Let this sermon bury the dead (or something like that)

I’m preaching this Sunday. This Sunday’s texts from 1 Kings 19:15-16, 19-21; Galatians 5:1, 13-25; and, Luke 9:51-62 bring up images of call, service, and freedom. And the Soup Dragons (kind of). And Monty Python. And some personal wrestling about taking leave from my ministry here a two months ago to say goodbye to my father and tend to my father’s funeral.

1 Kings 19
In the first reading the prophet Elijah is called by God to anoint a new prophet and a new king. Change is underfoot.

A new prophet? I can’t help but wonder if God here is firing Elijah for his slaughter of the prophets of Baal, and his subsequent hiding from King Ahab and Queen Jezebel. Just before today’s part of the story, Elijah had a dramatic standoff with the prophets of Baal, and after the standoff he kills them all. That, predictably, angered the King who, though called to be faithful to the God of Israel, had sponsored these prophets of a Canaanite God.

[For some folks from New Joy the following commentary might ring familiar. I preached a sermon on this last fall, or last summer, I think.]

So Elijah runs and hides in a mountain cave. God follows him and asks, not once but twice, “What are you doing here?” I can’t help but hear God asking this question with the annoyed – or even angry – tone of a parent finding a child in the wrong place at the wrong time. After twice reciting his response about being passionate for the LORD, that everybody else has abandoned God, and that he is alone in being faithful, God fires him. “Anoint Elisha from Abel-meholah, Shaphat’s son, to succeed you as prophet” (1 Kings 19:16). You’re done, Elijah.

Elijah then goes to Elisha and throws his mantle on him, a sign that prophetic leadership has transferred from Elijah to Elisha. Elisha understands what has happened, how is life is about to change, and asks to return home to bid farewell to his family. Elijah blesses him to do so. Slaughtering his animals as a sign that his old life has come to an end, Elisha takes up the mantle and follows Elijah in this new calling.

Luke 9:51-62
This Elijah/Elisha story contrasts somewhat with Luke 9:51-62, where Jesus rebukes his disciples who, taking a page from Elijah’s playbook, want to send fire from heaven to destroy a community of people who would not welcome Jesus. Yet where Elijah got it wrong with his treatment of the prophets of Baal, he gives much more leeway than Jesus does in blessing his disciple to bid his family a proper farewell before starting the new gig.

This Gospel passage takes place “as the time approached when Jesus was to be taken into heaven,” marking – as the 1 Kings reading does – a shift. Change is underfoot.

In preparation for “[being] taken into heaven,” Jesus journeys to Jerusalem. Along this road he will run into people whose interactions with Jesus reveal insights about his mission and Kingdom. A village of Samaritans rejects Jesus, but also three would-be followers and disciples seek to follow him. Jesus has no interest in quarreling with the Samaritans (though the disciples clearly want to reign fire and fury on them), and he simply passes them by. But to each of the three would-be followers Jesus does not extend the warm, “Come, follow me” invitation he uses when calling his twelve disciples earlier in his ministry. Instead, he offers caution and harsh words about the path he walks.

“Wherever you go, Lord, I will follow.”
“Follow me? Even wild animals have places to rest, but not me. Not my followers. This ain’t going to be an easy road to trod. At all.”

“Hey you. Follow me.”
“Coming, Jesus. Just first, let me go back and bury my father.”
“That’s not how this works. Let the dead bury the dead. But you, go proclaim the Kingdom of God.”

“Jesus, I will follow you, just as soon as I say goodbye to my parents. I’ll be right back.”
“Really? The Kingdom’s ahead of you. There’s no room for looking back in God’s Kingdom.”

Ouch.

What do we make of Jesus’ harsh words, after he rebuked the harsh designs of his disciples against the Samaritans? Do we take him at face value that one cannot follow Jesus and bury a parent or bid farewell to them? Well, yes and no.

Jesus speaks in hyperbole, after all. Faith the size of a mustard seed can move mountains. If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. If you cause someone else to sin, tie a stone around your neck and throw yourself into a lake. These are not precise prescriptions, step-by-step instructions for Christian living. Instead, these are colorful exaggerations intended to make a point, but not to prescribe specific behavior or clearly define the life of faith.

So too here. When Jesus tells the would-be follower to let the dead bury the dead, he is warning that the call to discipleship demands our attention and our lives. Plus, its a call to new life. Death – and burial of the dead – has no ultimate place in this Kingdom.

[Interpretations that the man’s father wasn’t actually dead yet – but that instead this excuse to “go and bury my father” was simply a way to delay the answer to Christ’s call – feel good, and serve to make Jesus’ words less harsh. But I just don’t see that interpretation supported in the text. Luke could have told us that the man’s story was hogwash … but he doesn’t. I think such readings of the text are meant to make us feel better about a Jesus who is, frankly, sometimes offensive and often demanding.]

And when Jesus scolds the would-be disciple who wants to bid farewell to his family, Jesus reveals the dramatic calling of the Kingdom – that God’s Kingdom could even come between us and our own flesh and blood. Choosing between God and the Devil is (relatively) easy, after all. But choosing between God and family? Well, that’s harder.

