Finding the Holy in the Ordinary

Below is my sermon for August 12, 2018. This marks the halfway point of our five weeks of readings from John 6! Jesus is once again discussing what it means that he is the bread of life. This sermon is heavy on theology, which isn’t something I do too often, so I hope I’ll be excused. But it seemed like a good time to take a look, not just at bread, but at what we believe about sacraments in general.

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

When I was receiving my first communion instruction, which we did in fifth grade at my church, one of the elements of the program, and one that I’ve started here at St. Paul’s, was that the first communion class would bake the bread that would be used.

I honestly can’t remember why, but my year we were doing this at my house instead of at the church. So, all the fifth graders from Advent Lutheran Church and our pastor were gathered in my too-small-for-this kitchen, reading a recipe and measuring ingredients. It was chaotic. Our pastor was terrified of my black lab, who was energetic but would only want to lick you to death. And while the girl measuring the oil held the bottle over the dry ingredients, that energetic dog jumped up, knocked the girl sideways and managed to dump an extra cup or so of oil into the recipe. We baked it anyway. “The bread was very…interesting,” the congregants told us afterwards.

I was much more successful at my second attempt at baking communion bread, in seminary. Someone had to bake the bread every week, and one day I came back to my dorm to find the breadmaking kit outside my door, with a note from the sacristan—a senior in charge of the chapel. “We need four loaves of bread for tomorrow. Follow the instructions and have it at the chapel by 11:00.” I made that bread begrudgingly. I wondered that they couldn’t find anyone else, and so resorted to this sneak attack. The sacristan confirmed for me the next day that she couldn’t find anyone else, and she was tired of begging people to help in chapel. It’s a wonder they couldn’t taste either of our frustrations and resentment baked into the bread.

Here at St. Paul’s we’ve begun baking bread with our first communion class, too. Except this time, I’m the pastor, surrounded by second graders. No dogs allowed, thankfully. But I can’t always watch everything that’s happening at once. And when that bread manages to take the form of loaves—mostly round—and not fall apart in the oven, I always consider it a miracle.

This is where the bread comes from, for our sacred meal. From fifth graders who are jumpy around jumpy dogs. From frustrated and tired seminarians. From second graders eager to help even if they can’t always remember how many tablespoons of honey they’ve used already.

When I hold the bread aloft at the altar after blessing and breaking it, sometimes I say: the gifts of God. Holy things for holy people. Holy things. And yet scandalously ordinary. When Jesus proclaims himself to be the bread sent from heaven, the people are scandalized.

Jesus? Claiming to be from heaven? We know him, they think. He’s an ordinary person, like us. We know his parents, his siblings. We’ve watched him grow up. He’s just like us. And he claims to be sent from heaven? The truly scandalous thing is, they’re right. Jesus is ordinary. He came into the world the same way we all did: born of Mary. He was a boy, he learned and grew. He’s just as poor, just as insignificant, just as ordinary as the rest of them.

Jesus is ordinary. And Jesus is God’s living bread from heaven. Jesus is an ordinary person and at the same time he is so much more: he is the living presence of God.

We have been living with this doctrine for 2,000 years, and we forget just how scandalous it is to say. It is why the Judeans, Jesus’ neighbors and those who have been following him, are incredulous. To claim that someone so ordinary could be sent from heaven is a bold thing to do.

And it’s a boldness that still shocks people. Sometimes people will ask me where we get our baptismal water from. The answer always surprises the asker: from the tap back there in the sacristy. It’s not special water. And our communion bread, when it’s not being made by our second-graders, comes from Linda Burns’ kitchen. The hosts we use on most Sundays are packaged in a big plastic tub. And the wine is from the liquor store.

And yet these ordinary things are holy. We use them in the sacraments of the church. The word sacrament literally means “to make holy.” This ordinary water, bread, and wine are made holy by God to do holy work. In his Small Catechism, Martin Luther asks the question, “how can water do such great things” such as forgive sins, redeem from death, and give eternal life? He answers: “Clearly the water does not do it, but the word of God, which is with and alongside the water, and faith, which trusts this word of God. For without the word of God the water is plain water and not a baptism, but with the word of God it is a baptism, a grace-filled water of life.”

God is able to use the ordinary stuff of life to do holy and miraculous things. Bread, wine, and water: staple foods, necessities for life, nothing fancy. And yet they form our most holy acts as a church together because they contain for us God’s living bread from heaven.

Rachel Held Evans, a Christian author and blogger, wrote about how the sacraments train us to see the holy in the world. That if we can appreciate the holy in these ordinary things, we will learn to appreciate the holy in other things, too. She writes:

“This is the purpose of the sacraments, of the church—to help us see, to point to the bread and wine, the orchids and the food pantries, the post-funeral potlucks and the post communion dance parties, and say: pay attention, this stuff matters; these things are holy.”

As a church we believe that the sacraments are where we experience this presence of God most clearly. This is where God has promised to be present for us, and so we can trust that God is here in baptism and communion, in the water and the bread and wine, giving life and forgiveness and new beginnings. We find God’s promise to take hold of us and make us God’s own, to remain with us and to never let us go.

While we believe that the sacraments are the clearest places to see this, we do not believe that the sacraments are the only places where we experience the presence of God. Pastor and theologian David Lose wrote about his experience in his blog recently, saying, “I’ve wondered whether, after praying with someone in the hospital, if they were disappointed when I gave God thanks for the machines and instruments to which they or their loved one is attached, for the pharmaceutical companies which make the drugs and for the trucks which deliver them, for the people who keep the hospital clean as well as for the nurses and doctors who attend them. I wonder if they would rather have me simply pray for healing, or for a miracle, or for something more dramatic.”

And yet, he goes on to say, it is dramatic, surprising, and encouraging that God would work through such ordinary things like technology, like imperfect human beings, doctors and nurses with short tempers and poor bed-side manners. Flawed pastors, jaded teachers, worn-out administrators, exhausted parents.

This is the promise we find in the sacraments. For just as surely as God uses ordinary bread and wine to bring us God’s saving word, so too does God use ordinary you and me to accomplish God’s will and work in this world. The sacraments are ordinary things for ordinary people. Holy things for holy people. May they help us to see the God who is present for us everywhere. Amen.

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Food that Endures

Welcome to week two of the summer of bread! The readings assigned to be used in church are on a three-year cycle, called the Revised Common Lectionary. Which means every three years, an entire five weeks is dedicated to John 6, Jesus’ sign of feeding the 5,000 and the ensuing explanation. So we have readings about bread for the entire month of August.

It can get a bit tedious to preach on, and I may jump around to the lessons from the Hebrew Bible and Epistles as the summer goes on, but I think that this type of in depth reading of a passage is good for us. Our readings often jump around the Bible, and sticking with a confusing, esoteric passage is good for us sometimes. (Talk to me again in four weeks.) Anyway, here’s the sermon–is this something you’ve found true in your life? Food that perishes vs. food that endures?

