Resurrection Right Now

All Saints’ has to be one of my favorite days in the church calendar. I’ve heard it described as “a little Easter in the middle of fall.” It is like a little Easter–but without all the extra tiredness that accompanies Holy Week. It is a chance to celebrate the resurrection and what that means in our lives and in the lives of those who have died. Often, we talk of God’s promises for “after we die.” But those promises ought to affect our lives right now, too.

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

Many of you know, from conversations in Bible Study and other places, that I’m not a huge fan of the King James Version of the Bible. It was written back in the seventeenth century, and, well, it sounds like it. I appreciate its beauty and its poetry, but sometimes I feel like that very beauty often obscures what the words are trying to get across.

But with this week’s gospel from John, I have to say the King James gets it right. When Jesus tells them to take away the stone from Lazarus’ tomb, instead of his sister Martha replying “already there is a stench,” in the King James, she simply blurts out, “But Lord, he stinketh!”

He stinketh! Truer words were never spoken. Death really stinks. It literally stinks, as bodies decompose. Martha would know this better than most, as she and her sister Mary were probably the ones who prepared Lazarus’ body for burial. They washed him, they wrapped him in his burial shroud. They knew what state his body was in. These are tasks we no longer do ourselves, leaving them to professionals.

But no matter how far we distance ourselves from the literal stench of death, we cannot escape the reality that death still stinks. Even if we don’t have to smell the body, death stinks. Losing ones that we love is painful and heartrending. Even if it’s what we call a “good death,” someone who lived a long life and died peacefully. It still stinks because they’re still gone. And when the death seems to just be wrong—sudden, unexpected, gone much too soon—well, then it really stinketh.

All Saints’ Day, a day when we remember all of the faithful departed, and especially remember those we loved who have died this past year, this a day to acknowledge the reality that death stinks. That death hurts. That in death we lose something very dear to us.

It’s okay for us to weep with Jesus. It’s okay for us to wish that it had been prevented, like Mary and Martha. It’s okay for us to feel blame, to feel anger, to feel resentment. It’s okay to grieve. There’s so many emotions in this story of the raising of Lazarus. Because grief brings out our most honest, most visceral feelings. And that is a part of what All Saints’ Day is about.

But All Saints’ is also about something more than grief. It is about more than just the reality of death. It is about the promise that right there in the midst of death, God is at work bringing new life. We mourn those who are lost to us, but we also celebrate that in God we have the final victory. That death does not get the last word.

All Saints’ Day is a day to be honest about the reality of death, but it is also a day to be honest about the reality of God’s promises. And those promises come right in the midst of the reality and pain of death. In these beautiful passages that we heard from Isaiah and Revelation, where they say that God will destroy the shroud that is cast over the people, that God will swallow up death forever, that tears will be wiped away, that death will be no more, that mourning and crying and pain will be no more, and that God will live in our very midst.

Both of these passages, with beautiful words of hope and reassurance and comfort, both of them were written in the middle of death and grief and tragedy. Isaiah was speaking to a people who had just been conquered, whose holy temple had been destroyed, whose loved ones were scattered to the winds or lying dead in the ground. And yet he speaks words of hope of the day when all peoples and nations shall come together.

The church that Revelation was written to was being persecuted by the Roman Empire. Everyday more of their companions were being killed for being Christian. It was not safe to be a member of the church. But John still writes of a day when all creation, all peoples, will be renewed, will be restored. John writes of God entering into this world of persecution, and brokenness, and pain to bring new life.

Our world is full of death. Some of it, we experience on a personal level, those people whose lives have touched ours, that we now no longer have. But death hangs over us all, as we live in a world that seems guided more by hate and by fear than by love. Every day people seek to use fear and hate to divide us, to demonize other human beings, and to justify inconceivable acts. We do not have to look far or hard to find the stench of death.

But Jesus interrupts death with a word of life. He says to Lazarus, “Come out.” Come out of the tomb, and he says to the community to release him from the very shroud of death. Isaiah and Revelation they interrupt the death and destruction all around them to say that there is something more than this. That God is stronger than even this.

God’s promise of resurrection does not mean that we can deny the reality of death. But it does grant us the power to defy it. To defy death’s ability to overshadow and distort our lives. To defy death’s threat there is nothing else, no other way of being. Death does not get the last word. And we do not have to wait to live as resurrected people. God’s promises of life, of comfort, of all creation being renewed, they are for the here and now.

Isaiah and Revelation and even Jesus offer us visions of what will be. But they are visions that we cling to as God’s promise for us, right now, not someday. Right now God calls us from our tombs of darkness and fear to be renewed people. In Christ we see the God who is victor over death, and we are able to live as though the eternal were right now. Because in life and in death, we belong to God. We live as resurrected people right now. We live as people who hold to God’s promises of life, right now. We live as gift to a world that desperately needs to hear that death doesn’t get the last word, that death does not win.

I will leave you on this All Saints’ Sunday with a poem by theologian Jan Richardson:

So may we know
the hope
that is not just
for someday
but for this day–
here, now,
in this moment
that opens to us:

hope not made
of wishes
but of substance,
hope made of sinew
and muscle
and bone,

hope that has breath
and a beating heart,
hope that will not
keep quiet
and be polite,
hope that knows
how to holler
when it is called for,

hope that knows
how to sing
when there seems
little cause,
hope that raises us
from the dead–

not someday
but this day,
every day,
again and
again and
again.

 

 

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Always Reforming

This Sunday, October 28 was Reformation Sunday, a day when Lutherans and other Protestant denominations commemorate the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. Notice that I said commemorate and not celebrate. A schism is never something to celebrate, even if you believe (as I do) that it was ultimately necessary. But in commemorating this day, we do celebrate reformation in the past, present, and future. So what do you see that needs reforming in you, or our church? How is God working to do it?

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

I wonder if he was scared as he approached the church doors. Did he have any idea what was going to happen when he left his treatise on the door of that building? Could he have known that his life was going to be in danger? That the entire continent of Europe would eventually be engulfed in chaos and war because of this one act?

But still, whatever his doubts, conscience convicted him and to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Martin Luther nailed his ninety-five theses. Ninety-five claims, ninety-five statements, about God, about the church, about human nature, about sin and forgiveness. He put them there in the hopes of starting a discussion, in the hopes of amending things in the church he thought needed to be corrected. He put them there in the hopes of reform.

And so begins the Protestant Reformation, with this dramatic act of defiance and courage. Five-hundred (and one) years later, at the end of every October, we look back on this act as the beginning of Lutheranism, when Luther broke from the Roman church and changed Christianity, and the world, forever. It’s a great moment, made to be reenacted and dramatized.

Except, in all our remembrances, and prideful celebration of this event, we can so embellish this moment that we lose sight of what actually happened. Some historians think the whole thing is an embellishment, that Luther never nailed his theses to the church door at all. That he simply put them in the mail to his bishop. I don’t know whether that’s true or not, but it would certainly take a lot of the drama out of the event.