Two months ago I took leave from my ministry to go home, say goodbye to my father, and tend to his funeral. To no small extent I am the man in the Gospel saying to Jesus, “Yes, I’ll follow, but first let me ….” And I’m so glad I took that time. Jesus is Lord, I am not, and in those two weeks the Kingdom of God did not fail to come because I went home to grieve. Certainly, as with the would-be disciple whom Jesus declared not fit for the Kingdom because he wanted to first say goodbye to his family, I am not fit for the Kingdom. But that’s the point. I am not fit for the Kingdom. Neither are you. None of us are. If we were, we wouldn’t need Jesus, his mercy, and his grace in the first place.

So what do we do with Jesus’ words? Are we to neglect funerals for the Kingdom, or abandon our family when we hear the call? No. At least, not because of what Jesus says in these verses. As hyperbole, these sayings serve a function not of literal instruction but of moral and theological emphasis. We cannot adhere to them strictly – to try to do so would be idiotic. Instead, these sayings instead serve as a kind of law. Martin Luther talked about the law being so hard to fulfill that it drove us to our knees to seek forgiveness and mercy from God. We cannot give Jesus and his Kingdom the kind of loyalty and attention it demands. At least, I know I can’t. Jesus’ words in this passage are exaggerated yet true – they can be both at the same time – showing us the all-encompassing claims of the Kingdom and, in so doing, revealing to us our own lack of fitness for God’s Kingdom.

So where does that leave us?

Galatians 5:1, 13-25
That leaves us to the reading from Galatians. In this passage we hear Saint Paul’s powerful description of Christian freedom. “You were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only don’t let this freedom be an opportunity to indulge your selfish impulses, but serve each other through love” (Galatians 5:13).

In his life, death, and resurrection, Jesus frees us from the power of sin. This is the heart of the Gospel. But what is the purpose of that freedom? To go to heaven? Sure. But, what about before then? Too often as Americans we think of freedom only in terms of what we’re free from. Free from tyranny. Free from debt. Free from oppression. But free … for what? Too often we answer that this freedom is for ourselves.

Saint Paul writes in Galatians 5 that we are freed from the power of sin for the purpose of serving our neighbor. Martin Luther echoed Saint Paul when he wrote, “A Christian is a free Lord, servant to none. The Christian is a dutiful servant, subject to all” (The Freedom of a Christian). Many historians interpret Luther as among the first freedom fighters, setting in motion efforts to topple hierarchies and rulers in Europe and the Americas, and ultimately the individualistic ethos that characterizes the West. That’s too simplistic, and certainly wasn’t Luther’s intent. For Luther, and for Saint Paul, freedom is not (something we use) for ourselves, but (something we use) for others.

We are free from having to fulfill the law to please God.
We are free from having to climb the ladder of righteousness into heaven.
We are free from having to prove ourselves worthy of God’s mercy.
We are free from having to live perfect lives to earn ourselves a seat in God’s Kingdom.
We are free from all this, for the purposes of loving and serving our neighbor.

Freed from having to prove ourselves, live perfectly, demonstrate our worthiness, we instead pour that energy and effort into our neighbor. We don’t have to earn the free gift our Lord gives; instead, we are free to use that gift for the sake of others. All of Christian living is a call to humility, to service, to sacrifice, to putting the needs of others before our own (Philippians 2:4). Being a Christian is about following Christ in service to our neighbors.

Hence, when Jesus rebukes his disciples for wanting to send fire down from heaven, he rebukes them for having their interests, their anger, their desires first and foremost in mind. No! We serve others. And serving others begins with not killing them (duh!), and letting them be even if and when they reject us. But it goes much beyond that, too.

When the would-be disciples come to Jesus and ask to follow, Jesus reminds them just how hard it is to put the needs of others before the needs of their family and themselves. These echo what Saint Paul writes in Philippians 2, that we are called to put the needs of others before our own. Or again, in Galatians 6, that when we bear the burdens of others we fulfill the law of Christ. Christian living and identity is entirely wrapped up in the care and welfare of our neighbors – a life that is free for the sake of the world.

A peace that changes everything

Below is the sermon I preached on May 26, the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend, while overseas on deployment. The readings for this Sunday were Acts 16:9-15, Psalm 67, Revelation 21:10, 22–22:5, and John 14:23-29, available by clicking here.

Grace to you and peace, from the One who is, who was, and who is to come. Amen.

[singing]
“Peace on earth, and mercy mild. God and sinners reconcile.
Joyful all you nations rise, join the triumph of the skies …”

Peace on earth. It’s on our Christmas cards,
emblazoned on scented Christmas candles,
printed on large banners streaming across church entranceways
and lit up on household Christmas lawn decorations.

Peace on earth, the angels proclaimed.
“My peace I give to you,” our Savior promised.
Peace.

What does peace look like?

Last Sunday at the Morehouse College graduation in Atlanta, Georgia,
commencement speaker and tech investor Robert F. Smith
made a surprise announcement –
that he would pay off the student loan debt
of each of the graduates in the class.
396 students.
Millions of dollars of debt.
Paid!

If you’ve ever paid off a long-lasting debt, you know the relief.
If you’re currently paying off a long-term debt,
you can probably imagine the relief.