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

Some of my favorite scenes from the Bible have to be the Israelites wandering around in the desert. It’s high comedy reminiscent of the Marx Brothers. And it’s okay to laugh at it. One of the most beautiful things about the Bible, and about the Hebrew Scriptures in particular, is how willing it is to poke fun at itself, how honest it is about life. A lot of memoirs, stories, histories of this time period deify and glorify their heroes. Not the Hebrew people. When writing down their history, they are honest about the fact that they weren’t perfect. That they grumbled and murmured against Moses and Aaron and against God.

Our story this morning from Exodus starts out with some of the whiniest words you will read in Scripture: “if only we had died in the land of Egypt, where we ate our fill; but you Moses have brought us into this wilderness to kill us all with hunger.” Couple of things here: God is the one who led them out of Egypt, not Moses—and life wasn’t very good in Egypt, the people have a selective memory where that’s concerned. And they never actually ask God for food! This God who they’ve seen send all these plagues and part the Red Sea, no one thought that maybe God could help them out, they just go right to complaining.

But God hears their complaints; God did not rescue them from Egypt only to have them die of starvation, and so God sends meat in the evening and bread in the morning. And manna, this bread from heaven, falls upon the camp each morning, so confusing the Israelites that they ask each other, “What is it?” And that is what manna literally means in Hebrew, “What is it?”

It reminds me of being served an unfamiliar food as a child, asking my parents, “What is it?” Pretty sure already that I would not like it. Moses’ response is classic parent: “This is the bread that God has given you to eat. Be thankful that you have it, now eat it and stop complaining.”

And it is quite beautifully the definition of daily bread. God sends the manna new each morning, and the people are to collect just enough for that day. If they collect too much, which will happen later in the story, it turns to rot. Enough is given to meet the needs of the day—hoarding is not necessary.

I wonder if this is what the crowds who are following Jesus (or chasing Jesus depending on your perspective)—is this what they are expecting, anticipating. They mention the manna in the wilderness as a sign from God, and they want Jesus to give them another sign. Having just participated in the feeding of the 5,000, are they looking for a similar sign? Do they want more bread?

It’s unclear what the crowd is expecting to happen. Are they simply hungry? I think it’s more than that. They’ve just seen a miracle and are drawn to Jesus. But Jesus tells them that they have misunderstood this miracle, this sign. They don’t get it.

They are seeking to fill themselves with temporary, earthly things. In fact, after the feeding of the 5,000, they tried to seize Jesus and make him into an earthly king. They are clamoring for physical bread, for physical power from Jesus. And Jesus tells them that physical things are not going to satisfy their need. Not in the long run. “Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life.”

What are the things we seek, the things we chase after, that will never be able to satisfy our need? What, for us, is the “food that perishes”? Money. Power. Activities. Status. Popularity. We think if we just manage to get a little bit more, then we’ll finally be happy. If we just manage to get the house up-to-date and looking like an HGTV special, then we’ll be happy. If we just find that perfect hobby, we won’t be so restless. If we manage to get to our target weight, we’ll stop feeling so bad about ourselves.

But if you, like me, have ever chased some of these foods, you know that the happiness they bring is fleeting. J.D. Rockefeller, at the time the richest person in the world, was asked, “How much money is enough?” His answer: “Just a little bit more.” These earthly things that we seek after are never enough to satisfy our need. We will always want just a little bit more. We will always be looking for something else.

And this is not what Jesus came to offer. He’s really clear on this point: God did not send Jesus to offer fleeting satisfaction or temporary fulfillment. He comes instead to give something lasting: food that endures for eternal life. No bread that he produces, but bread that he is. God’s living bread from heaven, Jesus is God’s manna incarnate.

It puts the earthly pleasures we clamor for to shame, because unlike them, being in relationship with God can satisfy our yearnings. Experiencing God’s love, knowing that we are valued for who we are, that we are worthy of respect and love, these things provide fulfillment that “just a little bit more” of money or popularity or perfection never can. This is what Jesus has come to earth to offer: relationship, purpose, love. The food that endures for eternal life.

“We want that…How do we get it?” asks the crowds. Jesus says simply: “believe in the one whom God has sent.” You can’t earn a relationship with God. You can’t earn God’s love. Love and acceptance and relationships are things that can never be earned or coerced. They can only be given as a gift from one person to another. We simply have to trust, to believe, that God provides them for us. It’s manna, bread from heaven. It’s a gift.

When we don’t trust that it will be provided is where we go wrong. That’s when we try to hoard and stockpile it for ourselves. That turns to rot. Manna comes daily. Enough for all. There’s no need to hoard it. God’s love doesn’t need to be hoarded, either. God’s grace is new every day. God’s love springs up like dew on the grass and God’s care settles around in the evening.

It is there for the taking, says Jesus, just as it was in the wilderness to the Israelites. The bread of heaven, come from God to give life to the world. Pure gift, always enough. So come to the table. Partake of the bread of heaven and be filled with God’s life, with God’s love, and with God’s grace. Amen.

Enough

Do you ever feel like you don’t have to meet the situation you’re dealing with? Enough time, enough resources, enough energy? That’s how I felt in the story that opens this week’s sermon. You can take heart with me, then, in the fact that the disciples had been there before us! In the feeding of the 5,000, Andrew and Peter (and probably the other disciples) felt like they didn’t have the ability to meet the needs of the crowd. But, when someone offers what they do have, even though it isn’t enough, God makes enough out of it.

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

I was on internship in Easton, Pennsylvania in October 2012, when Hurricane Sandy hit. It wasn’t as bad in the Lehigh Valley as it was in New Jersey and elsewhere, but it was pretty bad. That night, alone in my apartment attached the church, the only person on the whole block, I waited as branches were torn from trees and slate tiles flew off the roof.

As we surveyed the damage the next morning, the worst that had happened was a few shingles missing from the church, and one massive tree limb down across the parking lot entrance. A few feet to the left and it would have hit the sanctuary. As we began clean-up, we realized we were among the lucky ones. In downtown Easton, just a block from the main circle, our power lines were underground. Almost everyone not in that lucky four-block radius lost power. So did the surrounding counties. No one could give an estimate of when it would come back on.

People began to arrive. At first it was just a few. A couple from the church, looking to charge their phones. An elderly man, looking for a working power outlet, so he could use his nebulizer. A family that had no power and lived in a basement apartment that had flooded. Then some more came. They told us they had heard on the radio that St. John’s had power and was open. The mayor, who was friends with the pastor, had called earlier in the day to check on the church. We didn’t realize that he was going to share this information with the radio stations.

It was dinner time, and people kept showing up, because they’d heard on the radio that the church was warm and open. Pastor Sue and I didn’t have time to run anything by church council. We couldn’t plan out our response with a helpful committee of volunteers. The people were hungry and had nothing to eat.

We ended up raiding my pantry and fridge, since it was right next door. Like a good Italian, I had plenty of pasta and sauce. So that first night, twenty hungry people ate spaghetti and sauce.

Our makeshift shelter stayed open for a week. From seven a.m. to eight p.m. we were open. We served breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and lots and lots of coffee. Our twenty people grew to forty, then sixty. No one’s power was back on yet.

Church members got word of what was happening and came to help, bringing what they had in their fridges. The local newspaper ran a story, and the next day, two women from the Lutheran church in Nazareth showed up with cases of water, and enough cream of broccoli soup and tater tots to make a dozen casseroles.

