in today’s Gospel:  “You think I came to bring peace?  No, I came to set the world on fire and I wish it was already kindled. I have a baptism to be baptized with and I am under such anxiety until it is complete.”  He was on his way to the cross.

At the beginning of that chapter, chapter 12, Luke tells us that thousands of people were now following him.  Thousands.  And you know Jesus walked among that crowd and listened to every single way that people were misunderstanding him.  And every single misplaced expectation.  So he talks about division.  And I don’t think he’s saying this with any kind of forcefulness or bravado.  I think he is lamenting.  I think he understands that the world is going to be pretty hostile to those who truly follow what he’s been saying about proclaiming the reign of God and working to see it established nonviolently.  

And I think it breaks his heart to say those words.  Father will be pitted against son and son against father.  I remember the first time I talked to my dad about going to seminary when I was about 15 years old.  I remember he said, “It’s a good thing to have religion, but don’t go overboard with it.”  

These texts that we have this morning, as I said, can so easily be pulled out of context and used the wrong way.  When I first read these texts this week, I couldn’t help but think about how a White Christian Nationalist preacher might use these texts.  

You could use this text where Jesus talks about division, for instance, to make it sound like he’s endorsing that, like we’re supposed to be splitting ourselves apart from each other.  You could use what Jeremiah is saying about the false prophets because it’s oh so easy to think that the people who are saying what we don’t like are the false prophets, instead of the ones who are speaking the Word of God.  And as I said, with martyrdom, it’s so easy to think of yourself as the martyr. We have romanticized martyrdom in our world today.  This is why terrorist groups talk about martyrdom and the possibility of martyrdom when they’re recruiting.  It just sounds so glorious. 

On Wednesday, Diana Butler Bass published a piece in her online group called The Cottage, where she shared that she’s extremely worried because there’s been an increasing amount of rhetoric from a certain quarter of our society about civil war, especially after Mar a Lago was searched by the FBI early this week.  There were thousands of posts saying it’s time for civil war, thousands of posts with a headline that said lock and load.  And the scary thing is that the people who are saying this don’t stop to think about what that really means.

It means violence.  And bloodshed.  It means misery and suffering.  It means crashed economies.  It means poverty and hunger.  It means destruction.  It’s not going to be like the last time.  There won’t be some dividing line between North and South.  No, it will be between you and your next door neighbor.  It’ll be right outside your door…or maybe inside your house…if it’s a thing we allow to happen.

One of the things that we are called to as faithful people is to be faithful to Jesus and to be faithful to what the scriptures are actually saying, to keep them in context and use them in context.  But also to speak to a society that is taking them out of context, to remind them of what they’re really saying when they say things like, “It’s time for a civil war.”  To remind them that what they’re saying is that it’s time for bloodshed…and destruction and violence and pain and suffering beyond their imagination.  If they talk about the words of Jesus saying, “But look, he’s calling for this division!” it’s our job to say, “No, he’s lamenting the ways we divide ourselves from each other because of the way we interpret our faith.”  

Jesus was just so prescient when he talked about our division.  So prophetic.  There are 40 church bodies in North America, in the US and Canada that call themselves Lutheran.  There are 45,000 church bodies in the world that call themselves Christian.  And all of them have separated themselves from some other church body at some point in history.  

The message of Jesus is that we are supposed to build bigger tables, not higher walls.  We’re supposed to open our doors wider, not close them against people who disagree with us on minor things.   The message of Jesus is that we’re supposed to embrace each other with love, not take adamantine stands against each other because of the way interpret a few words here and there.

As I said, I don’t know where to begin this morning, because if these three scriptures that we have this morning tell us anything, they tell us that we have enormous work ahead of us in a dangerous time.  They tell us that this is a time to really and truly be faithful to the gospel of love, to the gospel of Jesus Christ that embraces everyone.  They tell us that this is a time to speak truth for the sake of the reign of God through Jesus Christ, our Lord.  Amen       

Restless Faith

Isaiah 1:1, 10-20; Genesis 15:1-6; Hebrews 11:1-4, 8-16;  Luke 12:32-40

Just as he was about to begin his sermon one Sunday, a pastor was handed a note.  He unfolded the paper then said to the congregation, “This says there will be no B.S. tomorrow.”  He paused for a long moment then said, “I’m pretty sure that means Bible Study, but I have to confess that for just a moment there I thought, ‘Oh, that would be nice.’”