Mr Smith’s gift will radically transform the lives of these students.
It could change their career path,
being able to work for less pay in the short term
rather than go for a paycheck in a job that crushes their soul.
Graduates may more quickly settle down to buy a house,
not saddled with student debt.
 These young adults may now have the chance to live more generously,
able both to provide for themselves, give to church and charity,
and look after family without concern for that massive debt bill.

What a relief.
What a peace that has come upon these students.
It’s a peace that has changed their lives.
It’s a peace that allows them to live differently.

Peace. A peace that allows us to live differently.

Christ gives his followers such a peace.

“Peace I leave with you,” he says in John 14:27.
“My peace I give to you.
I give to you not as the world gives.
Don’t be troubled or afraid.”

This is a peace that allows his followers to live differently,
without trouble or fear,
without concern for how the world gives,
or the peace that the world promises
but which always. falls. short.
Always.
This peace is different.
The peace of Christ allows his followers to live differently.
We see that in each of today’s readings. Let’s take a tour

Today’s first reading comes to us from Acts 19.
A few chapters earlier in the Book of Acts – back in chapter 9 –
Paul experiences a conversion.
He once persecuted and attacked Christians;
but now he had received the peace of Christ
which allowed him to live differently.
He now proclaimed the freedom of the Gospel,
the promise of Christ.

So let’s go to the first reading, in the book Acts 16, starting at verse 9.
It begins with the Apostle Paul having visions of where to travel,
where to proclaim the Gospel.
These visions lead him to a Roman colony called Philippi.
On the Sabbath he goes outside the city gates to the riverbank,
where he thought there would be a place to pray.
Note here that
A) he didn’t really know if there was a place to pray or not,
and that,
B), he left the city gates.

In ancient urban design, city gates were barriers meant to keep
the good and proper and accepted in,
and to keep the bad, the improper, and the rejected out.
You were either in or you were out.
The wall was a visible reminder of that fact.

Remember that the rough-around-the-edges,
locust-eating, camel’s hair cloth wearing preacher John the Baptist
preached in the wilderness, far from Jerusalem’s city gates,
and baptized in the river,
not in a synagogue or the proper temple,
or the town square.
But God did something outside those city gates.

Remember that Jesus himself was executed on a cross
not in the center of town, but outside of the town, at the edge,
where such dirty and sundry things were done.
Outside.
But God did something outside those city gates.

And so here, again, we hear a cue – outside the city gates
and we realize that something of barrier-crossing, is happening,
that something to shake up the status quo, is about to take place,
because every time barriers are crossed by the Spirit of God –
with John the Baptist, Jesus of Nazareth, or Paul of Tarsus –
something’s about to happen.

So Paul goes outside the city gates and meets some women by the river,
and he begins to talk with them.
Again, cue Jesus, who often spoke to women
and then was invariably questioned or even chastised
both by his disciples and by the Pharisees for doing so!
But Paul goes there, anyway, breaking cultural and religious norms
for the sake of the Gospel.

Among the women in the crowd gathered by the river was one named Lydia,
whom Scripture describes as a seller of purple,
and whom tradition has magnified into being a merchant of some means.

One scholar, Dr. Mary Turner of Pacific School of Theology,
suggests that the proper understanding of the original Greek
reveals that Lydia was less a wealthy merchant
than someone who actually made the purple fabric with her own hands,
a laborer, a craftsperson, an artisan herself, not a dealer.

And in those days, the making of fabric was not an esteemed job,
in part because it was an inelegant process.
Dye houses had a terrible odor
because the process of dying involved the use of animal urine –
thus, dye houses were placed outside the city gates,
because who wants to live or work near such a place?
Those who worked with the dye were marked, literally, by their profession;
their skin, their arms, were discolored,
and this condition stigmatized them as laborers doing menial work,
outside the city gates.

And yet, by the peace of Christ, Paul goes there.
He goes outside the city gates,
crossing barriers and breaking taboos for the sake of the Gospel
and the sake of those whom God so loves.

This is what the peace of Christ does – it calls Paul, and all of us, to live differently,
to go beyond the walls of human division,
to break down the barriers that would separate God’s people,
and to seek peace, community, and fellowship with others,
particularly those whom society would reject.

And not only does Paul go to Lydia and the women there,
but he receives her hospitality to stay in her house –
which is quite possibly that urine-stenched workshop I just described.
This gesture was more than mere kindness on her part,
but instead extending hospitality was a tenant of faith
and a sign of fellowship with God
in ancient Jewish and Christian communities.
Paul accepts this gift, and communes with Lydia and with God there,
outside the city gates, with the stench of urine wafting in the air.

The peace of Christ calls us to live, and to live differently.

The vision of the New Heaven and a New Earth
is certainly different than the vision of how we live now.
Turn to Revelation, in the back of your Bible, chapter 21,
starting at verse 22, and going into the next chapter.

John the Seer, the recipient of the vision that makes up this book,
describes a “new heaven and a new earth,” starting earlier in Chapter 21.
A New Jerusalem is coming down out of the heavens,
and a loud voice announces
that God’s dwelling place is with humanity.
Any separation that people once felt from God has been taken away.
Death will be no more, and God will wipe every tear away from our eyes.
The former things, the former ways of living, have passed away.
All things are made new.