One thing is certain, though. Luther wasn’t trying to start a new church. Eventually that is what happened, but that wasn’t his first goal. He wanted to reform, to change, to adapt the church that he knew and loved. It had made some errors, he thought, and through his ninety-five theses, he sought to make changes, not start over. To reform, not reinvent.

As we mark Reformation Sunday today, our focus shouldn’t be on celebrating Luther or Lutherans, but instead on the task that Luther boldly and courageously took up. On reformation. Our commemoration of this day should be more than merely praising our history. It should be earnest prayer that God would continue to reform Christ’s church. To continue to reform us.

Re-form. It’s a frightening word. Because if God re-forms the church, reshapes it, recreates it, it will not be what it was before. If God re-forms us, we will not be what we were before. And that can be a scary thought. Jesus is promising change, promising re-formation in our Gospel reading today.

He says that believing in him, and therefore knowing the truth, will set you free. The response is almost comical: “We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone!” How quickly have the people forgotten their time in Egypt. Their time in Babylon.

But oh, how quickly we do it, too. “We are Americans and have never been slaves to anyone!” Well, at least some of us haven’t. “We are descendants of Luther, and have no need to be reformed, no need to be made free! We did that 500 years ago!”

But if we can just see the truth, we will see how much we are in need of freedom and release. That we need to be made free from our selfishness. We need to be made free from our prejudices. We need to be made free from our fears. We need to be made free from our self-doubt, from our self-criticisms. We need to be made free from the ways that we constantly judge others and ourselves. From the ways that we seek to justify ourselves and our actions.

The church, too, is in need of freedom. Freedom from an inward focus. Freedom from tradition for tradition’s sake. Freedom from worry and anxiety about the future.

Re-formation is a scary business. If the Son sets us free, as Jesus promises, and if the same Christ makes us into God’s way of righteousness, as Paul promises, and if God re-writes our hearts as Jeremiah promises, who then will we be? Are we ready to be something new and different?

The freedom that Jesus promises is not just freedom from things, but also freedom for. It is not just freedom from the things that will hold us back, but freedom for a new way of being. Freedom from self-doubt and judgment means freedom for relationships with God and others based on love and mutuality. Freedom from prejudice means freedom for community and care. Freedom from selfishness means freedom for others. Freedom from worry and anxiety means freedom for building the kingdom of God. It means freedom to experiment, freedom to try new things, freedom to fail.

To bring it back to Martin Luther on this Reformation day, and the central focus of the Reformation found in our Romans reading. “A person is justified by faith, apart from works of the law.” What does that mean? It means that it’s not up to us. There’s nothing we can do, or not do, to earn God’s love. We can’t earn it, because we already have it. And when we are freed from worrying about ourselves, we are free to spend our time and energy in care of neighbor.

What do you need to be freed from? What is holding you back, what is not letting you be your whole self, what is keeping you being everything God intended? And the second question: what do you need to be freed for? Who might you be if God re-creates your heart? How might you use your gifts and talents and blessings to serve God’s people and creation?

On this Reformation Sunday, let us be mindful, not only of our past, but also of our future. Let us remember with thanksgiving the ways that God has reformed and recreated the church in the past, and let us pray earnestly that God might re-form us today. That we might be a living church, renewed and recreated to do God’s work in this world. That we might be renewed people, loved by God and freed by God to share that love with all we meet. Amen.

 

The Eye of the Needle

The story of the rich man and Jesus is pretty well known as far as Bible passages go. It’s in Matthew, Mark, and Luke (Matthew calls the man young, and Luke calls him a ruler; so sometimes he is referred to as the rich young ruler). As I say in the sermon below, it’s not a story we love to hear. But Jesus’ speaks an important word about the way our relationship with wealth can get in the way of our relationships with our neighbors. Let me know what you think. (And if you’ve ever moved, how much did it weigh?)

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

When Tim and I moved last year, I got an uncomfortable look at just how much stuff I own. It was just a cross-town move, so we paid for everything based on how long it took, not how much it weighed. But when the truck pulled up, I couldn’t believe how big it was! No way that we needed that big of truck for our stuff. It wouldn’t even be halfway full.

I’m sure you can see where this is going. The truck was way more than halfway full. I asked one of the movers what he thought it all weighed. “Not that much,” was his reply. “Probably a ton and half.” Not that much. Just 3,000 pounds of stuff. And that didn’t even include the bedroom and dining room sets we’d bought and had delivered straight to the parsonage. We were probably looking at owning over two tons of stuff.

“Sell all that you have,” says Jesus, “and give the money to the poor. Then come, follow me.” And the man went away shocked and grieving, for he had many possessions. I am sure, without a doubt in my mind, that I have more than he did. I am sure that you have more possessions than that man did, too.

We don’t like this parable much, do we? It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God. That’s not exactly what we wanted to hear. We’re not the only ones. Over the years, people have tried to soften the blow of Jesus’ words.

What does it mean to be rich anyway? Unless you’re Jeff Bezos or Bill Gates, there’s always someone richer than you. So maybe Jesus isn’t really talking about you and me. But, in the grand scheme of the world, everyone in this room is rich. Some more than others of course, but we cannot avoid the fact that when Jesus says “someone who is rich,” he’s not talking about other people, he’s talking about us. We are all this rich man.

Others have tried to say that Jesus’ command to “sell all your possessions” was just a command to this particular person, and he didn’t mean for everyone to do it. That might have some truth in it. After all, this man is clearly looking to go above and beyond normal understandings of righteousness. But that doesn’t change the second half of our story, where Jesus talks about rich people having such a difficult time getting into the kingdom of God.

And then there’s the most famous explanation of all: Jesus didn’t mean an actual needle! You see, there’s a very narrow gate in Jerusalem called the Eye of the Needle, and a camel could fit through, but first you have to take everything off the camel. So we must unburden ourselves before God. That’s a neat little explanation, except for the fact that there isn’t any such gate. There never was. It was invented by someone who was uncomfortable with this story, to make it easier on us.

But when we get down to it, this story should make us uncomfortable. It made the disciples uncomfortable. It says they were perplexed and astounded. After all, everyone knows that being rich, that having a lot of stuff means you have many blessings, right? It’s a sign of what a good person you are. But Jesus seems to be saying something very different. That having many possessions is not necessarily a blessing, but instead something that can hinder our relationship with God.

It is not so much wealth or possessions themselves that are dangerous, but what these things do to us and just how much we value them and seek them out that is dangerous. We idolize wealth and there is always the temptation to value it above all else. We see it as the solution to all of our problems. It makes us feel secure, and safe, and protected. We turn wealth and possessions into an idol.

Martin Luther, writing in the sixteenth century saw this problem, too: “There are some who think that they have God and everything they need when they have money and property; they trust in them and boast in them so stubbornly and securely that they care for no one else. They, too, have a god—that is money and property—on which they set their whole heart. This is the most common idol on earth.”

Something becomes an idol for us when we would rather depend upon it than upon God. When we put our trust in it, instead of trusting in God. The most common idol on earth in the sixteenth century remains the most common idol on earth today. We depend upon our wealth and our possessions instead of depending upon God and instead of depending on each other.