By the time the power was restored, and the schools opened again, we had fed sixty people hot meals for six days. When that first man arrived, we had no idea what we were getting into. As the crowd gathered the first night, and it got closer and closer to dinner time, my first instinct was to tell the people they needed to leave. We couldn’t do this, we weren’t prepared, we didn’t even have any food at the church. But we did do it. Four boxes of mismatched pasta became an overflowing pantry of generosity and kindness.

It’s all too easy in these situations to look at what we don’t have. It’s what I did. It was the reaction of the disciples when faced with a crowd of hungry people, too. Philip says that it’s impossible, they could never afford to feed all these people. Andrew finds some food that a young boy has brought, but he doesn’t think it will ever be enough. We’d better send these people home, Jesus, we can’t possibly be expected for feed thousands of people. We didn’t sign up for this.

We’re going to be faced with situations where we feel that way. Where we feel like what we have to offer is not enough, or not good enough, or not important enough to make a difference. It might not be on as large a scale as feeding thousands of people, but those situations will come up.

When we consider the fact that 41 million people struggle with hunger and food insecurity in the United States—just in the United States, that’s not even the world, a six-bed garden behind a church doesn’t seem like a drop in the bucket.

When we think about the level of pollution in our oceans and waterways, bringing your own cup to Starbucks doesn’t seem like it really matters. When we think about advocating for justice, it seems that there is always a new injustice that requires a response. Facing immense need, it’s easy to view what we have to offer, whether it’s money or actions, as not good enough.

It’s easy to view what we have that way, but it’s not the only way to view it. Instead, we can look at what we have to offer and not see what it’s lacking, but see it as a gift and blessing from a God who is able to do great things. I wonder what was going through the mind of the boy with the fish and the loaves. He must have known that this meagre offering was not enough to feed the whole crowd. And yet he offered it anyway.

What we bring to Jesus’ table might seem like it’s not nearly enough to meet the needs around us. The money we bring, the time we’re able to give, the actions we take on behalf of others. It can get discouraging to consider our small offerings compared to the immensity of need. But it is not ultimately the adequacy of our supplies or our skills that makes a difference. What makes the difference is the power of Jesus Christ working in small things, little things, overlooked things, to make a miraculous difference in this world.

In the letter to Ephesians we heard that the power of God at work in us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine. It doesn’t have to start with much. And it’s not up to us to perform miracles. What we have, what sometimes seemingly little we can offer—God is the one who can make miracles out of it. In the hand of Jesus little can turn into much.

I saw it happen. Despite my fear that we wouldn’t have enough, enough was provided. More than enough. Do not be discouraged. What you have to offer is enough. What you have to give is enough. You are enough.

The young boy didn’t know what was going to happen to his bread and fish, but he knew he had something to offer and so offer it he did. We don’t always know how God is going to use us, how God is going to use our gifts, but we’ll never know if we keep them to ourselves. Do not worry that it’s not enough. Do not worry that it’s too small to make a difference. See instead the blessing that God has given you: your abilities, your resources, your very self. Gifts from God to meant to be shared. And when they are, miracles can happen. Amen.

Compassion

The Gospel lesson for this past Sunday was a couple small chunks of text which skipped over some big events: the feeding of the 5,000 and Jesus calming the storm (we’ll be reading those this week). It felt a little disjointed, like having bookends with no books in the middle. So I decided to latch onto one detail: Jesus having compassion for the crowds. If you want to read the Gospel from Mark and Epistle from Ephesians, the sermon will make more sense.

(Also, some of my inspiration for this sermon came from a West Wing episode where presidential candidate Matt Santos gives a speech to a church after a police shooting and talks about compassion. You can watch a clip here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FFbomB2nZTY)

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

Have you ever heard the term “compassion fatigue”? It’s something that was first observed among nurses and caregivers at veterans’ long-term care facilities following World War II. Their jobs asked them to give of themselves, of their compassion, daily, and after long stretches of time, they would get rundown. They would feel as though they didn’t have anything left to give.

It’s sometimes called care-giver syndrome. It’s often associated with helping professions: nurses, psychiatrists, therapists, counselors, EMTs, pastors. But it doesn’t only affect those people. Those who are the primary caregiver for a parent or partner. For a child who needs a lot of attention and help. They know this fatigue, too. Sometimes, it’s simply called burnout. It’s when our stores of compassion and care are simply running on empty.

I wonder if this is what’s at stake in our Gospel reading. There is a massive amount of need. People, crowds are coming out of the villages to find and follow Jesus. They’re even running ahead of him in some cases, bringing out their sick and needy, laying them in the streets, so that Jesus might heal them. The need is open, raw. The need is so immense that it says the disciples “had no leisure, even to eat.” Jesus tries to get them to go apart, away, that they might have a chance to refresh and restore themselves, but it doesn’t work. The crowds, and the need, find them.

But instead of sending them away, instead of retreating even further, it says that Jesus had compassion for them. He had compassion. I’m using that word compassion a lot, it’s worth taking some to talk about it. It comes into the English from Latin, and literally means “passion with.” Feeling compassion for someone means you’re feeling what they’re feeling. You’re sharing their pain and hurt.

But it’s more than that. The Hebrew word for compassion, racham, comes from the Hebrew word for womb. The Greek word, the word actually used to describe what Jesus is feeling is splagchnizomai. That’s a word for you. We translate it compassion, but it’s more than that. It literally means to having a yearning in your gut. Compassion isn’t something we do with our heads, with our thoughts. Compassion is a feeling that takes over our physical body. You know the feeling.

Here is Jesus, hounded by thirsty crowds. He looks upon them as sheep without a shepherd, sheep with no one tending to them, no sense of orientation or protection. Had he ever felt this way himself? Probably. So Jesus had compassion on them. He understood them. He felt care, empathy, and love for them at the very core, the womb of his being.

Compassion is not an emotion you can have from a distance. Pity, condolence, sympathy—all these things you can offer from a nice safe, removed point. But compassion is that visceral pull in your stomach that forces you to engage with someone, to be drawn in to another’s situation. Compassion is not a feeling so much as it is an action—being drawn into another person.

We need more compassion in the world today maybe than we’ve needed before. And it often feels as though we have less than we used to. We have less compassion nowadays for each other. We’re quicker to judge than to empathize. We’re quicker to condemn than to love. We’re quicker to assume than to draw near and learn.

I know I’ve felt that in myself—I’ve felt that my stores of compassion are not as great as they used to be. And I know I’ve seen it reflected in the world around me. Our compassion struggles to extend beyond those who are like us, beyond those we already understand. It struggles to extend to those of different races and economic backgrounds, to those from different countries, to those with different educational opportunities. It seems our compassion struggles most of all to extend to those with different political affiliations than ours. Maybe it’s compassion fatigue. Maybe we’re feeling depleted, I don’t know. But compassion seems to be in short supply lately.

In the letter Helene read, written to the Ephesians, the Apostle is urging compassion. There are divisions in this community—divisions along lines of class, of ethnic background, of religious background. The author urges them to remember that Christ came not to deepen divisions, but for the work of reconciliation. “For [Christ] is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us…that he might create in himself one new humanity in the place of two…and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross.”