In today’s reading we see that this city has no temple –
which was the cornerstone of Jerusalem,
the promised dwelling place of God.
But this New Jerusalem requires no such temple,
because the Lord God Almighty himself will be the temple,
and his glory will shine so bright that no sun or moon is needed.

And – here’s where we get to that part about living differently –
the nations will walk by this light.
The gates to the New Jerusalem will never be shut.
There will be no night, nothing vile, nothing deceitful.
That just sounds amazing,
and it stands in stark contrast to this world-that-God-so-loves
yet which is, in places, sadly broken and marred by sin.

The vision of the peace of Christ, the vision of God’s promised future,
is one of a life lived differently,
of a world, of the nations, living differently,
at peace with one another.

Life, lived differently, because of Christ.

Lastly, let’s turn to our call to worship, to Psalm 67.

As the nations stream into the New Jerusalem of Revelation 21 and 22,
I imagine them singing Psalm 67
in a grand parade of joy and celebration
streaming into the city’s open gates, led by the light of God’s glory.
For this is a song of praise that is filled with the hope
that all people would know the salvation of our God,
the blessings, the promise, the bounty, the goodness of God.

“Let God grant us grace and bless us;
let God make his face shine on us,
so that your way becomes known on earth,
so that your salvation becomes known among the nations …”

Jumping ahead a few verses,
“Let the people celebrate and shout with joy,
because you judge the nations fairly
and guide all nations on the earth.”

All the nations of the earth are there, guided by God,
pouring into the New Jerusalem,
living differently in the peace of Christ.

Oh, we who work in the warring profession,
trained to take up arms and defend neighbor and nation
against any that would harm us,
we – especially you have been there,
in the pressure of the battle –
we know, you know,
that this vision of Psalm 67 and of Revelation 21 and 22
is a stark contrast to what we’ve seen in this region
over the past 16+ years.

So, do we dare to believe the words of Scripture,
do we dare to trust in the promise of what will be,
that a life lived in the peace of Christ changes us and the world,
allowing us to live differently and create, by God’s grace,
a different kind of world?

Or, do we trust what our eyes have seen,
what our ears have heard,
what our hearts have felt,
and our souls have suffered
about the cost of war and humanity’s brokenness?

Do we read the roll call of battle buddies lost to war
and expect more of the same,
or do we dare believe that there is a scroll of life in that New Jerusalem
bearing the names of all of God’s beloved
and showing forth the promise of a different kind of formation,
a different way of living,
in the Kingdom of God?

Yes, and yes.

Dear friends in Christ, we live between these two worlds –
the world as it is, and the world as God promises it will be.
As Paul writes in Ephesians 2:19,
we are citizens with the saints and members of the household of God.
This is our highest loyalty. This is our ultimate destiny.

Yes, we resist the ways of the world,
yet we are called by our Lord to be as wise as snakes
and as innocent as doves for as long as we are in it (Matthew 10:16).
We engage in this craft of waging war
not for the sake of seeking what the world gives,
because that’s an empty promise,
but to minimize the worst of what the world has to offer,
and to make room for our neighbors and nation
to see the world at some semblance of peace
so that they might know the greater peace of Christ our Lord.

We who are given the peace of Christ,
whose names are written on the scroll of life in the New Jerusalem,
who are emboldened by the peace of Christ and by Paul’s example
to break the barriers of this world,
we have a call and a duty to know the promises of God,
of what is and what will be,
to not forget
what the peace of Christ means for us and for the world,
how this peace enables us to live differently,
and how this peace changes everything.
Yes, we have a duty and a call to hold onto this peace,
even as we, with great reticence,
are at times compelled to wage war.

This peace is nothing of our doing, but instead is a gift.
Note what Jesus says back in John 14 – my peace I give to you.
There are no conditions.
There are no five steps to earn this peace.
No boards to pass.
No test to take.
No top block to grab.

Nothing. This peace of Christ is a free gift,
given to you and to us
in a way that is entirely unlike how anything in this world works,
with all its conditions and strings attached
and distorted sense of merit.

No. Christ is different. His gift of peace is different.
And it changes everything.

May the peace of God, which surpasses all human understanding,
keep our hearts and our minds in Christ Jesus our Lord,
the One whose life lived differently
makes possible a different way of life
for us and for this world that God so loves.

In Jesus’ name.
Amen.

Let us pray:
Gracious God,
we give you thanks for this gift of peace.
Grant that we who have received this promise
would steward, would care for, would nurture this gift,
so that,
in how we live and work, speak and serve,
your Son’s peace would shine forth from our lives
and extend to those around us.
O God in heaven,
make us instruments of your peace,
and renew us again and again as
dutiful, honorable Soldiers called to defend, protect, and sacrifice
not for ourselves, but on behalf of our neighbor and nation.
Guide us always by your light,
write our names on the scroll of life,
and give us, at the last, the promise of your salvation.
In Jesus’ name we pray.
Amen.

Putting Everything on the Table, In Faith – Acts 15

I haven’t been posting sermons here recently … but this one on Acts 15, and the bold faith of those first believers to trust in and be moved by the Spirit to do a new thing, is one I wanted to share. I believe that the church today is in an Acts 15 moment.

Preached on Sunday, April 28

Grace to you and peace, from the One who is, who was, and who is to come. Amen.

