One Body–Many Gifts

This is my sermon from Sunday, August 27, 2017. It’s focused mostly on our Exodus passage, but also pulls in some from Romans and Matthew, too.

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

I can never hear this passage about Peter declaring Jesus be the Messiah without thinking about an incident that happened a couple of years ago. It was during a continuing education event for pastors in their first three years of ministry.

A couple friends of mine had their two year old daughter along with them, and one day during worship this passage was being read. The preacher was very passionately telling the story and when she said, “And who do you say that I am,” little Eve very confidently, and loudly, replied: “I say Cookie Monster.”

And that poor preacher never quite got everyone’s focus back after that. Eve maybe was hungry—this was right before lunch—and so she replied with what she hoped the preacher would be. She can be excused, if only for being two.

But how often do we do the very same? When faced with the question of who Jesus is—how often do we fill in the blank with who we wish Jesus was? It’s happening in our gospel story among the crowds—some say he is a prophet, some Elijah, some John the Baptist. They don’t understand who he truly is, and so they pick who they want him to be.

Peter then answers the question for himself, and even he doesn’t truly understand. In next week’s gospel, we’ll see that although Peter declares Jesus to be Messiah, he doesn’t really know what it means to be a Messiah. But still, I think one of the important take-aways from Peter’s answer is that he even speaks up in the first place.

He doesn’t have all of the information, but when asked to take a stand for his faith, he speaks up anyway. To be the church, to be the people of God, involves speaking up and acting up, even if it’s not perfect. Even if we’re unsure or feel out of our depth.

And that’s what we have happening in this great story in our first lesson, from the first couple chapters of Exodus. It’s usually read as an origin story for Moses who will become the leader of his people. But I think the supporting characters are even more interesting.

The Israelites have been in Egypt for a few generations now, and a new king comes into power. A king who does not know Joseph. Remember Joseph? He’s the Israelite who found favor with the king and saved Egypt from years of famine. This new king doesn’t remember that.

Wishing to solidify his political base, he identifies a common enemy, a scapegoat to blame for Egypt’s problems. Like so many times throughout history, he chooses the Jews. And he orders all male Hebrew babies to be killed immediately. That’s when we’re introduced to these two awesome characters of the Hebrew midwives: Shiphrah and Puah. The king never gets named, but these women, we know their names.

They are in a seemingly powerless position, facing down the king of a powerful nation. They have not obeyed his commands to kill the boy babies and instead of backing down they play on the king’s own xenophobic fears to explain themselves—the Hebrew women simply give birth much too quickly, and there is nothing they can do. It is a courageous act of civil disobedience.

Shiphrah and Puah choose, in a moment when they could have easily said nothing or done nothing, they choose to speak. Choose not to be silent, choose not to accept this king and his un-Godly actions.

Later, after Moses is born and set into the river, it is his sister Miriam who chooses to speak up. To take a chance. And by speaking up she brings Moses home to their own mother—at least for awhile. In this story, whose main purpose is to introduce us to Moses, these women all have important parts to play.

This is, in fact, what Paul is describing in our Romans reading today: “For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually members of one another.” We may have different gifts, different purposes, but we all have a part to play. The body itself is not complete when we neglect the gifts any one person has to offer.

As we welcome one more member into this body this morning through baptism, we recognize that Paige too has gifts of her own. And we are incomplete without them. Right now, her gifts probably feature bringing joy and love to her family, and those gifts will grow as she does. We all have different gifts, but the same potential for God to use us to make real differences in the world.

Like Puah, and Shiphrah, and Miriam, we all have moments that will call upon our gifts and our courage.  The things we do, the actions we take, the words we speak—they ripple out with unforeseen consequences, for good or ill, for the health or the damage of the world. Every day, we testify to who we believe Jesus is, with our words and our actions. We may not feel ready, like Peter, we might not yet grasp the whole picture.

And yet, the question is whether, but what we will do that will ripple out into the world. What will we do this week to make a difference in the world? Some of these actions may be big, bold, and courageous. Others may be small, hardly noticeable. And yet they all have the potential to ripple out, affecting countless lives.