Oh, it might not be so obvious as it was with this rich man, but we do it all the same. It is so easy to think that things will make us happy. A new gadget or device, better clothes, a nicer car. And we certainly look to the number in the retirement fund to decide if we feel safe and secure.

It is as infectious as any disease. This man who runs up to Jesus kneels before him and beseeches him, “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” He kneels before him. It’s a small detail, but an important one. Every other person in the story who has knelt before Jesus is seeking healing, healing for themselves or for a loved one, or seeking to be free of their demons. This man is in need of healing, too, whether he realizes it or not.

Jesus’ pronouncement that he must sell all his possessions and give the money to the poor is less a command than it is a cure. When we are able to freely give away the thing that is controlling us, we take away its power. When we give away our money, when we lead generous lives, we chip away at the hold that money has on us. In giving up the very thing that we have come to depend on, we place our trust in God and place our wealth in care of neighbor.

I said earlier that we all are this rich man who has many possessions. It is true that we like him often fall prey to this idolatry of wealth. But we are like him in another way, too. It says that Jesus, looking at him, loved him. He loved him. Before he has any chance to give away his things or not, before he has done much more than ask a question, Jesus loves him. In that, too, we are all this rich man. Because when Jesus looks upon us, in need of healing in our souls, in need of release from our own selfish desires, Jesus loves us, too.

This all started with a question. The man runs to Jesus and asks, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Perhaps he has the question wrong. After all, what does anyone do to inherit anything? Inheritances are things that are given. They come, not because of any action on our part, but because of our belonging to a family. They can only be received, not earned.

“Children,” says Jesus, “how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God.” Children. For that is what we are to God, named and claimed as such in our baptisms. Children. Heirs to God’s kingdom. Inheritors of eternal life. Not because we have done anything. But because God loves us. Sell what you own and give the money to the poor. It is a blessing, not just a command. Because God loves you, and God doesn’t want you to be captive to money or things. But instead be captive to God in love. Find your hope and your security and your safety in God, who is our rock and our redeemer. Amen.

 

Relationships

The Gospel text for yesterday, Mark 10:2-16, deals with some difficult topics. Namely, divorce. It’s a difficult reading for us, because Jesus seems to leave very little wiggle room in talking about divorce. But taking a step back and asking some questions can help. What was divorce like when Jesus lived? And, what is the context for this conversation. The first I answer in my sermon. As for the second, well, we’ve been reading straight through Mark lately. So the context for this conversation is Jesus’ discussions with the disciples about caring for the “little ones”–the vulnerable members of society. That should certainly color how we read Jesus’ comments on divorce.

This is a difficult passage. If you’d like to talk, know that my door is always open.

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

Have you ever asked someone a question, and then they talked for a while in response and maybe said some nice or interesting things, but then eventually you realized that they never answered your question in the first place? Maybe they talked about things that were sort of related, but never actually came to the point?

I wonder if that’s how the Pharisees feel in this Gospel reading. They test Jesus with a question. They’re trying to get him to trip up. They ask if it is lawful for a man to divorce his wife. And Jesus returns the question to them, and Jesus talks for a while, but he never actually answers the question himself. He reframes it. The Pharisees want to talk about the legality of divorce. Jesus wants to talk about God’s intentions for human relationships. And though these two things are intimately linked together, they’re not the same.

This is an emotionally charged text for us. We need to admit that upfront. You would be hard pressed to find an individual who has not been personally impacted by divorce, either their own, or a family member’s or friend’s. And passages like these in the Bible have been used to add shame to an already immensely difficult situation. Because of that, we’re tempted to rush over these passages, not wanting to bring up the hurt and embarrassment. But, that makes it even more important to take a hard look at this and to try to see what it really says.

I’d like to first look at what this text does have to say about divorce, but then, and more importantly, at what this passage says about relationships. It’s important to know that divorce in Jesus’ time wasn’t exactly like divorce in our time. Marriage wasn’t the same—marriages were usually arranged, and often arranged for economic reasons, rather than romantic ones.

And the Pharisees’ question, “can a man divorce his wife?” is telling, because only men could initiate divorces. If a woman was in an unhappy marriage; if her husband was committing adultery or hurting her, she had no recourse. But if a man was displeased with his wife, he could write her a certificate of dismissal and send her away. The woman and any children they had were left to the mercy of her male relatives. It was an incredibly vulnerable position to be in. Women were seen as expendable, something that could be dismissed and discarded.

And Jesus sees this for what it is and says that it is not good. It is not the way that things are meant to be. People are not meant to be expendable. Jesus speaks honestly about the trauma that divorce causes. It is an example of creation torn asunder from God’s intention for it. It causes immeasurable pain to the people involved. But none of that has to do with whether it’s legal or not. When you get right down to it, Jesus isn’t nearly as concerned with the legal grounds for divorce as he is concerned with our relationships with one another. With how we treat one another. In this time and place, divorce was being used to treat people poorly. It was not at all being used to care for the little ones, to care for the vulnerable. Instead, it was exploiting them.

Jesus turns the conversation to creation, to the purpose for relationships in the first place. In our reading from Genesis we heard that God realized, “it is not good for the man to be alone.” We were created from the very beginning as relational beings. We need each other. While we might like to assert that independence is a virtue, that we can do this on our own, God tells us it’s the opposite.

We are created to be in relationship with one another. Marriage is one of the many ways that we use relationship to build community. These readings are very marriage-centric, but it isn’t the only way that we support and uphold each other. And these words that Jesus speaks about marriage are also important for us to hear concerning other relationships, too.

What is God’s vision for our relationships? For our marriages, for our friendships, for our familial bonds? Respect, mutuality, compassion, companionship. God says that God is going to make the man a helper as his partner. Did you know that that word helper, here used for the woman, is most often used to describe God in the Bible? We hear it in one of the most quoted verses of the Psalms: “I look to the hills, from where is my help to come? My help is from the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth.”

To say that the woman is the man’s helper should not imply that the woman is less than the man, although it is often read that way. We are all meant to be helpers for one another. To act in the way of God to one another. To act with love, to act with support, to act with accountability. The way that God intended our relationships, people are not expendable, but valued, respected, encouraged, and loved.

When those things aren’t there, especially when mutual respect is gone, the relationship is no longer what God wants for us. And in married relationships that sometimes means that divorce is the right thing. When the relationship is already torn asunder by selfishness, deception, violence, or disrespect, divorce can be the best thing for everyone involved. It can be a step towards reclaiming self-worth and dignity and respect. And yet we know that even when it is the right decision, it is still a painful decision. It still hurts the people involved.

And so, it grieves the heart of God. Not because some legal standard has been broken, but because of the damage done to God’s beloved children. For Jesus, divorce is not the personal failing of isolated individuals, but rather one example of creation torn asunder from God’s intention for it. And it is certainly not the only way that we as human beings hurt each other and hurt God’s creation.

When we treat each other as things to be used or exploited for our own ends, we tear asunder God’s purposes. When we value certain people or certain abilities over others, we tear asunder God’s purposes. When we look at another’s face and do not see the face of God reflected in them, we tear asunder God’s purposes.