“If the people lead, the leaders will follow.”

This is sometimes true.
Leaders often take a pulse, barometer of people,
read what the people are already doing, and only then make decisions.

In the Early Church, the leaders of those first Church Councils decided
upon the Books of the Bible in large part simply by seeing and accepting
what the local churches, what the people, were already reading.
In American history, the constitutional amendment repealing prohibition
was less a bold act of leadership than it was an acknowledgement
of what people were already doing.

Sometimes, often, the people lead, and the leaders simply follow.

In today’s reading from Acts 15, the leaders made a profound decision.
Huge decision. Paradigm-shifting decision.
But, they were merely following what the people – and God’s Spirit – were already doing.
What the people were doing, what God’s Spirit was doing, was profound,
huge, paradigm-shifting.
The Council only recognized it and went along with it.

So what, exactly, were some of those first Christians doing?
They were doing a new thing in faith, in stark contrast to the tradition they received,
in stark contrast to the familiar ways of doing things,
and indeed, in stark contrast to God’s Word itself.
Indeed, on the surface, what they were doing was heresy – Spirit-filled, Spirit-led heresy.

You see, Jesus was a faithful Jew, and the first followers of his were Jews, too,
as were the broader group of Jews who followed his work closely,
including the Pharisees.
Devout Jews observed the Law as a sign of the promises God made to them.
Following the Law – including circumcision, dietary laws, Sabbath laws,
and other such laws – was a way to live faithfully as God’s people,
to follow God’s command, to be a sign and a witness to the world of who you are
and whose you are.
These laws were a big deal. BIG deal. HUGE deal.
Even re-interpreted, so much of Jesus’ work has to do with the law,
and how it is to be followed.
Let’s think of groups today and their distinctive practices.
The Amish reject most forms of modern technology.
Devout Muslims stop everything and pray five times a day, and fast during Ramadan.
Vegetarians do not eat meat.
Vegans do not eat anything derived from animals.
These are distinctive practices that define a group.
Take away these distinctive practice, and the group might not exist,
or at least, might not have as strong an identity and be recognizable.

First century Jews had their distinctive practices. To be a Jew meant to follow the law.
Circumcision. Dietary laws. Sabbath. And more. That is what Jews did.
There was no other way to be a Jew, to be part of God’s chosen people.

And yet, the early Christians – who were Jewish –
had this crazy experience of God’s Spirit moving among them.
Jews from all over the world were coming to faith in Christ,
and Peter and the early Christians were proclaiming the Good News faithfully.
Last week we heard about an Ethiopian – a non-Jew, perhaps – who came to faith.
Philip baptized him.
Then, a few chapters later in Acts, Cornelius, a God-believing Gentile, a Roman Centurion,
is brought to faith and is baptized.
Two non-Jews, brought to faith.
Then, just a little later in Acts, a large number of people were brought to faith in Antioch,
and also these were non-Jews.
And these are only the ones we know about. Surely there were more.

God’s Spirit was moving in ways that were unknown, that were unsettling to the faithful,
ways that were considered heretical because God’s Spirit hadn’t done this before,
moving among the Gentiles in such a way.
God’s law clearly seemed to outline a different experience and life of faith.
Indeed, what was happening was contrary
to much of what they had learned and known about God.
Unsettling, disturbing, baffling … indeed!

But of course, the life and ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus
was also contrary to much of what they had learned and known
about faith and life and death and the way God works.
Indeed, a new thing was underfoot,
and it was unsettling and baffling to those committed
to the established ways of doing things, the God-given ways.
Yet, this new thing was an exciting, uncontainable opening to a whole new population,
a whole new segment of believers previously not considered part of God’s people.
Seeing this new thing at work,
the Council at Jerusalem decided to welcome the Gentiles into the church
without burdening them first with the requirements of the law.
No circumcision. No dietary laws. Just faith and baptism.
And in doing so, the leaders were simply affirming what had already happened,
what the people and the Spirit had already done,
with the Ethiopian Eunuch, Cornelius the Centurion, and the Gentiles in Antioch.
No circumcision. No detailed commitment to the distinctive laws of the covenant.
Just faith and baptism, and the life that flows from that.

I wonder what the Spirit might be up to in the church today,
nearly 2000 years after these events.
What is God doing among Lutherans, nearly 500 years after Luther
nailed the 95 theses to the Wittenberg Church door, starting the Reformation?
What is God up to here on the East Side, and here at Grace,
96 years after starting a new thing through those first saints
who established Grace English Evangelical Lutheran Church,
leaving behind the language and customs of their parents’ and grandparents’ faith?

What is that experience of the Spirit here that we,
established in our patterns and practices of faith for many years –
decades, and centuries –
patterns and practices that are legitimate and wonderful and life-giving,
as were the laws of Moses that fed those first Jewish Christians …
What is the experience of the Spirit
that we might need to work hard to grasp, see, and comprehend?
How might God’s Spirit be moving, how might God be at work in ways earth-shatteringly new,
unsettling, and perhaps even heretical and yet, simultaneously, powerful?