We speak and act in ways that are possible only because we are empowered not by flesh and blood, but by God. It is God who gives us gifts of grace, wisdom, diligence, compassion, cheerfulness, and generosity. And it is God’s gracious Spirit, given to each of us in baptism, that uses our gifts to bring about change and healing in the world.

May we never fail to recognize our opportunities to speak to who Jesus is in our words and actions—big and small. And may we always give thanks to God for the gifts and ability to do so. Amen.

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Stubborn Blessing

Below is my sermon from Sunday, August 20, 2017. It focuses on the many ways we try to make God’s love an exclusive thing–and why that’s completely missing the point. In a rare event for me, I actually talk about all three readings from Genesis, Romans, and Matthew.

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

There’s been a lot of talk about how divided people are lately.There’s been a lot of talk lately about sides. Whose side are you on? The problem of competing sides has always been a part of our human existence. In some ways it is a product of our sin—our desire to even form groups with us vs. them is sinful in the first place. But recently the hateful groups that love such distinctions have been emboldened and what was once the fringes feels much more mainstream.

Sometimes, it is incredibly easy to pick a side. When one side is Nazi’s and white supremacists, and the other side opposes those things, that is an easy choice. When a group’s entire existence is based around hate, destruction, and oppression of others, it is not a difficult moral decision.

But us vs. them has been going on forever, and a lot of times our decisions are not so morally clean cut. Each of our three readings this morning offers an opportunity to consider this dynamic of who is in and who is out, of who is considered deserving and who is not.

In Genesis, we catch up on the story of Joseph and his brothers. Joseph, the younger and favored son of their father, was sold into slavery by his older brothers. Now, many years later, he has risen to prominence as Pharaoh’s adviser and his brothers have come, in a time of famine, desperate for food and help.

Joseph could have sent them away. He could have never even revealed who he was—they didn’t recognize him as their little brother from so many years ago. After all, they were the ones who created the division in the first place; he could hardly be held responsible for refusing to help the very people who sold him into slavery. Some would call that justice, or karma. You do reap what you sow, after all.

But instead, he shows mercy and compassion and love for his brothers in need. This act begins the reconciliation that will keep the whole family protected and fed through the famine.

In the gospel reading, we meet another outsider in the Canaanite woman. Jesus has just finished a small sermon to the disciples about how it is not any outward thing that defiles a person—these outward characteristics, how or what we eat, what kind of clothes we wear, they cannot defile. Rather, a person will be judged by what comes from their heart.

And right after saying that, Jesus is going to have his proposition tested by this Canaanite woman. She cries out to him for mercy, and he ignores her. He has every reason to ignore her. Men and women weren’t even supposed to speak in public back then. Not to mention she’s a Canaanite—the people who lived in the land before the Israelites claimed it. Not a Jew, not even a Roman, who though they were outsiders at least had power and influence.

Jesus has every reason to ignore her, but she keeps persisting in crying out to him. She violates all the boundaries set up because of ethnicity, heritage, religion, and gender. And she insists on being acknowledged by Jesus.

And when he does acknowledge her, he tells her that he is only there for his own people, not hers—and then he compares her to a dog. And yet she keeps pushing, brushing aside his insult and demanding at least a crumb—at least a shred of compassion, if not dignity.

This woman’s persistence opens Jesus’ eyes to the reality that the kingdom of God’s love and mercy is bigger and wider than even he imagined. Great was her faith, and greatly to be praised. She would not be kept away from God’s love because of outward divisions.

The situation of Jew and Gentile is flipped in our reading from Romans. The church has spread throughout the Mediterranean and now the question is not whether Gentiles can be part of the kingdom, rather the question is what role do the Jews, the people of God, play moving forward? Do they now find themselves on the outside?