I’m not suggesting brushing issues and division under the rug for the appearance of peace and unity—all that creates is a false peace. But when we consider the things that divide us, we need to try to start from a place of compassion. We need to start by seeing those different from us as fellow members of the household of God, not as someone wholly other to ourselves.

A Rabbi once asked his pupils how they could tell when the night had ended and the day had begun. “Could it be,” asked one of the students, “when you can see an animal in the distance and tell whether it’s a sheep or a dog?” “No,” answered the Rabbi.

Another asked, “Is it when you can look at a tree in the distance and tell whether it’s a fig tree or a peach tree?” “No,” answered the Rabbi. “Then what is it?” the pupils demanded. “It is when you can look on the face of any man or woman and see that it is your sister or brother. Because if you cannot see this, it is still night.”

Compassion. Jesus came to teach us compassion. Not just for our families and our friends and our neighbors. That’s all just practice. Jesus calls us to have compassion for our enemies. To have compassion for the stranger, the orphan, the widow, the alien, the poor, the sick, those unlike us.

But God does not just teach us compassion, or expect compassion from us, God showers us with compassion daily. God felt the pull of compassion so strongly for humanity, right in God’s womb, that God gave birth to Jesus—compassion incarnate. God with us, in the midst of our need.

God doesn’t get compassion fatigue. When we cry out, like those crowds, that we too are in need of healing, are in need of reconciliation, are in need of hope and guidance, the depths of God’s compassion are never exhausted. God sees our needs. God sees your need, whatever it is on this day. And with compassion, God is drawn in to you and to me. And God draws us in, to be reconciled together in the household of God. Amen, and thanks be to God.

A Tale of Two Kingdoms

There are days when proclaiming “Praise to you, O Christ” after the reading of the Gospel just doesn’t feel right. Yesterday was one of those days. Go ahead and read the Gospel story, the beheading of John the Baptist, and see if you don’t agree with me! There’s a lot going on here, and none of it really feels like good news. There are options when a text like this is assigned for a Sunday. You can preach on the lesson from the Hebrew Bible, or from the epistles. You could change the text altogether (no one may ever even know!). You can have a hymn sing, instead.

All of those thoughts went through my mind last week, as I tried to avoid dealing with this bloody, depressing text. But, in the end, I decided to go for it, because sometimes (often) the real world is bloody and depressing, too. Our scripture doesn’t shy away from the realities of the world and neither should we. But that doesn’t mean those realities get to define and control our lives. God’s reality gets to do that. Let me know what you think!

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

A high-powered lobbyist was quoted in the Washington Post as saying: “There’s only two engines that drive Washington: one is greed and the other is fear.” This quote was offered a few years ago, but it could have been said yesterday. Or fifty years ago. Or 1,000 years ago. “There’s only two engines that drive Washington, that drive Rome, that drive Herod’s court: one is greed and the other is fear.”

Today’s Gospel story, the beheading of John the Baptizer, is full of greed and fear. It’s full of powerful people and power-seeking people. It’s full of intrigue and scandal and ultimately death. It feels out of place in the Bible, at least out of place in the gospels, with its blood and gore and sexual insinuations. But honestly, it doesn’t feel that out of place in our world. It’s a story that’s been repeated over and over again.

King Herod Antipas, one of the three sons of Herod the Great, is ruling in Galilee. He’s not a popular king, and he holds onto his power in ruthless ways. He has married his brother Philip’s wife, Herodias. The main problem at this point is that Philip is actually still alive.

And John the Baptist, preaching repentance and a return to the ways of God, gets wind of this, and has the guts to tell King Herod: it is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife. Herodias wants this man dead—he is a threat not just to her position as queen but really to her life—, and in a compromise, he is arrested and kept in King Herod’s prison.

Herod doesn’t want to kill John, apparently, because he knows that John is a righteous and holy man. I love what Mark says about Herod’s interactions with John: he was greatly perplexed when listening to the prophet, and yet he liked to listen to him. John’s preaching calls into question the very foundations of Herod’s power—and yet the king is strangely drawn to this preaching, intrigued.

But Herodias has her opening at the king’s birthday feast. She sends her daughter, confusingly also called Herodias in Mark’s story, often called Salome, in to dance for the king. We know from the Greek words used that this is a young girl, probably twelve or thirteen. And her dancing so pleases her stepfather that he says he will grant her whatever she wants—up to half of his kingdom.

This was the same promise given to Queen Esther, who used it to save her people. Salome goes back to her mother, who we know has something less noble in mind. The head of John the Baptist. The girl embellishes a bit and demands it on a platter.

Herod is described as being torn. He does not want to kill John, but feels compelled by his promise. He cannot suffer the loss of honor and reputation that would follow backing out of a public promise. And so John, without trial, without justice, is killed.

This is a story that we know almost too well. A story of a righteous person being trampled by a powerful person. A story of justice being crushed beneath greed. A story of people backed into corners, trying to protect themselves, and in doing so killing others.

This is a story that’s been repeated over and over again. We’ll see it repeated in Mark’s gospel in just a few short chapters with Jesus, standing before another ruler who feels he has no option but to kill a righteous man in the name of preserving power. We’ll see the Apostle Paul die for telling the Roman Empire that it was not in fact God. Thomas More is beheaded by Henry VIII for holding to his convictions in the face the king’s self-interest. Bonhoeffer, martyred by the Nazis for daring to speak against genocide. Martin Luther King, Jr. shot because he dared to call on our nation to repent and return to the ways of God.

As if real life weren’t enough, we see this story again and again in our fiction, in our movies and TV shows. Game of Thrones, the Sopranos, House of Cards, Mad Men. The anti-hero, ruled not by morals or righteousness, but by greed and fear. It’s a compelling story.

I think that we’re so drawn to this story because we recognize the truth in it. This is no fairy-tale. We see in Herod’s story, in all of these stories, an honest truth of our world. Power is dangerous. Power corrupts. Often those in power don’t listen to what they know to be right in order to preserve their own positions. Herod didn’t. Pilate didn’t. The priest in our reading from Amos didn’t. He didn’t listen to the word of God because it would mean losing his own power and authority. Often the vulnerable are exploited. We know this story. We know this narrative because we were born to this world that says power is good and vulnerability is bad. We were born to this world that says greed is good and selflessness is weak. We were born to this world that says it’s all about looking out for yourself, no matter the cost.

But—and this is a very important but—this is not the only narrative available to us. We get into this whole story about the beheading of John, because Jesus’ disciples are going throughout the countryside teaching and preaching and healing. Jesus is amassing followers because of his message of inclusion and mercy and redemption for all people. Herod gets wind of all this and he is afraid that John has been raised from the dead.

John hasn’t been raised, of course, but what lives on is his words. What lives on is his hope. What lives on is the redemption and grace that he offered. All of the prophets killed through the ages are alive in Jesus, who God does raise from the dead.

God offers us a different narrative. A narrative where power is found in relationships. Where power is found in being vulnerable and broken. Where power is used not for self, but for others. This might not be the narrative to which we were born, but it is the narrative to which we are reborn. It is God’s story of redemption and hope and mercy for all people and that is the story that we are a part of. It is the story of John and Jesus, and Amos and all the prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures, and Bonhoeffer and Romero and King. It is a story that will always be contending with Herod’s story. A story that will always be told it’s not realistic enough, that it needs to realize that’s not how the world works.