I ask a lot of questions here. I’m not entirely sure how to answer them.
But, let me say this. We have to ask the questions.
We have to put everything on the table.
Sacraments. Sunday worship. Music styles. Worship times.
How we spend our money.
What we expect of our members.
How we speak of God.
What and how we teach and live the faith – among children, and adults.
How we serve our community.
How we act toward one another, how we act toward others,
and how we respond to the real hurts and challenges in our world.
Even, what we eat and drink at Coffee Hour.
Everything on the table and up for negotiation with the movement of God’s Spirit.
Hold nothing back. Put everything on the table. Crazy, huh?

Those first Jewish Christians did just that –
they put their valued and beloved traditions – traditions and laws given by God! –
on the table for the sake of sharing the Gospel with those different from them.
These people were willing to mess with the very Word of God, the command of God,
for the sake of sharing this God with others.
Do you see that? Do you see what they did?
They took something they cherished, something they believed given by God Himself,
and they were able to set it aside for the sake of the outsider.
Rather than make the Gentiles become Jews, that is,
rather than make the outsiders become one of them,
they said “let’s make the church look more like the outsiders.”
Let’s make the church look more like the outsiders.

And you know how they did this, how they could make such a huge leap?
They knew the love and power and comfort of our Lord.
They knew that they could let go of something they cherished and enter into a bold –
and frightening – new future because Jesus was with them,
the one who died and rose again would not abandon them.
And so they let something go, they let something die,
knowing that a new life would blow through them in a new way.

They did this not out of any strategy for survival, self-preservation, or institutional renewal.
They did this in faith in the One who promised to always be with them, unto the end of the age,
the One who comes among them, and us, as an outsider.

Dear friends, our Lord is with us, here and now.
Our traditions and practices, handed down to us over 96 years in this place,
500 years in the Lutheran tradition, and 2000 years of Christianity,
our traditions and distinctive practices of faith have told us this –
God is with us. God is faithful to us. God is not going to leave us. God is with us.
With this comforting knowledge, now what?
Are we at another Acts 15 time in history, at least of some degree?
I think we are.
Where is the Spirit of our God blowing now? Let’s look outside and see.
And, wherever the Spirit is blowing, whoever is caught up in that Spirit,
however the church looks kicked up and remade in the Spirit’s movement,
we know this – Christ is with us.
Christ has been faithful to his church since Day One,
and He promises to be faithful until the Time to Come.
And that, dear friends, is good news.

Amen.

Take Nothing. God Has Given All We Need.

Sermon for the 6th Sunday after Pentecost (Lectionary 14, Year B)
Sunday, July 8, 2012
Grace Lutheran Church, St Paul, MN
The Rev. Chris Duckworth
Sermon text: Mark 6:1-13 (Common English Bible)


Grace to you and peace, from the one who is, who was, and who is to come.  Amen.

 

When my dear wife was doing her graduate study,

we belonged to Prince of Peace Lutheran Church in Princeton Junction, NJ.

We arrived at the same time their new pastor, The Rev. Paul Lutz, arrived there.

He had just completed a several-year call

at our denomination’s central offices in Chicago, IL,

where he directed our church’s approach to and training for adult education,

which was shaped largely by a dynamic understanding of and approach to “discipleship.”

One of the simpler, yet most memorable, things he did at Prince of Peace

immediately upon his arrival there

was to abandon language around being church “members.”

Instead, he talked of us being disciples.

He sent emails and letters addressed to “the disciples of Christ at Prince of Peace,”

and in his sermons he called us Christ’s disciples.

Members belong to clubs. Disciples follow their Lord.

So, we were disciples.

 

Now, let’s be honest.

New pastor arrives and starts calling you disciples. Kinda strange, huh?

Yes, we all understand, in some abstract sense, that we are disciples.

But we are not used to, we’re not comfortable with, using that language.

Because, after all, that puts us in the Biblical story.

That puts us up there with the, well, the disciples of Jesus!

And perhaps in good Lutheran – in good Minnesotan – modesty,

we don’t want to put ourselves on that pedestal,

as if we were in the same league with the disciples …

but I also think this modesty – be it Lutheran, Minnesotan, or something else –

I think this modesty also becomes a bit convenient,

because who really wants to be a disciple?

Being a disciple is hard. Being a members sounds easier.

 

In today’s Gospel reading Jesus goes to his hometown.

Oh, I can identify. I’m heading back to my childhood hometown later this month,

as my family and I make a crazy road trip that will include Philadelphia,

and perhaps a stop at my favorite youth hangout,

a great hamburger and milkshake joint called Nifty Fifty’s.

Now, I don’t expect to be rejected when I go into Nifty Fifty’s

and order a Butterfinger milkshake and a cheesesteak with fried onions.

But Jesus was rejected, and upon his homecoming he was immediately questioned

by the crowd in an accusing, suspicious tone.

Who does this guy think he is? Isn’t he the carpenter? So what’s he doing all these things for?

And isn’t he Mary’s son? Aren’t his siblings here?

And so, dear disciples, we see here our Lord returning home … and not having a great time of it.

Lesson number one: disciples of our Lord might not have a place to call “home.”

Who wants that?

Well, seeing that “home” was not all that it was cracked up to be,

Jesus and his disciples move on,

and rather than settle in one place and make a new home,

they decide instead to spread out and go into the homes of others.