We don’t always live up to our purposes as God’s people. None of us do. And because God cares so deeply for us, and for our well-being, God is grieved. We are not yet the people that God created us to be. But in God’s grace, in our baptisms, we are recreated as children of God. Children. Those to whom Jesus says the kingdom of God belongs. Vulnerable ones. Ones who depend on others. Ones who need others.

Our human promises fail sometimes. But God’s promises never fail. God promises us that we are God’s children. God promises us new starts and new beginnings when we have failed. God promises to be with us in the midst of relationships that are not what they should be, relationships that it might be best to leave.

And God dreams of a day when we all live the way that God intended. In support, in love, in respect for one another. Valuing each other. We’re not there yet. But by the grace of God we can continue trying. And we can trust on that one relationship that will never fail. Our relationship with God, who values, loves, supports, and cares for each of us. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Stumbling into Grace

What do we do with texts where Jesus is saying some frankly disturbing things? Like, “cut off your hand/tear our your eye or you will burn in hell” kind of disturbing? As I talk about in my sermon below, I don’t take these texts literally. And I think they probably made more immediate sense to Jesus’ first-century audience than they do today. But, we’re not well served by ignoring such statements just because we think they’re metaphor or hyperbole. Because if we don’t engage these difficult texts, the only people talking about them will be those who do take them literally and who use them to do harm to others. So, as always…let me know what you think in the comments.

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

“If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off…and if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell.” The Gospel of the Lord.

A few years ago on the TV show Grey’s Anatomy, a patient arrived in the emergency room because his roommate had found him trying to saw off his own foot. He was convinced that his foot was causing him to stumble, leading him in sinful ways, and he took this verse from Jesus 100 percent literally and tried to cut it off.

They got the one doctor who knew anything about the Bible to talk to him, and she tried to explain that she didn’t think Jesus meant for this man to hurt himself. It was one of the thousands of times in watching Grey’s Anatomy that I’ve thought, “This hospital needs a chaplain!” That man, in addition to needing medical care and psychiatric care, would have benefited from some spiritual care.

The doctor was right, though. These extreme, graphic words of Jesus aren’t meant to be taken literally. They’re hyperbole, a way of super-exaggeration to make a point. Jesus does not want us to hurt ourselves. But just because these words of Jesus aren’t meant to be taken literally, that does not mean they aren’t meant to be taken seriously. Jesus knew that this would raise some eyebrows. He knew that this was over-the-top speech. He did it because he wanted to get the disciples’ attention. What he was saying was important!

And the context of these hyperbolic statements matter, too. It comes right on the heels of our reading from last week. Jesus is holding a child and teaching the disciples about welcoming vulnerable people. John, seemingly interrupting him, tells Jesus about how he and the other disciples tried to stop someone who was healing others in Jesus’ name because “he wasn’t one of us.”

Jesus’ response leaves no room for misinterpretation: do not put up roadblocks to other peoples’ faith. Do not cause a little one to stumble in the faith. And just to show how seriously he intends this: it would be better for you to cut off your hand, or cut off your foot, or cut out your eye, than to do such a thing. Better to be maimed than to cause another to stumble.

Jesus wants our full attention here. He wants us to take seriously the effect that our actions have on other people. There are worse things than losing a body part, he says. It would be worse to be cut off from God. It would be worse to be responsible for someone else losing their faith. Our actions have consequences in other people’s lives for far longer than we might realize. If you have ever been hurt by another person, it can take years and decades to recover from the trauma. A little trip, a little stumble, can lead to a big fall. And Jesus is calling on his disciples and on us to take those consequences seriously.

So what are the stumbling blocks that we put in others’ paths? Sometimes in our own path, too. Jealousy, competition, a selfish desire for control. The readings this morning are full of it. In Numbers, when Moses and the people are fed up with one another, God decides that Moses will share the spirit of leadership with seventy others. They gather in the tent of meeting and the Holy Spirit comes upon them and they prophesy.

Except for Eldad and Medad. They missed the meeting for some reason. But no matter, because the Spirit found them where they were, and they too prophesied. But Joshua, Moses’ assistant and eventual successor, sees this and runs and tells Moses: stop them! They weren’t with us in the tent, they shouldn’t be prophesying! He can’t handle the idea that God was at work in ways that he didn’t understand. In ways that he wasn’t a part of.

It’s the same with the disciples. John says to Jesus, “We tried to stop someone from casting out demons in your name because he did not follow us.” We tried to stop someone who was relieving pain and suffering, who was giving new life and new opportunities, because he was not one of us.

Moses and Jesus have the same response to these roadblocks being put up. Don’t try to stop people from the good they are doing, just because they aren’t part of your group. “Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets!” Moses says.

In a world that is more polarized than ever, along every dimension, can we imagine that God is at work in and through someone who bears the name of Christ but who disagrees with us? Can we accept a cup of cold water from someone who does not follow in our way of thinking? Who is not part of “our” group?

Can we take a step back with Jesus and take seriously the way that our actions have long lasting effects on other people? Even if they’re people we disagree with? Even if they’re people we’re never going to meet? What if, instead of trying to stop others, trying to hinder others, we were able to say this:

“Lord, we saw some people who were casting out demons, or working for justice, or advocating for the homeless, or caring for veterans, and more all in your name. They do not follow us. In fact, we really disagree with them. But we did not stop them.” What if, instead of seeing other people who we don’t agree with, we were able to see the God who is at work in them, despite our differences? Perhaps it could be a starting point to have real dialogue, where we listen to one another. Where we take seriously the ways our actions can hurt one another.

Jesus says to cut off whatever is causing you to sin. You could cut off your hand, or your foot, but your sin would remain. Those are just metaphors. But what if we could cut off what is really causing our sin? Cut off our pride, our prejudices, cut off our fear of change, cut off our need for control. Go in with a surgeon’s scalpel and excise the things that keep us from accepting even a cup of cold water from someone we disagree with? I’m too much of a realist—and too much of a Lutheran—to think that we could ever cut it all out. We are human, and to be human is to have to struggle with our faults and with our selfishness.

But even if we can’t ever get all those stumbling blocks out of us, I know this: God will not be limited by them. God will not be limited by our prejudices, God will not be limited by our fears, God will not be limited by our pride and jealousy. Because the Spirit is at work in people that we think aren’t qualified. The Spirit is at work in people we turn away from. The Spirit is at work in people that don’t look or think or talk or vote like us. And the Spirit is at work in you and me, too.

We don’t have to try to control God’s Holy Spirit, to control grace. No matter how hard we try, we won’t be able to. Grace doesn’t need to be controlled, and neither does God’s Spirit. Because the more they are shared, the more they abound. In places we don’t expect.  In people we don’t expect. In moments we don’t expect. We can try to put a stumbling block in front of grace, but it will not be held down. We can try to contain God’s Spirit to those we think deserve it, but it will not be held back. God’s grace is for all, and God’s Spirit is for all people. And that is the Gospel of the Lord. Amen.

Any Questions?

When we don’t talk about the important things–the things we need to talk about–we end up fighting about silly things. This is true of the disciples and it remains true today. (See the Gospel for yesterday, Mark 9:30-37.) So…do you have any questions?