Wouldn’t it be nice to have a day scheduled for no B.S.—no Bogus Stuff?  

In the alternate first reading for this morning from chapter one of Isaiah, Isaiah takes the people to task for their Bogus Stuff.  He tells the people quite plainly, “God doesn’t want your bull.”  Well, what he actually says is:  

10 Hear the word of the LORD, you rulers of Sodom!

Listen to the teaching of our God, you people of Gomorrah!

11 What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices? says the LORD;

I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of fed beasts;

I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs, or of goats. 

12   When you come to appear before me,  who asked this from your hand?

Trample my courts no more;

13 bringing offerings is futile; incense is an abomination to me.

New moon and sabbath and calling of convocation— 

I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity.

14 Your new moons and your appointed festivals my soul hates;

they have become a burden to me, I am weary of bearing them.

15 When you stretch out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you;

even though you make many prayers, I will not listen;

your hands are full of blood.

Somewhere along the way, the people had substituted the practice of their religion for the ethics of their faith.  They had fallen into the habit of thinking that as long as they performed the right rituals and offered the right sacrifices, as long as they celebrated certain festivals and observed certain holy days in the calendar, then everything would be okay between them and God.  

But Isaiah tells them in plain language, “No.  God thinks all of that is B.S.  Bogus Stuff.  God doesn’t want your bull…or your ram or your goat.”  So what does God want? Once again, Isaiah is blunt:

16 Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings

from before my eyes;

cease to do evil,

17 learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed,

defend the orphan,

plead for the widow.

The texts assigned for today are all about faith.  They tell us what faith is and what it is not.  

Isaiah makes it clear that faith is not simply worship.  It is not liturgical worship or praise worship or any other form of worship.  Faith may move you to worship God.  Worship is one way to express your faith.  But it is not a substitute for faith.  And worship without faith is meaningless.

Faith is not mere belief.  Faith does not mean you accept or give your intellectual assent to certain propositions or truths about God, about Jesus, about the Holy Spirit.  Faith is not creeds or doctrine or dogma.  Those are tools that can help guide our faith in the same way a map can help you get somewhere you want to go.  But the map is not the journey.  It’s a depiction of the path others have traveled before you.   

So what is faith?

“Faith,” said Martin Luther, “is God’s work in us, that changes us and gives new birth from God… It kills the Old Adam and makes us completely different people. It changes our hearts, our spirits, our thoughts and all our powers. It brings the Holy Spirit with it. Yes, it is a living, creative, active and powerful thing, this faith… Faith is a living, bold trust in God’s grace, so certain of God’s favor that it would risk death a thousand times trusting in it.”[1]

Faith is trusting God.  And that’s not always as easy as it sounds because God’s ways are not our ways and God’s timetable is not our timetable.

Abram trusted God, but that didn’t stop him from complaining.  He had left his home in Ur to find a new homeland that God had promised.   Everywhere he went in the new land he prospered.  He acquired vast parcels of property.  His flocks increased.  Local kings respected and feared him so much that they tried to recruit him as an ally in their territorial wars.  He could have built his own city, but Abram continued to live in a tent because God had told him to keep moving.  But when  long years had passed and he and Sarah had not been blessed with children, Abram complained.

So God took Abram outside to look up into the night sky.  “Look up into the sky and count the stars if you can,” said God.  “If I can make that, do you really think giving you descendants will be a problem?”

Genesis tells us that Abram trusted God, and God regarded Abram as righteous because of his faith.

Faith is trust in God. 

When Jesus was on the road with his disciples announcing that the reign of God, the kin-dom of God is in reach, his followers started to worry about all the things one worries about in daily life.  Jesus turned to them and said, “A person is a fool to store up earthly wealth but not have a rich relationship with God.  That is why I tell you not to worry about everyday life—whether you have enough food to eat or enough clothes to wear. For life is more than food, and your body more than clothing.  Look at the ravens. They don’t plant or harvest or store food in barns, for God feeds them. And you are far more valuable to him than any birds!  Can all your worries add a single moment to your life?  And if worry can’t accomplish a little thing like that, what’s the use of worrying over bigger things?