As Paul writes: “I ask, then, has God rejected his people? By no means! God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew.”  Paul is quick to condemn those who seek to claim God for themselves, and to cast off others they deem not good enough. The Jewish people, Paul goes on to say, are the root of the tree that Christians find themselves grafted onto. They provide the foundation for Gentiles’ relationship with God and are by no means to be cast aside.

In each of our readings this morning, there are those who would put limits on God and on love. Those who would seek to draw lines and keep others out. We still do it today. Those who say that to be a member of the church you must act or dress or live a certain way. Those who say that our LGBT brothers and sisters are not deserving of God’s love, or are not made in the image of the same God. Those who draw lines of race and claim that to be white is to be superior. The subtler racism that infects our institutions and our hearts. We try to draw lines around those we find deserving.

We’ve been taught that if something is exclusive, if something is only for a select group, it is better. And so we seek to exclude, to keep for ourselves what God so freely gives. But anytime we draw a line between groups we need to be prepared to find God on the other side of that line.

God is with the cast-off Joseph, keeping him safe, working through him to keep the land safe through years of famine. God is with the Canaanite woman, demanding just a crumb of grace and receiving so much more. God is with the Jewish people, true to the covenant made so long ago.

God’s grace, God’s love, is never exclusive. There is not a finite amount to be divided, sparingly and with great precision. There is always more than enough to go around. We do not have to be afraid that we will not get any, and there is no need for us to try to ration it for others, either.

But simply knowing that God loves all people doesn’t even begin to get at the abundant life that God desires for us. Knowing that truth and living it are two different things. Living as someone loved by God, redeemed and transformed by the cross and resurrection, letting God’s love work in us and through us and with us—that is abundant life. Letting that love come through in our actions, working to make this world a more just and equitable place for all people—that is abundant life.

I’d like to close with part of a poem, called “Stubborn Blessing,” by Jan Richardson, about the Canaanite women:

Don’t tell me no.

I have seen you
feed the thousands,
seen miracles spill
from your hands
like water, like wine,
seen you with circles
and circles of crowds
pressed around you
and not one soul
turned away.

I know what you
can do with crumbs
and I am claiming mine,
every morsel and scrap
you have up your sleeve.

Let the scraps fall
like manna,
like mercy
for the life
of my child,
the life of
the world.

Amen.

Fear in the Midst of the Storm

Below is my sermon from August 13th, 2017. While it is based on the Gospel text for the day (Matthew 14), it also focuses on the white supremacist march and riot in Charlottesville, which happened the day before. The theologian Karl Barth once said, “We must hold the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other…but always interpret the newspaper through the Bible.”

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

Two weeks ago, Tim and I spent the week at Bear Creek Camp, as their resident chaplains. One of the cool things about being chaplains is that we had the opportunity to spend time with all of the different age groups. Each night we would rotate around the camp, leading devotions for one group or another.

Friday, our last night there, we were with the seniors—those who had just finished tenth, eleventh, or twelfth grade. That night, the counselor had already planned devotions, so we were able to just participate. She had four paper lanterns that we were going to light and release into the night.

But first, we took time as a group to name and write down some of our fears. For a lot of the campers, it was fear of the unknown: they were heading off to college for the first time, there was fear of what it would be like, would they fit in, would they be successful. My fears that night were my standard, Type-A Perfectionist ones: some variation of whether or not I’m good enough, successful enough, or accomplishing enough.

And so, we took these fears, rolled them up into tiny scrolls and tied them to the lanterns. Then watched, as they were carried off high away into the distance, until all we could see was a tiny speck of fire, and then even that went out. We named our fears and then we let go of them. It was liberating and cathartic.

We all have fears, worries, anxieties, that plague our lives. Maybe it’s a fear of an illness returning or getting worse. Fear of loneliness. Fear of a lack of acceptance—of who we are, or what we have to offer. Maybe, like those graduating seniors, a fear about whether we’ll fare well in a new chapter in our lives.

This past week, though, I wish I had a hundred lanterns. We all have seen the stories and images coming out of Charlottesville. Where the KKK and white supremacists gathered to celebrate fear and hatred for their fellow human beings. A storm was descending upon that small college town.