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

“Any questions?” the teaching assistant of my astronomy lab asked, after she’d explained our first lab. I had so many questions. I’d taken this class my first semester in college to fulfill my physical science requirement. Science, and physics in particular, had never been my strong suit, so I thought astronomy might be a good fit. It was intro level, and I already knew most of my constellations, so this would be perfect. Turns out it was much more about physics than constellations.

But as I looked around the lab in confusion, everyone else was just getting to work. No one had any questions. So I never raised my hand. I pretended that I knew what was going on and let my lab partner carry me through the practical portions of class.

Have you ever been there? Being desperately confused and unsure of what’s happening, but you feel like you can’t ask questions? We’re always told that there’s no such thing as a stupid question, but still we don’t like to ask sometimes. We don’t like to reveal our ignorance, our lack of understanding. We assume that we’re the only ones who don’t get it, when that might not be true. Maybe others are just as scared as we are to ask.

It’s even harder when our questions are about things we think we should already know. Or things we think we shouldn’t have questions about in the first place. Often religion falls into this category. We think it’s somehow unfaithful to ask questions. That doing so reveals our doubts or lack of belief.

Maybe that’s why the disciples didn’t ask Jesus their questions. Jesus has just said for the second time that he would be handed over to the authorities, and be killed, and be resurrected. The scripture tells us that the disciples “did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.”

Maybe they thought they should understand. After all, this is the second time he’s told them. Maybe they were afraid of looking stupid. Maybe they didn’t want to be thought unfaithful. Maybe, they were afraid of what the answers might be.

I wonder what would have happened had they asked their questions. What might they have been? How do you know that this is going to happen, Jesus? Why do you have to die? Who is going to hand you over? What is going to happen to us?

But instead of talking about these important things, big questions, they start debating who is the greatest. I’d love to be a fly on the wall for that conversation. What criteria were they using to measure great discipleship? From Jesus’ response, we get the sense that they weren’t the right ones.

But it’s important for us to notice that this conversation about greatness, this posturing and debate, it only comes about because the disciples ignore their real questions. They refuse to ask Jesus what they really need to. And they’re left to their silly debate.

When we are not willing to engage what’s really important, we end up engaging in petty squabbles instead. The author of James would call it setting our minds on human things, instead of divine things. “Such wisdom does not come from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, devilish,” he writes, going on to say “for where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind.”

The disciples are living this out. Because they are too scared or too embarrassed to focus on what matters, they instead focus on their own envy and ambitions. How often do we do the same? How often would we be silent and embarrassed if Jesus asked us what we we’ve been talking about?

Have we been talking about how our company treats its employees, or are we instead focused on profit margins and bonuses? Have we been talking about how school board decisions affect the most vulnerable students, or are we instead focused on test scores? Have we been talking about how the church can be a safe space for the most vulnerable, can be a leading voice in working for justice, or are we instead focused on attendance and giving numbers?

The important conversations are often the hard conversations to have. Maybe that’s why we sometimes avoid them. These conversations—about what we value, what we stand for, what we’re willing to sacrifice—they ruffle feathers. But we can’t avoid them. To avoid these difficult questions and conversations leaves us like the disciples, missing the point and arguing about trivia.

Lest we turn these conversations into just one more competition, trying to prove who is right and who is wrong, Jesus has a word of caution: start with serving. Start with putting yourself last. As James says, “be peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy.” Listen to one another, seek understanding.

Jesus brings it concretely home to the disciples: if you want to be the greatest, the first, the most important, you have to make yourself last and a servant of all. Jesus is redefining greatness for us. He takes a little child in his arms and announces: whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.

We are welcoming a child today, when Hope Iverson will be baptized. We welcome Hope as a valued and beloved member of our community, even though she’s not old enough to walk or talk. We value her because God values her. We love her because God loves her. What Jesus has to say about welcoming children is even more radical than we think. Children in his time were not as precious and coveted as Hope is to her parents. Children in Jesus’ time were expendable, seen as burdens on society. Greatness is welcoming, loving, caring for those most vulnerable. Those most unable to repay the favor. Greatness is seeing Jesus in them and serving Jesus in them. What the disciples were arguing about doesn’t really matter, because to be the first, you must put yourself last.

Any questions? Let’s do our best not to avoid the real questions. They can be scary, there’s no doubt about that. But in asking them, we find ourselves in conversation with Jesus, on the road together. God does not abandon us to our questions and doubts, instead they are welcomed as signs of what they are: faith seeking understanding.

Let us be a place where all are welcomed; let us be open to the most vulnerable, those who are not considered great by any worldly standard. Let us be a place where our whole self is welcomed too: our questions and doubts, our worries and our fears. They are welcome here. In asking them, we will always find the God who became the last and the least by our side. Amen.

What do you say?

Here is my sermon from Sunday, September 16, 2018. It is the first of three weeks that we’re going to be hearing Jesus predict his death and resurrection. Every time he does so, the disciples (in this case Peter) don’t really understand what this means. This first time that Jesus predicts his death, it’s preceded by him asking the disciples, “Who do you say that I am?”, a question we would do well to answer as well. So, who do you say that Jesus is?

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

A few years ago, I was at an event called “First Call Theological Education,” which those who were required to attend affectionately termed “Baby Pastor School,” for those in their first three years of ministry. Anyway, at this weeklong program, today’s Gospel text was assigned for one of our worship services.

I was sitting with two of my friends, and their three-year-old, Eve. Pastor Jenn Ollikainen, whom many of you know from women’s retreats, was preaching. She had memorized this passage from Mark, and was really enthusiastically telling the story. After she said Jesus’ question, “Who do you say that I am?”, she gave a big dramatic pause.

And in the silence of that moment, little Eve responded so convincingly, “I say Cookie Monster.” Poor Pastor Jenn never quite got the room back after that. I couldn’t tell you what she preached about, but I’ll never forget Eve’s four words.

Eve’s parents were embarrassed, although they didn’t need to be. She was clearly paying more attention than anyone gave her credit for. And, although we laughed, she had done something really special. She had heard the words of the Bible story directed towards her. She had heard Jesus’ question to the disciples, and answered it, assumed it was a question directed toward herself. We could all learn a thing or two from Eve.

So…who do you say that Jesus is? Some say John the Baptist, some say Elijah, some say a prophet. Much like Eve, the people around Jesus were using the influences from their culture to answer the question. We sometimes do it too. We sometimes form our expectations of Jesus, we sometimes answer that question “who is Jesus,” based on the culture around us.

What types of things, what types of people, does our culture idolize? Superheroes. Money. Fame. Success. And it’s all too easy to lay those characteristics on God. Who is God? A superhero. Powerful. Strong. Able to do anything. To fix anything. A savior.

Who do you say that Jesus is? Peter had the right answer, when he boldly proclaimed that Jesus was the Messiah, the Christ. He’s absolutely right in his answer, but absolutely wrong in his understanding of what that means.