    “Look at the lilies and how they grow. They don’t work or make their clothing, yet Solomon in all his glory was not dressed as beautifully as they are.  And if God cares so wonderfully for flowers that are here today and thrown into the fire tomorrow, he will certainly care for you. Why do you have so little faith?

   “So don’t be afraid, little flock.  For it gives your Father great happiness to give you the Kingdom.”[2]

Faith is trusting God as we follow the Spirit-driven yearning of our hearts toward the better world that Jesus described for us.  It is trust that carries through this in-between life—living between what life and the world are now and what we hope and dream they will be as we work to transform them.  Faith is a holy restlessness.  A longing.  A hunger.  A desire.  Faith is not a destination, it is the journey.

“Faith,” wrote Debi Thomas, “is the audacity to undertake a perilous journey simply because God asks us to — not because we know ahead of time where we’re going.  Faith is the itch and the ache that turns our faces towards the distant stars even on the cloudiest of nights.  Faith is the willingness to stretch out our imaginations and see new birth, new life, new joy — even when we feel withered and dead inside.  Faith is the urgency of the homeless for a true and lasting home — a home whose architect and builder is God.”[3]

Faith is a holy dissatisfaction.  Faith wants to tear down walls and build bigger tables.  Faith wants to open the doors wider so more can come to the feast.  Faith trusts that there will always be enough for everyone.  Faith trusts that Love is not diminished but multiplied when it’s shared.  Faith shows the reality of what we hope for; it is the evidence of things we cannot see.

This week, our denomination, the ELCA is having its churchwide assembly, the national gathering that takes place every three years to discuss and vote on theological, structural and administrative matters.  This year there are a number of proposed changes in our national constitution.  In addition to the constitutional changes that are already part of the agenda, a number of synods have submitted memoranda calling for a complete restructuring of our denomination in order to root out any systemic racism, but also to make our denomination structurally and administratively less top-heavy, lighter and more nimble.  They want to ensure that we are able to follow Jesus more closely and more quickly.  They want to make it easier for us to respond to the needs of the world and our communities, more by faith and less by organizational systems.

Changes are coming to our church, in fact change has been happening for some time.  We don’t yet know what all the changes will be or what they will mean for us.  Faith is a journey, not a destination, and it might be time to move.  But whatever changes we face, we can trust that God is in the change.  God will be with us.  

So, Jesus tells us, travel light.  Sell your excess stuff and give to those in need.  Where your treasure is, that’s where your heart will be, so let your heart go out to those in need.  Be dressed for service and keep your lamps burning.  And be ready.  The kin-dom of God is close…and we don’t want to let Bogus Stuff keep us from getting there.

Have no fear, little flock.  It is your Father’s great pleasure to give you the Kingdom.

[1] An excerpt from “An Introduction to St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans,” Luther’s German Bible of 1522 by Martin Luther, 1483-1546

Translated by Rev. Robert E. Smith from DR. MARTIN LUTHER’S VERMISCHTE DEUTSCHE SCHRIFTEN. Johann K. Irmischer, ed. Vol. 63 Erlangen: Heyder and Zimmer, 1854), pp.124-125. [EA 63:124-125]

[2] Luke 12:22-32 (NLT)

[3] Debi Thomas, Called to Restlessness, Journey With JesusAugust 7, 2022


Thoughts Along the Way

“Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”  –Matthew 5:48. 

“Perfection is the enemy of good,” said Voltaire, although he was rephrasing an older saying: “Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good.”  Winston Churchill said, “Perfection is the enemy of progress,” and Tolstoy said  “If you look for perfection you’ll never be content.” Salvador Dali said there’s no point in being afraid of perfection because you’ll never find it.  “If people reach perfection they vanish, you know,” wrote T.H. White in The Once and Future King.