But it is our story. A story of grace instead of vengeance, mercy instead of grudges. Generosity instead of greed. Vulnerability instead of pride. Hope instead of fear. This is the story to which we were each called, the story in which we were reborn at our baptisms.

Herod may have killed John the Baptist, but he could not kill the good news of God’s story that John brought. God’s story, God’s hope and love, will always rise from the ashes of those who try to put it out. There’s only two engines that drive Washington, the lobbyist said, fear and greed. That may be so, I don’t know for sure, but I do know that God’s kingdom is driven by very different things: redemption, forgiveness, mercy, grace, and love. Amen.

What’s on your packing list?

Maybe I just have travel on the mind, but the packing list seemed like a great metaphor to jump into this week’s Gospel lesson. So–read the sermon and let me know in the comments–is there anything you wish wasn’t on your packing list? Anything you’d love to put in your bag to be a better disciple?

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

A couple of times I’ve been asked by someone new to Christianity or curious about our faith how to read the Bible. They’ve never read any part of Scripture before and pick up a Bible and, as you do with a book, start reading at the beginning. Genesis and Exodus go ok, because they’re mostly stories, but somewhere around the middle of Leviticus, these people usually give up.

When these people come to me and say, “I’m still interested in this, but how do I read this book?” my answer is always to start with the Gospels. In particular to start with the Gospel of Mark. Mark doesn’t even come first in the New Testament, so that might seem counterintuitive. But it’s the shortest Gospel, you could read it start to finish in probably half an hour.

In part because it’s the shortest, most people tend to think that Mark was the first Gospel written. It seems frantic, hurried, almost in its pacing. You can imagine its author racing to get it finished, needing to get this story down on paper so that it might be shared. Matthew, Luke, and John take more time, gather more stories, include more details.

There is no drawn-out Sermon on the Mount in Mark like there is in Matthew, where Jesus teaches and preaches for three whole chapters. There is no nativity, no account of Jesus’ birth like there is in Luke, and Mark’s Holy Week narrative lasts only three chapters, compared to John’s eight. The author of Mark is not messing around with any information you don’t absolutely need.

So what does Mark decide is worth including in his Gospel? A packing list. Jesus, after just being rejected in his home town, is sending the disciples out in pairs to do ministry. And he literally offers a packing list: “bring this, don’t bring that.” It reminds me a lot of the list we were given before the Youth Gathering last week. It too was very specific. Do bring close-toed shoes, a sturdy backpack, a water bottle, and sunscreen.

Do not bring valuable jewelry, alcohol, or firearms. Don’t bring more technology than you need. Don’t bring flip flops. And there are a few things you learn by experience every adult leader should have on their packing list: a portable charger, a power strip so you can charge six phones at once, and a headlamp.

Both what we were told to bring and what were asked not to bring was designed to help us get the most out of our experience in Houston. We needed our phones to keep track of each other, but we didn’t need any extra technology to distract us from our community. We didn’t need much money, but most assuredly did need good walking shoes. Communal games, like a deck of cards were great, but individual games didn’t help.

Jesus’ list is much the same. It’s meant to help the disciples be as effective as they can be. His list, in short: “Don’t bring much of anything.” Don’t pack an extra shirt, don’t carry any money, don’t bring any food with you. It will hold you back if you do. Travel light, because you don’t know when you might have to move on quickly. Discipleship requires that you leave behind the things that would tie you down and hold you back.

It begs the question, as 21st century disciples, what should our packing list look like? What things do we need to leave behind, what things are holding us back from doing ministry in today’s world? There’s a literal way to look at this: we might have actual things that are holding us back. A city congregation I know recently sold their building. It was huge, bigger than St. Paul’s, and the congregation was dwindling. Most of their money had to go to maintaining a rapidly declining building, instead of reaching out to their neighbors. By letting go of that building, renting space somewhere else instead, they freed themselves to do ministry.

There might be physical things in your life that are holding you back. I’ve certainly heard the stories of many people who downsized their homes and felt only relief and freedom. But we all carry around other baggage—as individuals and a congregation—that can hold us back. Baggage that Jesus would look at and say: don’t take that with you, leave it behind. We hold onto things that can keep us from fulfilling our call as disciples.

What expectations aren’t we willing to give up, even though they’re keeping us from joy? What people do we hold ourselves back from, because they don’t fit our preconceived understanding of who they should be?

Honestly, I think the biggest thing that we’re carrying around that keeps us from being effective disciples, from being the people God hopes us to be, is fear. Fear of change. Fear of what that change might mean. Fear of loss. Fear of failure.

Some of these fears aren’t entirely unfounded. Jesus himself failed in Nazareth to convince the people of his hometown. He even prepares the disciples for failure, warning them that they won’t be well received sometimes, but to simply shake the dust off their feet and keep going.

What does your packing list look like? Are you carrying around things you don’t need to, that only burden you? Are we doing that collectively, as a congregation? Are there things we need to let go of? To take out of our bags so we are able to move more freely? Our unfair expectations of ourselves and others. Our worry that we’re not good enough. Our desire to be perfect. Our anxieties over change and the future.

What might be possible if we took those things off our packing list? We will not always be successful. After all, Jesus wasn’t, so we shouldn’t expect too much from ourselves. The disciples weren’t always successful in their mission and outreach either.

But the biggest reason to unburden ourselves of these things—the worry and anxiety and fear—is not an attempt to be successful. The biggest reason is because they’re things that God does not want for us. “Do not be afraid,” is the oft-repeated greeting of the angels in scripture. Do not be afraid.

It’s easier said than done, but what if this week we tried to take just one or maybe two things off our packing list? What new opportunities might suddenly seem doable? What chances might we be willing to take? What people might we be willing to meet that we hadn’t before?

I’ll close with the post-communion blessing that each person received individually at the Gathering in Houston. “Child of God—Be Brave—You are saved by grace through faith—Go and tell the world that this changes everything.” Amen.

Jesus Rescues!

This past week at St. Paul’s was Vacation Bible School, with the theme, “Shipwrecked: Rescued by Jesus.” I’ve often heard it joked about that people get more out of the children’s sermon than the normal one. While it is a joke, I think there’s something there. Children’s sermons are kept deliberately simple, but contain the really important basics: God loves you, share God’s love with others, God loves you, God takes care of you, and did I mention God loves you? “Big People” sermons can sometimes get bogged down and miss this simple message. While I hope that all of my sermons are discernible, I purposefully kept this one simpler than most, trusting that what we teach our children is something we need to hear, too. (If you’re curious about Stephen Ministry, please let me know!)

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

This past week was Vacation Bible School here at St. Paul’s, and we spent our time hearing stories about how when we’re in some kind of trouble: whether we’re lonely, or worried, or struggling, or we’ve done wrong, Jesus can rescue us!

And actually our story for Wednesday was our Gospel reading this morning. Jesus calming the storm and stilling the seas. As each group of kids came to Story Time, I asked them: what are you afraid of? The disciples in this story are really scared, what scares you sometimes?