And watching it through my newsfeed, I was afraid. Maybe you were, too. I was afraid of the amount of hatred. I was afraid for the future of our country. And on a more personal level, I was afraid for friends of mine, pastors in Virginia who purposefully went into the storm. Who left safe houses and neighborhoods to show up in Charlottesville and confess that racism is not Christian. Racism is not from God. Who went into the storm to call white supremacy what it is: evil and sinful.

I saw images and posts telling me that the church they were worshipping in, sharing love and peace in, was surrounded by the KKK and they were unable to leave. And I was afraid.

These friends of mine, and many, many others, not just clergy but college students, people of all faiths and no faith, people who had come together to proclaim love—they went into the storm.

Our reading from Matthew this morning couldn’t be more timely. Jesus sends his disciples out on their own, and they find themselves caught in the midst of a terrible storm. But just when the waves were at their worst, just when the disciples were terrified, there is Jesus. When Peter desires to follow Jesus even further into the whirlwind, he begins to sink. But then there is Jesus, to lift him up again.

When fear in the midst of the storm causes us to sink, Jesus will grab hold of us, just as he did with Peter. Jesus doesn’t give up on us, even when we are overwhelmed by fears and anxieties and doubts. Even when we are not sure that Jesus is even there. Jesus is there, with us in the storm to restore us to the community, to the shelter of the boat.

It would be really, really nice if I could stand up here and say that Jesus brings an end to our fears. No more fear; God takes away all our worries and anxieties. God takes away the evil in the world for us. That would be awesome, and it would mean pretty good things for my own life.

But you’d know as well as I do that it just isn’t true. Life, and the life of faith especially, involves fear. It involves confronting evil and hatred with the love of God. If it didn’t, it wouldn’t have been threatening enough that people felt they had to kill Jesus. It wouldn’t still be threatening enough that people of faith are silenced and vilified when they speak out about oppression and injustice. It wouldn’t be threatening enough that white supremacists had to surround and intimidate Christians worshipping in a church.

But those are the things we are called to. Roman Ciarlello will be baptized in just a few minutes. He, and all of us, in our baptisms are called to trust God God, proclaim Christ through word and deed, care for others and the world God made, and work for justice and peace.

Such a calling, by its very nature, means that there will be moments of fear. There will be times of uncertainty and confusion, when the right choice is the hard choice, when living a Christ-like existence—loving our neighbors, welcoming strangers, serving the poor—means walking into the storm and braving the winds.

But Roman doesn’t just receive that calling this morning. He also receives a whole boatful of people to share it with him. One of my favorite parts of the baptismal service is when it is the congregation’s chance to join in and say: We welcome you into the body of Christ and into the mission we share; join us in giving thanks and praise to God.

The call to step out into choppy waters, into unknown areas for the sake of God comes alongside the promise that we are never alone. Through baptism, Roman enters this community that we are all a part of. The community of disciples that is there to console one another, uplift one another, and support one another through difficult times.

More than that, though, God is there, too. God is there in the midst of our fears, showing up when the storm is at its worst. God is there in the midst of our anxieties and uncertainties, walking with us through the stormy waters of life. God is there to lift us up when we fall down, to walk with us until we are once again safe and calm.

May God’s arm hold us fast, and God’s presence be our guide, now and always. And may the love of God which passes all understanding, keep our hearts and minds on Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.

More than enough

Below is my sermon from August 6, on Jesus’ feeding the 5,000. With such a familiar story, I thought it would be interesting to pull out the details we could easily overlook. What stands out to you in this story? Have you ever been in the position of the disciples, facing an overwhelming problem and unsure of what to do?

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

Jesus feeding the five thousand is one of the best known stories from the gospels. It’s a lot of people’s favorite story about Jesus and it is one of the only stories to appear in each and every gospel. Because it’s so well known, though, it’s easy to listen to it but not really hear it.