Well, Voltaire, Churchill, Tolstoy and Dali were right.  You can keep trying to make something flawless, and since you don’t know what perfection really is or what it looks like—after all, nobody has ever actually seen it or experienced it—you may end up ruining something that was perfectly good enough.  You can re-write and over-edit your writing until the words lose their meaning.  You can agonize over finding the perfect words for your speech and end up alienating your audience because you sound like you’re from another era or stratum of society.  You can sand and polish your woodwork until the grain disappears.  You can keep adding details to your painting and end up overcomplicating what might have otherwise been a masterpiece.  

If you’re trying to make yourself perfect, it would be good to take T.H. White’s words of caution to heart.  You can try to live a life that is so moral, intelligent and upright in every way that you make the you that everybody loves—you know, the you that has an slightly wicked sense of humor, the you that’s just a little unorthodox, the you whose heart sometimes overrules the head—if you try too hard to be perfect, you can end up making the genuine you disappear into the shell of a pious mannequin.  Or into craziness.  Because there is no perfect.

We all know that perfection is not possible.  And yet, here is Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount telling us to “be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”  So is Jesus commanding us to do the impossible?

Probably not.  We probably have the wrong word…or at least the wrong understanding of it.

Some scholars think that the Gospel of Matthew may have originally been written in Hebrew.  If so, then the word that appears in English as “perfect” would have been either tamam or kalal;  Hebrew has two different words that might have been used.  Tamam is a word that connotes wholeness, soundness, or integrity.  It is a word that is usually used to convey ethical significance.  So if tamam was the word used, we could hear what Jesus is saying as “Be whole, be mature, be honest as your heavenly Father is whole, mature and honest.”  Kalal, on the other hand, is a word meant to convey an aesthetic sense of completeness, elegance, natural grace or beauty.  “Be elegant as your heavenly Father is elegant.”  

In Greek, the language of most of the oldest manuscripts of Matthew’s gospel, the word our English Bibles translate as “perfect” is teloi which comes from teleios or telos.  The overall meaning is wholeness and completeness.  It’s a word that’s used to describe something or someone that is mature, a grown person, an adult.  It can also refer to someone who is fully initiated into a religious community of faith or who is fully consecrated to a faithful way of life. Sometimes it is used to describe someone who is completely genuine.  “Be genuine, therefore, as your heavenly Father is genuine.”

Author and scholar Chaim Benorah points out that Jesus was probably speaking Aramaic.  In Aramaic, the word he used would have been gmeera.  Gmeera describes someone who has understanding, someone who has reached maturity, an adult.  So we could read the instructions of Jesus as something like “Have understanding of the Way, the way God understands the Way” or “Be an adult, the way God is an adult.”  I think this meaning may be what Eugene Peterson had in mind when he translated this verse in The Message this way: “In a word, what I’m saying is, Grow up. You’re kingdom subjects. Now live like it. Live out your God-created identity. Live generously and graciously toward others, the way God lives toward you.”

David Lose has pointed out that there is an important word in this “be perfect” passage that we tend to ignore.  Therefore.  That little “therefore” should make us back up a bit and look at what Jesus was saying before we got stuck on “be perfect.”  He was telling his disciples—telling us—to practice nonviolence, to love our enemies, and to pray for our enemies and those who persecute us.  He was giving instructions on adulting in the kin-dom.  Be a grown up as your heavenly Father is a grownup.

Perfect.  It’s just a word, but it’s a crazy-making word, and it reminds us that we need to think about the words we’re using and how we use them.  Telling someone they need to be perfect could set them on the path to life-long neurosis. Inviting someone to imitate God’s maturity and wholeness, though, is another pathway altogether.  After all, as it says in the First Nations Version: An Indigenous Translation of the New Testament, “By loving and blessing all people, you will be walking in the footsteps of your Father from the spirit-world above, who is perfect in all his ways.”

Teach Us to Pray – Part 2

Teach Us to Pray – Part 2

Luke 11:1-13

Last week we finished Part 1 of our deep dive into Luke’s version of The Lord’s Prayer with the petition Your kindom come.  As I said last week, a literal translation would be “Let it come, the reign of you,” or “Let your reign begin.”  I also pointed out that this petition, “let your reign begin” is where this prayer stops being a nice religious sentiment or litany of devotion and becomes an endorsement of a better reality.  