Our preschoolers shared that they were scared of things like spiders, being alone in the dark, getting shots at the doctor. As the groups got older, their fears changed. Being left out. Not doing well at school. Disappointing their parents. Failing.

Everyone has fears. I won’t make you raise your hand and share yours. Maybe some of the kids’ fears are things that you worry about, too. Being alone, being left out. Failing. Disappointing those who are depending on you.

You probably have other fears, things that hopefully kids don’t have to worry about. Maybe you’re dealing with a health issue, or a family member or a friend is. Maybe you’re wondering how to best support and care for aging parents. Maybe your kids are leaving home for the first time and you worry for them. Maybe you worry for the future, worry what kind of world we’re creating and leaving for those who come after us. The news is certainly full of things that make me very scared.

We all are afraid sometimes. There’s no way around it. And sometimes it can be so overwhelming that we want to cry out with the disciples: “Do you not care that we are perishing?” Do you even notice, God? Do you not care that my loved one is dying? Do you not care that I don’t know how I’m going to get through this struggle?

Of course, when Jesus is awoken by these cries, he does care. He stands up and stops the storm and calms the winds. But then he says something that’s interesting: “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” I think it’s pretty obvious why the disciples are afraid. They think that they’re going to drown. But they’ve seen Jesus do great things already. He’s healed people, he’s cast out demons. And when the storm threatens to overwhelm them instead of trusting in the power of Jesus, they are overcome with fear.

There’s a moment in Game of Thrones, both the book and the show, where a young boy named Bran asks his father, “Can a man be brave, even if he is afraid?” And his father responds: “That’s the only time a man can be brave.”

“Can a person have faith, even when they are afraid?” Jesus seems to make it an either or. Either you are afraid, or you have faith. I don’t think it’s that simple. I think what Jesus is getting at is that even when you are afraid, you can still respond in faith. It’s not an issue of whether or not you’re afraid, but how you respond. Are we paralyzed by our fears, like the disciples? Unable to truly do anything but panic?

Or, can a person have faith, even when they are afraid? That’s maybe not the only time, but one of the times when our faith can shine through the darkness of fear and truly be a beacon of hope and guidance.

When we talked about this story with the kids this week, we used our catchphrase of the week: Jesus rescues! When you worry, Jesus rescues! When you’re lonely, Jesus rescues! When you struggle, Jesus rescues! We tried to be clear though, what that rescue is and what it isn’t. Our faith doesn’t magically make our fears go away. As adults we know that. If only that were the case.

But our faith makes it possible for us not to be paralyzed by our fears, not to let our fears or our struggles be the things that rule us. That control us. Our faith means that we are never alone in our fears. God is with us. Yes, God cares. God cares that we are afraid. God cares that we are struggling. And we are never alone. And a God who cares cultivates people who care. Part of our most basic Christian vocation is the calling to care for each other.

After the hymn of the day, we will be recognizing our Stephen Ministry’s ten-year anniversary. Our Stephen Ministers are people from our congregation who have been trained to help provide support and Christian care-giving to those who are struggling or in need of help. Some of those who receive care are dealing with grief or coping with an illness. Others are trying to handle a change in their life situation.

Whatever the situation, our Stephen Ministers are here to provide one-on-one care for a period of time. When we struggle, we do not have to do it by ourselves. If you think you might benefit from a Stephen Ministry relationship, please reach out to me or to one of Stephen Leaders, Beth McElvenney and Hazel Pelletrau.

“Why are you afraid,” Jesus asks? Well, much like the disciples, the reasons for our fears seem obvious. There is nothing wrong with being afraid. But, to borrow from VBS, when we are afraid, Jesus rescues! Not by making our fears disappear, but making it so that we might live by faith in spite of our fears. Making it so that we might live knowing we are loved. Knowing we are not alone. Knowing that our fears don’t get the last word. God’s love does. Amen.

Like a mustard seed

Below is my sermon from June 17, 2018. It focuses on two of Jesus’ parables: the seed growing on its own, and the mustard seed. But I also include an brief introduction to parables and the kingdom of God in general. A lot of Jesus’ parables can make us uncomfortable. That’s good! He was trying to challenge a lot of the assumptions of his listeners in way designed to make them think. When you feel uncomfortable with the emphasis of the parable, don’t run away from it, see where it might be leading you.

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

“The kingdom of God is like…” Jesus starts so many of his teachings with this phrase. It’s the beginning of many of his most well-known parables. The kingdom of God is like treasure hidden in a field. The kingdom of God is like a pearl of great worth. The kingdom of God is like yeast in flour. The kingdom of God, we hear today, is like a seed that grows on its own. The kingdom of God is like the smallest of seeds, with exponential growth in its future.

At the end of these parables, we hear that Jesus did not speak to the listening crowds except in parables, although he did explain everything privately to his disciples. So, what is a parable? How are supposed to understand them? And wouldn’t things have been a lot easier if Jesus had just explained publicly the point he was trying to get across?

Yes, I’m sure it would have been easier. But I’m not sure it would be better for us. Jesus’ parables are stories, or short comparisons that put together seemingly unrelated things. The kingdom of God and a seed. The kingdom of God and a gardener. The kingdom of God and a woman baking bread. Ordinary things.

Parables don’t have easy answers. We rarely get an explanation of what the parable means, and so we are left to struggle with them. Parables often question our assumptions and shed new light on things we accept without question. They ask us to see with new eyes.

Yes, Jesus could have simply told us the answers. And we could have memorized them and known them. But as any student who’s just finished their finals could tell us, learning by rote memorization will only get you so far. It might get you a good grade on the test, but you’re more likely to forget it than something you had to struggle with, experiment with, and come to conclusions about yourself.

And so Jesus tells us parables. Because the Kingdom of God is not like having an easy answer, but the Kingdom of God is like wrestling with our assumptions. The Kingdom of God is like testing our preconceptions. The Kingdom of God is like viewing things a new way.

I should say something, just briefly, about the “Kingdom” of God. That’s the traditional translation for what Jesus says, but it might not be the most helpful. We often think of kingdoms as places, nations, countries. Jesus isn’t talking about a physical place, but a different way of being. A way where God’s will for humanity is being realized. Perhaps a better word might be the reign of God. Whenever we are living in the new reality inaugurated by Jesus, we are living in the Reign of God.

So, what do these parables have to say about what the Kingdom of God—the Reign of God—is like? It is like a plant growing on its own, automatically. It both surprises and mystifies us. The farmer is able to help the seeds along but, at the end of the day, cannot force them to grow. They must do that on their own.

The Kingdom of God is like a mustard seed, the smallest of seeds which, when it is grown, becomes a mighty shrub. So big even that birds will nest in its branches. A mighty shrub. Never say that Jesus isn’t funny. He could have compared the kingdom of God to the cedars of Lebanon, towering over the landscape, majestic and imposing. But instead he picks the biggest of all…shrubs.

So, the Kingdom of God isn’t necessarily something majestic or grandiose to look at. At least from our eyes. But it is mighty. Mustard is a weed, you know. It will grow and spread and completely take over a landscape, infiltrating every area. It’s difficult to control, and very difficult to eradicate. It wasn’t something you would plant, or try to cultivate, for that very reason—you can’t control it.