Sending out his disciples two by two,

Jesus instructs them to take nothing – except for a walking stick, shirt, sandals …

and the authority that Jesus gives to them,

the authority to cast out unclean spirits.

But the other creature comforts –

extra clothes, money, food, etc.?

Knick knacks that could make a place feel like home?

Nope. Take none of it.

Lesson number two: disciples don’t have lots of stuff.

 

You’re not going to have a home.

Instead, you’re going to go into the homes of others.

Don’t depend on your own efforts to feed yourself, clothe yourself, care for yourself.

Depend on the hospitality of others.

And those others are strangers.

Lesson number three: disciples need compete strangers,

not just to hear their message, but to survive and, indeed, to do the work of the Gospel.

 

Then, Jesus tells them that they will be rejected, perhaps by many, of these strangers,

and that the disciples are simply to shake the dust off their feet when that happens,

a non-violent but strong rebuke of those who fail to offer the simple gift of hospitality.

Lesson number four: disciples face rejection.

 

So, let’s review:

Disciples don’t have a place to call home.

Disciples don’t have lots of stuff.

Disciples depend on complete strangers for just about everything.

Disciples face rejection.

Alright! Woo hoo! This sounds …. awful. Who wants to sign up?

No wonder it took some time for discipleship language

to settle in at my church back in New Jersey.

Discipleship just plain stinks. It is a hard, uncomfortable, disconcerting lifestyle.

We who strive for comfort, for stability, for familiarity would be quite unhappy

with this disciple lifestyle.

 

Well, let’s keep reading.

The Gospel reading ends today with a report of the disciples’ success –

they proclaimed Jesus’ message, cast out demons, and healed the sick.

Of course, this harkens back to something else that Jesus gave his disciples

authority over unclean spirits, which I only mentioned briefly earlier.

Jesus gives his disciples authority,

and it is by that authority, not by any other power,

that these disciples were able to do so much.

Lesson number five: God gives disciples authority.

 

God gives disciples authority over unclean spirits,

over all things which would deny people the full extent of what God has called them to be.

And it is by this authority that the disciples went out and did some amazing things.

Heal the sick.

Restore to health, and to the community,

those who were believed to be possessed by demons,

those who were shut out from the community’s life and livelihood.

Disciples have this authority.

Disciples have the authority to heal and to restore.

With this authority,

the authority to set things right in the world,

and with the assurance that we don’t need much else –

we don’t need to worry about money or shelter,

nor do we need to invest in a home since disciples don’t have a true sense of home –

all we need is each other – remember, the disciples went out in pairs,

and later returned to each other –

and with the promise of God guiding us and providing for us …

with all of this being given to the disciples, to us disciples, what is stopping us?

 

God has given us authority.

God has promised that we will have what we need for the mission.

God has given us each other …

and the strangers yet unknown to us who God calls as partners in this mission.

Yes, God has given us so much, so that we can do what we’re called to do ….

to be workers and proclaimers of God’s transformation in the world.

For God is ushering in his Kingdom here and now.

God is doing this in and through us,

and through other disciples in our community and in our world.

God has given us all we need.

And most importantly, God is with us.

With all that God has given us,

may we go forth, together, to heal, to restore, to proclaim God’s love and grace.

Amen.

It’s a Matter of Equality

Sermon for the Fifth Sunday after Pentecost
July 1, 2012
2 Corinthians 8:7-15 (Common English Bible)

Grace to you and peace, from the one who is, who was, and who is to come. Amen.

Saint Paul writes:

“It isn’t that we want others to have financial ease and you financial difficulties,

but it’s a matter of equality. At the present moment, your surplus can fill their deficit.”

It’s not that we want you to have financial difficulties, BUT …

There’s always a but.

In today’s second reading, Saint Paul asks the Christians in Corinth

to continue their commitment to financially support the church in Jerusalem,

which is poor and struggling.

The Church at Corinth, located in a bustling city that was a commercial and cultural crossroads,

was better off than their sisters and brothers in Jerusalem,

and so Paul asks those with more to support those with less.

“It isn’t that we want others to have financial ease and you financial difficulties …”

Yes, you can hear it in his voice.

Paul knows that what he is asking could put some pressure on the church and its people,

that the Christians in Corinth have had some of their own problems to deal with,

including a congregation that itself was careless in its divisions between rich and poor

(Just read 1 Corinthians to see how Paul blasts the church there

for having some come to the Thanksgiving Meal and eat and drink

until they are full and drunk, while others leave hungry).

Nonetheless, Paul doesn’t let the challenges that the Corinthians face

get in the way of his asking for and expecting

their continued generosity toward those less fortunate.

Paul knows the Corinthians can do more.

And he knows that the Christians in Jerusalem are in such a dire situation.

After all, Paul says,

“it’s a matter of equality. At the present moment, your surplus can fill their deficit.”

A matter of equality between one’s surplus, one’s abundance,

and another’s deficit, another’s need. Equality.

In our country we have a commitment to individual liberty and personal freedom,

to self-reliance and independence,

a libertarian streak that runs strongly through our American blood,

and which fuels, I believe, so much of the innovation that our country is known for.

Yet, frankly, what Saint Paul writes in today’s reading stands somewhat in contrast

to that independent, self-reliant streak we’re so known for in our country.