Your kingdom come, or Let your reign begin is a declaration that we are in favor of radical changes in the way the world operates.  When we pray your kingdom come, we are asking God to work through us to make significant changes in economics, politics, religion and society in order to bring the justice and shalom of God to our everyday lives.  When we pray your kingdom come, let your reign begin, we are volunteering to live here and now God’s shalom and also to do whatever we can to bring God’s shalom to others and to all creation.

Shalom is what the Lord’s Prayer is all about.  Shalom is a Hebrew word that means peace.  But it’s not merely a peace based on the absence or suppression of hostility.  The word Shalom comes from the Hebrew root shalam which literally means “make it good.”  It is a word used to describe completeness and wholeness.  And, while it’s good for us to seek our own inner shalom, the real shalom of God’s reign happens in community.  The Shalom of the kin-dom is a peace that recognizes that we are all interconnected and interdependent.  Shalom desires the peace and well-being of others, which means that it requires justice and fairness.  

Cherokee theologian Randy S. Woodley describes it this way:  “Shalom is communal, holistic, and tangible. There is no private or partial shalom. The whole community must have shalom or no one has shalom. As long as there are hungry people in a community that is well fed, there can be no shalom. . . . Shalom is not for the many, while a few suffer; nor is it for the few while many suffer. It must be available for everyone.”[1] 

When we pray Your kingdom come, we are praying for shalom in our homes, in our towns, in our churches, in our nation and throughout the whole world.  We are praying for peace and justice and fairness for everyone.  And that brings us naturally to Give us each day our daily bread, because in God’s shalom everyone is fed and no one goes hungry. 

Give us each day our daily bread.  There is some ambiguity in the Greek wording here, and it can be translated in two ways.  The first way, of course, is the way we’re used to hearing it or saying it: give us today our daily bread.  Amy-Jill Levine points out, though, that this is not only redundant but rather odd.  She suggests that a better translation would be give us tomorrow’s bread today.  

Give us tomorrow’s bread today is a valid translation from a linguistic standpoint, but it may also give us both a more practical and a more wholistic way to think about what we’re asking.  In most households in Jesus’ day, the dough for the next day’s bread was prepared the evening before and allowed to rise during the night.  If you were going to have bread tomorrow, you needed to have the ingredients today.  Understood this way, this petition is a way of asking for something very practical.  We’re asking God to save us from at least a little anxiety by ensuring that we have today what we will need tomorrow.  

But this petition of the prayer reaches beyond our family table.  It is reminiscent of a traditional Jewish table prayer called the motzi: “Blessed are you, Lord our God, ruler of the universe, who brings forth bread from the earth.”  It reminds us that God doesn’t just magically put bread on the table, God uses the generosity of the earth and the labor of the whole community to put bread on the table. 

Last week I told the story of the little boy who was saying his bedtime prayers and prayed very loudly, “AND GOD, PLEASE GIVE ME A NEW BICYCLE!”  When his mother reminded him that he didn’t need to say it so loudly because God isn’t hard of hearing, he said  “I know, but Grandma is.”  As I said last week, this little guy was onto something—God often uses others to answer our prayers, in fact, that’s how it works most of the time.

When we pray give us tomorrow’s bread today, we are asking God to care for the land where the wheat grows.  We’re asking for clean and gentle rains so the crops can grow.  We are asking God to guard and protect the farmers who plant and care for and harvest the crops.  We are asking God to care for those who transport the wheat and mill it into flour.  We are asking God to care for the hands that make the dough and knead it and bake it.  We are asking for fuel for the fire in the ovens.  

Bread on the table depends entirely on the well-being of the community and on our relationships within the community.  God brings forth bread from the earth, but it is a team effort.  When we pray for both today’s bread and tomorrow’s we are once again praying for the shalom of God’s kin-dom.  The next time you hold a piece of bread in your hand, or any piece of food for that matter, think of all the hands that labored to bring it to your hand.