Peter’s understanding of the Messiah was influenced by his own culture, too. At the point in history that this takes place, the Jewish people have been waiting and watching for a Messiah for a long time. Since the Babylonians came and destroyed the Temple and scattered the people. They’ve lived through Greek occupation. And now the Romans. The people were waiting for a Messiah, another King David, who could lead them to overthrow their oppressors. To help them be prosperous and powerful.

And so when Jesus tells his disciples what it means that he is the Messiah, this hoped-for one, that it means he must suffer at the hands of their oppressors. That he must die, and not just die but that he must be killed, be executed. That’s too much for Peter.

Jesus isn’t here to make him powerful or prosperous. Jesus isn’t here to fix his problems. In fact, it’s starting to sound very much like the opposite is true. And Peter’s not really onboard with that. He tells Jesus, “Hey, you really need to cool it on this suffering and dying stuff, ok? No one wants to hear that. Why don’t you tell the people what they want to hear?”

He’s right, though. It’s not what we want to hear. Wouldn’t we rather have a God who is here to fix our problems? When we get the diagnosis that we feared, or when a loved one relapses. When we see hurricanes and wildfires destroying whole towns. When we see immigrant children still separated from their parents. Don’t we, too, want a God who fixes everything? I sure do.

Wouldn’t we rather have a Jesus who doesn’t talk about suffering and dying? Wouldn’t we rather have a Jesus that doesn’t challenge us? Or call on us to pick up our own crosses and deny ourselves?

And what does it mean to take up our cross, anyway? This passage has often been misused to tell people to stay in bad situations. In abusive situations. That it was simply their cross to bear. That’s not what this means and we are not meant to condone suffering or abuse. Taking up our cross means that we’re going to follow in the way of Jesus, and that way has consequences. Taking up our cross means putting Jesus’ goals and priorities ahead of our own. It means being willing to lose our lives by spending them for others—using our time, resources, and energy so that others might experience God’s love made known in Jesus Christ.

Is that what we want. Or would we rather want a Jesus who blends in nicely with our current political and economic and social norms, instead of calling them into question? Would we rather want a Jesus who is gentle and meek and mild, instead of challenging and disruptive? Would we rather have a Jesus who promises us good things if we follow him, instead of the radical call to give up our very selves, and the promise that the first will be last?

Yes, if I’m being honest, I think we often would rather have the easier Jesus. The one who’s here to make us feel good about ourselves, to take away our problems, and to offer blessings beyond belief if we believe in him. I want the God that cures cancer, that stops hurricanes, that keeps children from dying of hunger. I want the God that promises me good things, not a cross. Not self-sacrifice. I think that’s the God we all want sometimes.

It’s the God that Peter wanted. It’s the God that the crowds expected Jesus to be. But it is not the God that we find in Jesus the Messiah. But while we may not get the God we want, in Jesus we discover the God that we need. The God who doesn’t overwhelm us with power, but who meets us in our brokenness. In our pain. In our questions and doubts.

The God who may not fix these problems, but the God who says, “you will never go through this without me. I am here with you and I will never leave you.” The God who is invested in us, whether we’re experiencing blessing right now or whether we’re in the midst of suffering. The God we get is the one who meets us in our brokenness and death, who experiences our pain and hurts, in order to heal, to restore, and to redeem us.

Who do you say that Jesus is? We can call Jesus so many things: friend, teacher, companion, shepherd, Messiah. Any of these are right. I say that Jesus is who we need, when our lives aren’t easy. Jesus is who we need to be with us in times of uncertainty and times of joy, moments of doubt and moments of peace. I say that Jesus might not answer all my questions or fears, but Jesus is who I want with me on the road. Who do you say that Jesus is?

Wash your hands…

Below is my sermon from September 2, 2018, focusing on selected verses from Mark 7. We’re back in Mark finally after five weeks of reading from the Bread of Life discourse. There’s a lot going on this reading from Mark, some historical and societal issues playing out that help it make sense. I try in my sermon to cover some of this background, without it devolving into a lecture.

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

Friends of ours have a cute sign in their bathroom that says, “Wash your hands and say your prayers, because Jesus and germs are everywhere.” In our reading though, it seems that Jesus isn’t too interested in hand-washing, or indeed in cleanliness at all.

The Pharisees are upset because they have caught Jesus’ disciples eating without washing their hands. The author of Mark tells us that the Pharisees not only wash their hands before eating, they also wash their food and their plates and pots and cups. To us, this sounds like basic hygiene. Of course the Pharisees should be concerned that the disciples aren’t washing their hands. It’s gross. And so, when Jesus calls the Pharisees hypocrites, you have to wonder why he reacts so strongly.

So, let’s take a look at what Jesus is and isn’t saying here. First of all, he’s not saying don’t wash your hands. Especially for all the kids out there, Jesus isn’t saying that washing your hands is bad. He’s not even opposed to the tradition of the Pharisees and elders to wash before eating.

Though it is just that, a tradition. Nowhere in the law will you find it said that you must wash your hands before eating. You will find that priests are supposed to wash their hands before entering the temple or before offering a sacrifice. The Pharisees were a group that took the calling of Israel to be a priestly kingdom and holy nation very seriously. They interpreted the laws concerning priests in the temple to apply to all God’s people and all aspects of life. So, they believed that all Jews should wash their hands before meals as a way of making mealtime sacred, bringing every aspect of life under the canopy of God’s law.

This isn’t a bad thing. In fact, it’s a good thing. The Pharisees were not bad people—they were the religious leaders of their community. And they wanted all people, not just the priests in Jerusalem, to worship God in their daily life. This is a very good thing.

But what Jesus takes issue with is just how these efforts to live faithfully are being used. Something that is meant to draw them closer to God is in fact being used to alienate others who do not do exactly what they do. Something that is meant as a sign of faithfulness is being used to create hierarchies and distinctions.

This is not a problem that is unique to the Pharisees. Sometimes these passages get read in a very anti-Jewish way, that the Pharisees were following this rules-centric religion and Jesus came to free us from all of that. That’s not what’s going on at all. Jesus has some criticisms for the Pharisees that’s true. But it’s not because of what their religion is, but because of how they’re using it. Which is a problem that happens in all religions, not just Judaism.

It’s what the author of James is railing against in his letter, which was sent to Christian churches in the first century. “Be doers of the word,” he writes, “and not merely hearers who deceive themselves.” In other words, don’t pretend to be faithful on the outside, without actually taking that faith to heart.

When Jesus talks to the Pharisees, when he criticizes the Pharisees, he’s talking to us. To you and me. The Pharisees are the church-goers of the first century. The people who take their faith seriously and are trying to do the right thing. These confrontations with Jesus show just how easy it is for people trying to be faithful to fall into hypocrisy. To start idolizing their traditions instead of God. To start serving their own interests and social standing instead of serving their neighbors.

And it happens to us, too. I’ve been at churches before where if you didn’t wear “church clothes” you felt unwelcome. You felt judged as somehow not as worthy as all those who dressed more nicely than you. Churches draw lines of distinction between each other, too. If you don’t worship the way we do, you don’t belong in our church. If you don’t interpret the Bible the way we do, you’re not as forward thinking. If you wear full vestments you’re “too catholic,” but if you wear jeans and a polo to lead worship you’re too hipster. We use human traditions to create and further divisions between us.