And Jesus says: this is the kingdom of God. Often unwanted, seen as a nuisance. But once it’s taken root, good luck getting rid of it. Good luck keeping it contained to one neat little area. We cannot relegate the kingdom of God to a “proper” place. We cannot carve out a separate, sacred space for the Kingdom and think that it will not sneak into all the other places as well and take them over, too.

And that includes within ourselves. We cannot partition ourselves and have our faith only impact some areas of our lives. Only be relevant to some of our decisions and not others. There is no such thing as an apolitical kingdom of God. There is no such thing as an economically neutral kingdom of God. There is no such thing as a kingdom of God that is not interested in our lived, embodied existence, in our relationships, in how we treat each other. We cannot separate our faith in Jesus into one neat area of our lives.

When we are faced with moral dilemmas, our faith must be part of the conversation. When we are faced with political decisions, our faith must be part of the conversation. When we are faced with economic choices, our faith must be part of the conversation. I’m not suggesting that there is only one right answer to any of these difficult questions. But when our faith is not part of how we seek our answer, that is a problem.

Right now, on our southern border, children are being torn away from their parents. Children are being kept in holding facilities by the thousands. There is not an easy solution to the immigration and refugee crisis facing, not just our country, but the world. I’m not saying that there is. But, as people of faith, we must say that whatever the solution will be, it does not start with this. It does not start with dehumanizing children. It does not start with destroying families.

We cannot separate our faith from the real-world situations we find ourselves in. Faith doesn’t work like that. The Kingdom of God doesn’t work like that. It refuses to be kept in a neat and tidy box. It is like the mustard seed, growing and spreading with abandon, taking over wherever it will.

These parables of seeds and growth have both promise and provocation within them. The Kingdom of God comes without our help. Without our even understanding it. What great promise that is! It is not all up to us. Even when we feel as though nothing is happening, the seed is not growing, God is at work. It might be imperceptible, it might be painfully slow, but God is at work bringing about growth.

It is like Martin Luther’s explanation of the Lord’s Prayer: “What do we mean when we say, “Your kingdom come?” “In fact,” Luther writes, “God’s kingdom comes on its own without our prayer, but we ask in this prayer that it may also come to us.” We ask that the kingdom may also come to us.

We ask that we might have our assumptions challenged. That we might question things we take for granted. That we might see with new eyes, the reign of God. Paul describes what it is like to live in that reign in 2 Corinthians: From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view.

When we pray, “your kingdom come,” we ask that we might see the world through God’s point of view. That we might let God’s kingdom take root in us, knowing ultimately it might get out of our control. Let’s hope it does.

Who do you listen to?

Below is my sermon from June 10, the third Sunday after Pentecost. It focuses on the readings from Genesis and Mark, which both deal with the question of discernment. How do we determine what is good and what is evil? Or, in my title, who (or what) are you listening to? As I mention in the beginning of my sermon, both of these readings start somewhat abruptly. It wouldn’t be a bad idea to read from the beginnings of the chapters to get some context.

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

I was tempted to begin this sermon by starting in the middle, as our readings from Genesis and Mark do today. Sometimes picking up right in the middle of a story can be interesting, but other times, like today I think, it’s often confusing.

This Genesis reading is a really well-known story, and maybe that’s why the powers that be thought we could start in the middle. But the thing about well-known stories is, we often remember our own version of the story, rather than what it actually says, so I’d like to spend a little bit of time focusing on this story of Adam and Eve.

Except they aren’t called Adam and Eve, not yet. They’re just the man and the woman. Prior to our reading, they had been instructed by God to live in the garden, and do pretty much whatever they wanted, as long as they didn’t eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

But along comes this serpent, who the Bible tells us is very crafty. And he strikes up a conversation with the woman and convinces her to eat by telling her that eating the fruit will make her like God. And she gives some of the fruit to her husband, who was with her, and he eats, too. That’s a detail we miss a lot. The man is with the woman the whole time. He’s not some unsuspecting bystander, he knows exactly where this fruit is coming from.

And their eyes are opened and they are ashamed of themselves. Ashamed of their nakedness. Ashamed of their humanness. This is where our lesson this morning picked up. Ashamed, they hide from God, who, because of their disobedience condemns the snake to crawl for their rest of its days, and also casts the man and the woman out of the garden.

This story raises so many more questions than answers. Didn’t God know all along that the man and woman would eat this fruit? Why did God put the tree there in the first place? Who created the serpent—God? How are Adam and Eve supposed to know what they’re doing is wrong if they don’t yet have the knowledge of good and evil? Bible stories like this are meant to make us wrestle with big questions—questions to which there are no easy answers.

There’s too many questions for one sermon, and I’d like to focus on just one: how do we discern what is good and what is evil? Or, put another way, to whose voice do we listen? The man and the woman were told one thing by God (do not eat from that tree) and another by the serpent (you can eat that, it’s good). Why did they choose to listen to the serpent over God?

They knew what God said, they knew that God had only been good to them, and yet they did not listen. It reminds me a little of a time when, flying home with my family, I bought one of those huge Toblerone bars in the duty-free shop. Like, five pounds of chocolate. My mom told me, “Don’t eat all of that chocolate during the flight.” I was a teenager. She shouldn’t have even had to tell me that. I knew she was right. But you can all guess where this story is going. Despite knowing that I shouldn’t, I ate all the chocolate. And I still can’t eat more than a tiny piece of Toblerone at a time.

Adam and Eve chose not to listen to God, but instead to listen to the serpent, to listen to their own desires instead of the will of God. Adam and Eve knew what they were doing was against God’s will. They had it pretty easy, if you ask me. They literally saw and talked to God and knew exactly what God wanted of them. And still they screwed it up.

How do we, who don’t have the luxury of hearing directly from God’s lips, decide what is good and what is evil? How do we decide what is from God and what is not? Discernment, making these decisions about good and evil, is not easy.

The scribes in our gospel reading come down from Jerusalem to meet this Jesus who is making such a fuss. And they see his power and they discern that he is from Satan. Now, this story would be easier if the scribes were purely evil. They’re not. They are the educated religious and cultural elite committed to maintaining domestic and religious life in challenging times.

They recognize Jesus’ power: the power that has cast out demons and healed the sick. And yet the scribes confuse good for evil and evil for good. They say that Jesus and his work are evil, are from Satan. Now, Satan is not some little man with a pitchfork and a spiked tail. We don’t think of the devil in that way anymore. But we would be kidding ourselves if we did not acknowledge that, while we don’t believe in a physical devil, there are still powers of evil that continue to seek our allegiance. That continue, like the serpent, to try to make us confuse good for evil and evil for good.

They have even craftier names nowadays. Nationalism, which will tell us that good and evil are relative, so long as our nation is safe; which allows us disregard fellow human beings, simply because they come from another country. Patriarchy, which has its very roots in today’s Genesis reading, tells us that human beings are not equal, and that it’s okay for us to treat some as less than. Racism, which does much the same thing along the falsely constructed lines of race. Consumerism, which tells us that what we have and what we own determines our worth and our power over others. And that insidious idea that comes from so many corners that tells us that we are never good enough: never rich enough, pretty enough, smart enough, important enough. We must always be seeking to improve.