Shalom is what makes it possible for us to have our daily bread.  But sometimes things we do or say disrupt the cooperation and mutuality that make shalom possible.  Sometimes our sins or the sins of others rupture relationships, and forgiveness is needed to restore those relationships.  And that’s why Jesus taught us to pray And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.  

Luke says “forgive us our sins.”  Matthew says, “forgive us our debts.”  In both Aramaic and Hebrew, “debt” was another way to talk about sin.  In the version we pray in our congregation, we usually say “forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.”  That’s a perfectly fine way to pray this petition.  It reminds us that we do sin against God and against each other.  We do need forgiveness from God and from each other.  This petition reminds us that there is a reciprocity involved in forgiveness.  As Jesus said in Luke 6:37, “Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven.”  Once again it’s about relationships all the way down, which means that this petition, too, is also about God’s shalom.

But let’s go back to the language about debts and forgiving debts.  Remember that Jesus was a Jew and he was teaching this prayer to his Jewish disciples.  This language about debts would have been a reminder to them of everything the Torah has to say about economic justice.  Jesus is telling them and us to live in an economically just way.

In Hebrew, the word for charitytzedakah, is from the same root as the word for righteousness, tzedek.  Torah says in Deuteronomy 15:11, “Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, ‘Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land.’”  Deuteronomy 24:14 tells us, “You shall not withhold the wages of the poor and needy laborers, whether Israelites or aliens who reside in your land in one of your towns.” 

In this petition, Jesus reminds us to think of our spiritual indebtedness—we are all indebted to God’s grace—but we are reminded to consider the economic implications of the way we live.  Are the products and services we buy produced in a way that’s economically fair to the workers who produce them?   Does my lifestyle depend on or contribute to some economic injustice?  What can I do to change that?

Living a life of faith as a follower of Jesus means that sometimes we face difficult questions. Sometimes it feels almost as if we’re being tested.

And do not bring us to the time of trial.  When the Book of Common Prayer was revised in 1604, the phrase “and lead us not into temptation” in The Lord’s Prayer caused a huge controversy.  The Puritans were quick to point out that the Book of James says, “No one, when tempted, should say, ‘I am being tempted by God’; for God cannot be tempted by evil and he himself tempts no one.” (James 1:13)  This was only one of several complaints they had about the Book of Common Prayer, but it was one they were not willing to compromise.

They had a point.  What the Greek says in both Luke and Matthew is “do not bring us into a peirasmon.  Peirasmon is a time or place of testing, trial or examination.  Temptation may be a kind of test, but not every test is a temptation.  In this petition, you are asking to be spared from any kind of catastrophe or stress, any situation that would put your faith to the test. 

As I said in Part 1, The Lord’s Prayer, this prayer that Jesus gave his disciples is not only one of the great treasures of our faith, it’s also, in its way, a radical call to a discipleship.  In this prayer we are asking God to empower us, guide us, and walk with us as we embrace a new way of life with new values and a new vision of what the world can be.  It really is, in six simple lines, a kind of manifesto for life as a follower of Jesus.  In this prayer we are asking for peace, health, and  wholeness for ourselves and for our community.  We are asking God to help us live in the shalom of the kin-dom here and now.  We are asking God to help us live in the Way of Love.

“Shalom,” writes Jamie Arpin-Ricci, “is what love looks like in the flesh. The embodiment of love in the context of a broken creation, shalom is a hint at what was, what should be, and what will one day be again. Where sin disintegrates and isolates, shalom brings together and restores. Where fear and shame throw up walls and put on masks, shalom breaks down barriers and frees us from the pretense of our false selves.”[2] 

When we pray for God’s name not to be profaned, when we pray for God’s reign to begin in earnest, when we pray for a healthy community and world so that everyone may have tomorrow’s bread today, when we pray for forgiveness and the power to forgive, we are praying for God’s vision of a healthy world.  When we say “Amen,” we are not only saying “Make it so,” we are saying we will do what we can to live in that vision and make it a reality for others.  In Jesus’ name.

[1] Shalom and the Community of Creation; Randy S. Woodley

[2] Jamie Arpin-RicciVulnerable Faith: Missional Living in the Radical Way of St. Patrick