And it’s not just churches. We have codes as a society—usually unwritten—that we use to categorize people. As kids are returning to school this week, especially if it’s a new school, the middle school or high school for the first time, they are going to be navigating so many unwritten codes. What clothes to wear, who to talk to, wear to sit. Whether it will help or hurt their social standing if they answer questions in class.

As adults, our ways of doing this become more subtle, but that doesn’t make them any less damaging. We build our reputations, our identities around these codes that only scratch the surface: a nice house, in the right neighborhood. A spotless house that doesn’t look like anyone lives there. The right car. Clothes that always look put together. Manicures that are never chipped. A degree from the right university.

Much like the Pharisees handwashing, these things aren’t bad in and of themselves. They become harmful when we use them to distinguish between who’s in and who’s out. Between who knows the right things to say and do and who doesn’t. That’s what Jesus has a problem with. When we draw unnecessary distinctions based on superficial things.

There was an Orkin commercial a few years ago for exterminating services that I remember. The Orkin man pulled up to a perfect house with a pristine lawn. He was greeted by the home’s owner and a squirt of hand sanitizer. Everything in this house was white and sparkling. “We don’t need an exterminator,” the woman said, “my house is perfectly clean and we don’t have bugs.” The Orkin man simply pulled back a piece of the wall and there, just beneath the surface of this beautiful house, this clean house, were thousands of bugs.

No matter what the outside looks like, it’s the inside that truly shows what’s there. As Jesus said, there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile. Not eating the right foods, or having the right clothes, or living the right way isn’t going to separate you from God. The evil intentions that come from our hearts separate us from God. And then we use these differences we create to separate ourselves from one another.

No matter how polished the outside is, no matter how good we are at following the rules, it is what is within us that shows who we truly are. And sometimes for all of us, as Jesus points out, those are evil intentions. Things that hurt other people. Things that judge other people. Things that hurt and judge ourselves.

But it is also from within that good comes. It is from within that love, which God has instilled in each of our hearts, can spring forth to be shared. To be talked about. To be lived. It is from within that we find the “true religion” that James talked about: caring for one another. Loving God and our neighbors. Being humble. Always taking care of the most vulnerable among us. These are also things that come from within, that come from our hearts.

Inside each of us is a mixed bag. I think we know that to be true just from experience. When you peel back the layers, you do not find only good things, only good intentions. We often make mistakes that hurt ourselves and others. But neither do we find within us only evil and hurtful things. The Holy Spirit of God dwells within each of us, guiding and directing us, giving us the capacity for love and for care. As James writes: “Every generous act, every perfect gift, is from above.”

May we be vessels of God’s love, of God’s generosity, of God’s grace, worshipping God in word and in deed. May we let it be God’s vision that springs forth from our hearts, and may we always find God in the hearts of our neighbors. Amen.

 

Choose This Day

Well, we made it through the summer of bread! Five straight weeks in John 6. I must say this last week hardly qualifies, because it is mostly the reaction to Jesus’ teaching about bread, instead of more teaching. My sermon focuses on the disciples’ choosing to stay with Jesus when given a chance to leave and on Joshua’s command to “choose this day whom you will serve.”

Lutherans can get very skittish around “choice” language. We believe that God chooses us, not the other way around. It is only through the Holy Spirit that we are able to know and to love God. And yet, in our daily lives, we are faced with myriad choices. Do we make choices to serve God’s ways? Sometimes we do, sometimes we don’t. Let me know what you think.

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

“Choose this day whom you will serve,” demands Joshua, as the people are rededicating themselves to the covenant. “Choose which gods you will follow, but as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord”, the God of Abraham and Isaac, the God of Jacob, the God who led them out of Egypt. “As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.” I think I have that verse on a wall hanging in my house somewhere.

Choice is all over in our readings this morning. Jesus, abandoned by all but his closest disciples, offers them a choice, too. Do you want to leave, do you want to go with not just the crowds but other disciples for whom this teaching has been too difficult? “Lord, to whom shall we go?” asks Peter. “You have the words of eternal life.” For Peter and the twelve, it’s not a question of choosing. They made their choice already, when they chose to follow Jesus.

From our position in history, it’s easy for us to look down on those who made the other choice, those who walk away. These aren’t the casual observers, these aren’t the crowds who don’t really know or understand who Jesus is. These are disciples the Gospel tells us. Maybe not as close as the twelve, but these are people who have been dedicated to following and learning from Jesus. And when the going gets tough, when it becomes clear that following Jesus will demand things of them, they leave.

It’s easy for us to choose God when the choice doesn’t require much of us. We romanticize these verses, particularly Joshua’s, in cute art: on bookmarks, on greeting cards, on prints for our walls. But Joshua lays out a stark choice for the people: You are going to be serving someone, is it going to be the God of heaven and earth, or is it going to be the gods, small g, of the culture all around you?

I am reminded of the story of a pastor and his entire congregation who was forced to make that choice. Andre Trocme served in the small village of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon in south central France. He was a Protestant pastor sent to this remote village in 1938 because his pacifist stance made him an outsider in his own church.

When France fell to the Nazis, Trocme and his church turned their town into what he called “a city of refuge.” They took in Jews, at first French Jews fleeing deportation, and then others who were escaping from Nazi territory. They hid them in plain sight in their homes, in their church, and in their town, until they could be safely smuggled to Switzerland. By the end of the war, Trocme himself had been investigated and arrested, and the town of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon had sheltered and assisted more than 5,000 Jews, guiding them towards safety.

“Put on the whole armor of God,” the apostle writes in Ephesians, “so that you will be able to withstand” the evil forces at work in the world. Our choices are often not as fraught with life and death as Andre Trocme’s were. In some ways that makes them more difficult, not less. When the forces of evil are not easily identifiable, when we are not faced with such a clear moral imperative, the choices are muddier.

But the choices are still there. Are we not also tempted to abandon the God of Israel and to serve the gods of our culture? To abandon the callings and convictions of our faith and instead take the path of least resistance? The gods not of the Amorites or of the people of Egypt, but those gods we make out of wealth and success. Those altars of nationalism and militarism that we make sacrifices on. The gods of individualism and consumerism. These are the gods that test our choices.

They regularly test mine. Choose this day whom you will serve: the things you see being glorified and valued all around you, or God, who calls on us to value different things: community, peace, compassion, and service. These aren’t always easy choices, and sometimes we don’t know whether we’re making the right one or not.  When I heard of the death of Senator John McCain last night, my first thought was how well he embodied someone faced with these struggles. A man of integrity, he often made choices that didn’t serve him, politically or personally, but served a higher purpose.

I sometimes think that the people in our readings had it so much easier than we do today. That their choices were clear cut. But it’s not true. These have never been easy choices. Even with Jesus standing right in front of them, the disciples say, “This is a difficult teaching, who can accept it?”