So I’d like to take some time to re-read the story and to take note of some of the things we might frequently gloss over. “Now, when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself.” We’ve jumped into the middle of a narrative, and so are left wondering—what did Jesus just hear?

Well, he has just been told that John the Baptist has been murdered by King Herod. Jesus’ cousin, friend, forerunner, is now dead at the hands of the state. And so it makes sense that he withdraws: he is grieving, he is tired, he wants just a little bit of space to be by himself and process his emotions.

“But when the crowds heart it, they followed him on foot from the towns. When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick.” Jesus may want space and some alone time, but he doesn’t get it. The crowds, hearing about the death of John, are drawn even more to Jesus. And there’s two little details here that we might not notice: Jesus sees them, and has compassion for them.

To truly see someone is more than just to look at someone, or take in their outer appearance. Rather, Jesus acknowledges them, takes notice of them. And then he is moved to compassion. What is compassion? Compassion is not just feeling sorry for someone else, it is truly feeling with them. It is understanding another’s troubles or situation from the inside out—and then acting on it. One definition I read said that compassion is empathy in action. And Jesus acts on that feeling, healing the sick in the crowd.

But by now, the sun is setting, and “when it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, ‘This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.’” The disciples can come off looking a little bit callous here. Maybe they were a little.

But I also hear something else in their statement: they were overwhelmed. Overwhelmed by the size of the crowd and the expanse of the need. When faced with need beyond what we think is in our power to deal with, how often are we paralyzed? Large-scale need can cause us to feel powerless in our ability to help. Maybe they were being a little callous, too. Maybe they thought if they sent the people away, at least it wouldn’t be the disciples’ problem anymore.

Not so, according to Jesus. “They need not go away,” he says, “You give them something to eat.” The disciples reply, “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.” And the truth comes out. The disciples have not acted because they think they don’t have enough. That what they have to offer will not be enough to make a difference to so great a need.

But Jesus doesn’t hesitate, and simply tells them to bring him the loaves and fish. He looks to heaven, blesses the food, and gives it back to the disciples. And the disciples gave them to the crowds. And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full. All ate and were filled. In the hands of Jesus, the disciples’ meager offering becomes an abundance of riches.

What can we take from this story? I think the first point is that God is love. That sounds cliché, but God isn’t love in a cliché way. God isn’t love in the abstract; God isn’t love in a good-feeling kind of way. Jesus sees the crowds and has compassion for them. Compassion is love that cares deeply about the most basic needs of all. Jesus, and by extension God, isn’t merely interested in how we feel or what we think or our spiritual life. Our whole being matters to God. Our ability to be healed from sickness matters to God. Our physical hunger and needs matter to God. God is love in the active, all-encompassing way that sees and wants to tend to our needs.

Secondly, we learn a lot about being disciples. Being a disciple sometimes means being overwhelmed by great need. I am overwhelmed sometimes. When I see a world that has so much need: so much poverty and hunger, so much hatred for fellow humans. And the news seems to pile up faster than we can respond to it; it is easy to get overwhelmed.

But as Jesus’ disciples, we are given a responsibility to care for God’s people. Jesus doesn’t feed the 5,000 in this story. Jesus gives what is needed to his disciples and tells them to do it. To follow Jesus is to express our faith in concrete acts of love, justice, and compassion. We don’t get the luxury of turning our heads when faced with need and injustice—whether because we feel overwhelmed or because we’d just rather not see—Jesus demands that we see, and that we act.

But we do not act alone. The third, and probably most important, learning that I see in this story is the true miracle of the loaves and the fishes. God provides an abundance. God takes what we have to offer—it might seem meagre or insufficient—but in the hands of God it is more than enough. It reminds me of the quote from Mother Teresa: “In this life, we cannot always do great things; but we can do small things with great love.”

It is such love that is at the heart of this story. Jesus’ compassion for the crowds sets the whole thing in motion. May we know that love and compassion in our hearts—know that God sees and knows and has compassion for us. And may we show the riches of God’s abundance in great love towards others. Amen.