These voices are crafty like the serpent, because they usually don’t seem all that evil on the surface. In fact, they often seem good. So how do we know what is good and what is evil? The easiest way to tell might be to look at the outcomes. Listening to these voices of evil sows divisions and alienations—which is exactly what they want. When the man and the woman stand accused by God, things go south quickly.

The man blames the woman, and blames God for giving him the woman in the first place. The woman blames the serpent. And so it goes. The voices of evil which seek our allegiance want to turn us against each other, rather than toward each other. They want us to be divided from each other. A house divided cannot stand. And evil wants us to fail.

But the voice of Jesus, the voice of God, says something different to us: do not be confused. Call evil, evil; and good, good. Do not divide your allegiance, do not divide your very self, but belong to God. The people around him, including his family, thought that Jesus was out of his mind. Maybe he was. But maybe that’s what we need to be, too.

To trust so much in God’s promises that people call us crazy. To believe that all people are made in God’s image, that no one is any less worthy of love and respect because of their gender or the color of their skin or their nation of origin. To believe God when God says that we are enough. That we don’t have to be anything other than what we are to be loved.

There are so many voices seeking our attention, trying to claim us. And it is not always easy to know the good from the evil. Life would be much simpler if it were. The serpent is crafty, but God will not let the serpent get the last word. Let us cling to the voice of God, which says that we are brothers and sisters. Which says that we are enough. Which says that there is always room for more at the table of grace. And which, at the end of the day, when all the other voices fade away, says that we are loved. Amen.

Sabbath

What is the Sabbath? Who is it for? These are the questions that take center stage in our reading from Mark. How are you doing with Sabbath in your life? Who do you see around you that needs to be released in order to experience Sabbath?

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

What comes to your mind when I say the word, “Sabbath?” Perhaps it’s the idea of a rest or a break, a respite, or a vacation. Maybe you think of church. The third commandment telling us to “remember the Sabbath, to keep it holy.” Maybe you were forced to memorize Martin Luther’s Small Catechism for confirmation, and so when I say, “Sabbath,” you immediately think: We are to fear and love God, so that we do not despise preaching or God’s word, but instead keep that word holy and gladly hear and learn from it.

Or maybe you think of the blue laws that used to be in effect in many states, restricting what types of activities were acceptable practices on Sundays. It wasn’t that long ago that liquor stores were closed on Sundays, and not too long before that that almost every store was closed for a Sabbath rest. But what is Sabbath really? Who is it for, what good does it serve?

These are the questions at play in Jesus’ arguments with some Pharisees in today’s Gospel reading. Now, it’s easy to take these arguments and look down on the Pharisees. They seem single-mindedly focused on following the law to the detriment of caring for others. But our gospels do us a disservice in their portrayal of the Pharisees. They are often depicted as very one-dimensional characters, when in fact they were a complex group. In many ways they were a reforming group, trying to help the people of Israel worship God everywhere, not just the Temple. And so they were concerned with the law—how to apply the law in different circumstances. They are doing their best to help people follow the law by interpreting the law.

Jesus is doing the same thing—only he comes up with a different interpretation, and so we have these two arguments about keeping the Sabbath in our reading. Is it lawful to harvest grain on the Sabbath, and is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath? Or, as Jesus puts it: what is the Sabbath about, life or death?

Jesus interprets the law through this lens: The Sabbath is about giving life. And so, life-giving activities are indeed allowed on the Sabbath. What if we could reclaim that idea that the Sabbath is about life-giving? All recent studies have shown that Americans are not really good at Sabbath. We’re working longer hours and seeing it as a badge of honor. A lot of people—myself included—often don’t use all of our vacation days. Every bit of down time is filled with more and more activities: sports, bands, arts. And then there are those who have no option but to work every waking hour, two or three jobs, just to make ends meet. They do not have the privilege or the luxury of Sabbath.

Sabbath is more than just a quick rest—a nap or a vacation. Sabbath rest is oriented towards life and the things that bring abundant life. The first Sabbath ever is in the Genesis account of God creating the heavens and the earth. In six days, God does God’s work: bringing forth life out of nothing-ness, creating order out of chaos, delighting in the goodness of God’s work. And then, on the seventh day, God rests.

God’s work isn’t finished. The story of God and God’s people is only just beginning, and yet God rests. God rests in order to be able to continue to give life and create life. And in our reading from Deuteronomy, we hear the reason that God commands the people to keep the Sabbath. Because they were slaves, forced to work every day, they ought to now rest one day a week. And not just them, but all of their slaves, the immigrants in their land, even their animals, need to rest. Need to be rejuvenated. Sabbath is intended for everyone. For all creation.

Jesus says that Sabbath was created for humans, not humans for the Sabbath. I think, because it’s a commandment, we sometimes confuse the purpose of the Sabbath. We start to think of it as something we do to honor God, or to make ourselves “holy.” But God created the Sabbath as a gift to us. Perhaps God knew we’d need to be forced to slow down. God definitely knew that without Sabbath, we would be off-kilter. We would forget that we belong to God and not to our labor. We would forget that we belong to each other, instead of just using each other for gain. The Sabbath is a gift meant to force us to stop and to remember to whom we belong.

When was the last time you took a Sabbath? It can feel almost impossible. The demands of work, of family, of all of our activities can make it feel selfish to take time to be idle. And the demands of our culture can make Sabbath feel like a self-centered waste of time. With all of the very real, moral crises in our nation and world—from guns and school shooting, to the refugee crisis and the separation of children and parents, to the ever-present sin of racism—taking time for Sabbath can feel like being an ostrich burying its head in the sand.

But Sabbath is not an escape. Sabbath is not forsaking the world’s problems. Sabbath is for the sake of the world’s problems. Sabbath rest is rest that anticipates action for the sake of life once again.

In our Gospel story where Jesus ignites these Sabbath controversies, it is not because he does not believe or honor the importance of the Sabbath. In fact, it is because he honors it so much that it is offensive. If the Sabbath is about the people being free, he looks around and asks: who is not free right now? On that day, it was the man with the withered hand, bound by his disability in a time when it meant not being about to work or be a whole part of the community. And when faced with bondage and captivity, Jesus gives freedom.

From what do you need Sabbath? What are you captive to? Is it the constant demands and pressures of your work? Is it the pressure of our social media world, always needing to present the perfect image? Is it perhaps something deeper—are you captive to your own insecurities and doubts? Are you captive to fear of change or inaction?

We all have things that hold us captive. That seek to keep us from being the free people of God. “Stretch out your hand,” says Jesus. Stretch out that part of yourself, whatever it is that is keeping you from being whole. From being healed. As we say in the prayer of confession, we cannot free ourselves. But God can. The good news of Jesus is that God comes to free us from the things that bind us. God freed the people from Pharaoh and God continues to set us free today.

The Sabbath is for us. The Sabbath is God’s great gift of freedom to a world desperately in need of it. And as we are freed by God, given the gift of rest by God, we need to ask as Jesus did: who is still bound? Who does not have Sabbath? Rest is essential—even God rested. We rest so that we might join God in love for the sake of the world. Let us thank God for the gift of Sabbath today. And renewed by that gift, let us join God in love and active service. Amen.