Jesus has just made clear that to follow him means to consume his body, to embrace his death and resurrection. To follow him means to emulate his way of living and dying for others. This is a difficult teaching. This remains a difficult teaching. It changes us, pushes us past our comfort zones. It asks things of us that we might not be willing to give. It tests our loyalties.

“Choose whom you will serve,” demands Joshua. “The Lord,” answer the people, “we will serve the Lord.” “Do you want to leave, too?” Jesus asks his closest followers. “Where else would we go,” responds Peter, “you have the words of eternal life.”

It’s very inspiring, it leaves us hoping that we might be like these brave and steadfast souls who chose God and served God. What the readings don’t cover is what happens after, though. The people may have vowed to serve the Lord, but they quickly stray. They lose sight of the covenant that would help them to live in peace and justice with each other. They instead begin serving the gods of wealth and power. Peter may have said there is no one for him but Jesus, but he too will abandon Christ. Will deny that he ever knew him. The twelve will follow the way of the other disciples, leaving Jesus when it becomes too difficult.

When we have to choose between God and other temptations, we will always fail eventually. We will always choose wrong: maybe not at first, maybe not even intentionally, but at some point we will slip up. We will serve the gods of culture instead of the God of love.

But even though the people of Joshua and John slipped up, even though we slip up in our choices, the God who chose the people of Israel, the God who chose the disciples, the God who chooses us never does. When our choices waiver and falter, God remains steadfast. God continues to choose us, continues to seek us in love in the hopes that we might return once again.

When Joshua said, “Choose this day whom you will serve,” it is clearly meant to be a choice once and for all. But I’d like to take that scripture and read it a little bit differently: choose this day whom you will serve. Each day is a chance to serve God. God does not hold the past against us, God offers us new beginnings every day.

Choose this day whom you will serve. It’s not an easy choice. It’s filled with gray areas and ambiguities, with difficult teachings and hard lessons. And we will fail sometimes. But a new day always comes. Choose this day whom you will serve. May we seek to serve the God who always chooses us. Amen.

Ew, Yuck!

Week four of bread. Reading through John 6 this summer has been an opportunity for me to brush up on my sacramental theology. Like the congregants mentioned in my opening story for this sermon, it can be easy to hear (say) the words and go through the motions by rote. This extended time in Jesus’ Bread of Life discourse has been a great chance to rediscover and reexamine just what a momentous thing it is we do when we gather each week.

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

The author of a book I have been reading on the sacraments shared a story about what happened when one member of his congregation paid close attention to what was actually being said during communion. Martin Copenhaver was presiding at the table, which had been set with crisp white linen. Laid out in front of him were silver chalices and plates, a crystal flagon of wine.

The congregation was silent, waiting for the pastor to proceed. Using what he called a “solemn, dignified tone” he repeated the words of Jesus at the Last Supper, the words of institution. Except, this time, when he said the familiar words, “this is my body, broken for you; this is my blood, shed for you,” a small girl suddenly said in a loud voice, “Ew, yuck!”

He continues the story to say that the congregation looked horrified, as if someone had just splattered blood all over their clean altar—which, in effect, is just what that little girl had done with her exclamation.

When we hear the words week after week, we can stop truly hearing them. We can hear them, but not hear how crazy and ridiculous they sound. “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me and I in them.” Ew, yuck. You can see why Jesus’ first hearers understandably had some questions.

“How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” They ask. The cannibalistic problems aside, for Jesus’ fellow Jews, the idea of drinking blood, any blood, was repugnant. It was part of the covenant that God made with the people, even before that, part of the covenant God made with Noah, that you were not to eat blood. Meat should be cooked long enough for the blood to be gone.

But his listeners stick around. Jesus has said some pretty weird things already, and they usually turn out to mean something else. Surely, he doesn’t actually mean his flesh and blood. This is some type of metaphor.

But when they ask him to explain, Jesus doubles down. “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.” This is no metaphor. Jesus literally means that he intends to give us his body and blood.

What do we make of this? It’s been problematic from the get-go. Early on, the Roman Empire frequently used the charge of cannibalism as a reason for persecuting the church. Christians had to defend the language they used to talk about the eucharist.

How we make sense of this body and blood stuff has been a reason for massive splits in the church, too. On the one side you have those who affirm the Real Presence: Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Lutherans, Episcopalians. Even though we agree that this is Jesus’ body and blood, we still argue over how exactly that happens. On the other side are those who take this metaphorically: Reformed, Presbyterians, Baptists.

In recent years, our denomination, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, has worked incredibly hard to overcome these differences and has created what we call “full communion agreements,” theological documents that say even though we use different terminology, we can respect each other’s practices and share communion together. We have full communion agreements with six other national church bodies.

That’s all to say that I could talk for quite a while about the theology of eating Jesus’ flesh and blood: why do we believe it, how does it happen. But I’m not sure any of that gets to the point of what Jesus is trying to say. “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me and I in them.”

Well, we do that. In communion each week we receive the body and blood of Christ. The important question isn’t why or how, but what does this mean? What does it mean that we abide in Christ and Christ abides in us?

To say that someone is your flesh and blood implies not just a closeness, but a familial relation. That they are your own. Made of the same stuff, the same core that you are. The nearest and dearest. To say that we take into ourselves God’s own flesh and blood shows just how important we are to God. It also shows that God intends to lay a claim on our entire being, body and soul. Christ’s truth wants to burrow deep within us, to consume us as we consume him, to flow through our veins, to nourish every nook and cranny of our being.

Jesus promises that he will abide in us. You’ve heard the phrase, “You are what you eat.” We define ourselves by what we put in our bodies: I’m a vegetarian, I’m vegan, I’m gluten-free. Not, I eat vegetarian, or I eat gluten-free, but I am these things. In this case, it is true. Jesus gives us the food that will define who we are.

We eat the body of Christ and in so doing become the body of Christ in the world. We eat this body, broken and given for us, and we find in our own brokenness healing and gifts for others. At the table of God where Jesus himself is the meal, we eat in a way that changes us.

This bread, a free gift to us, is also costly. Jesus promises to abide in us as we eat, and that abiding presence does not leave us the same. We are changed by this meal, by consuming the body of Christ. We become the body of the Christ broken and poured out for the sake of the world.

As the body of Christ we are called to be Christ for the world. To offer to others what God has given to us in Jesus: love, compassion, healing, feeding, listening. As the body of Christ we are called to do as Christ did: cross boundaries and borders of race and ethnicity, identify with those on the margins of society, and acknowledge the blessing that God has provided for all people.

We eat Christ’s body and blood so that Christ may abide in us and so that we might embody Christ in our lives. In this meal, God enters in to the very core of our being, and we can no more take God out of our lives than we can reach in and take out what we had for lunch yesterday.

“Ew, yuck!” the little girl said. “Ew, yuck!” the crowds listening to Jesus said. “Ew, yuck!” those who persecuted the early church said. “Ew, yuck!” we might say too, if we listen to the words. But beyond the carnal language, beyond the yuckiness of the surface, is the great gift and promise: God wants nothing more deeply than to abide in us, and we in God. And in that abiding, may we experience the body of Christ, and may we become the body of Christ. Amen.