For Paul writes not of a self-reliant Jerusalem church that can pull itself up by its bootstraps,

or of a self-reliant Corinthian church that keeps what it has to itself,

but instead he writes of the interconnected relationship between the two.

In other words, Paul writes, “You need each other.”

All who are in Christ are of one body, he writes elsewhere,

and if one part of the body hurts, the whole body suffers.

Any of you who have ever had a bad ankle, or a bad back, know this.

A hurt in one part of the body makes the rest feel pretty miserable.

And so, Paul here is drawing attention to the fact that

there is a part of the body, over in Jerusalem, that is suffering right now.

The present surplus of the Corinthians, he writes, can alleviate the present deficit of others.

The other day I was talking with a homeless woman,

and she asked why God let all this happen to her – losing her job,

losing her house, medical problems, and so forth.

I responded simply that God is not doing this to her,

but like Christ on the cross, God is suffering alongside of her,

and that it is human sin that has created a situation in which she finds herself.

Because, let’s be honest friends, there is plenty of abundance in this world right now,

here, there, and down the street,

there’s abundance that can alleviate the needs of others.

If the people of Saint Paul, the people of Ramsey County, of Minnesota, of this country,

if we all wanted more homeless shelter beds,

or if we wanted more affordable housing, we could do it.

We found half a billion dollars for a 65,000 seat football stadium,

but we can’t find money for additional homeless shelter beds?

It’s because we don’t want to.

In 2005, former Senators Bob Dole and George McGovern wrote a book together called,

Ending Hunger Now: A Challenge to Persons of Faith.

In this book these two former Senators – a conservative Republican and a liberal Democrat –

said that we don’t have a food shortage in the world.

We don’t have a food problem at all. Instead, what we have is a distribution problem.

Yet the truth is, we don’t have a distribution problem, either.

You can purchase a Coca-Cola in nearly every corner of the world.

We’ve got distribution down just fine.

So what we really have is a problem of the will. We just don’t want to do it.

Because making sure that food was available for all people in the world

might make certain costs rise, might cut into the profits of some merchants

or into the tariff-protected markets of some industry groups,

and might make things more difficult for those of us who live in relative abundance.

“It isn’t that we want others to have financial ease and you financial difficulties,” Paul writes,

“but … but it’s a matter of equality..”

We have the resources in the wealthiest darn country in the world.

We have the abundance. We have the surplus.

But do we have the will to seek, to create, some sort of greater equality?

Paul the Apostle calls us, in faith, to find the will to seek such an equality.

 

Shifting from Paul the Apostle to Paul the Pastor, for a moment,

let me say this: few people in my life have I known

who are as committed to the needs of others,

who are as committed to this sense of quality, as is Pastor Paul Hesterberg.

In my first year here at Grace, I have seen him work tirelessly with and for those who have so little.

From making sure that we have food and gas cards to distribute,

to driving people to doctor’s appointments and court hearings,

to sharing articles with me and with others about matters of concern

for the poor and hungry, to helping folks out in many different ways,

Pastor Paul is committed to this equality about which Saint Paul writes,

to sharing some of his own abundance with those in need.

Pastor Paul has been a role model for us, a caregiver,

a living commitment to those things to which our Lord himself is committed –

feeding the hungry, healing the sick, raising up the lowly, caring for the lonely.

His commitment is one that leaves a legacy among us,

a legacy that we will do well to carry on through existing efforts of care –

such as the food collection for Merrick Food Shelf

that the Social Ministry Committee is coordinating –

and even the creation of new ministries of care and love and outreach

that will help us live into Saint Paul’s calling for us to work for a greater equality

between our abundance and our neighbor’s need.

 

Dear friends, as we celebrate Independence Day this week,

let us not revel in our own individual liberty,

for soldiers didn’t die at Lexington and Concord,

at Brandywine or Germantown, or in the cold winter at Valley Forge,

they didn’t die for individual liberty …

but they died for a nation, for a people to live in freedom, together.

They died to create “a more perfect union.”

Freedom is not just personal or political,

but rightfully – and faithfully – understood,

freedom includes not just freedom from overseas royal tyrants,

but freedom from want, freedom from suffering, freedom from abject poverty,

and freedom for the chance to pursue life, liberty, and happiness.

Together we live into this freedom. Together we share in the abundance of this land and,

as Christians, together we live into the freedom we have in Christ Jesus,

free to give of ourselves as Christ himself gave,

free to give out of what we have, to provide for the needs of our sisters and brothers,

so that there might be greater equality, and greater freedom, for all.

Amen.

Resurrection: It’s Not Just For Jesus

Second Sunday of Easter, Year A
1 Peter 1:3-9; John 20:19-31
May 1, 2011

Christ is risen. Alleluia!

Christ is risen indeed. Alleluia!

 

Grace to you and peace, from the one who is, who was, and who is to come.  Amen.

 

Resurrection.

It’s not just last Sunday’s news. And it’s not just something that happens to Jesus.

            Resurrection is a promise and a living hope given to all of us

            who have found new birth in Christ our Lord.

Like Jesus, each and every one of us will be raised from the dead.

In flesh and blood. For real.

Our Lord’s resurrection represents for Christians

            a new birth into a new life in our Lord’s new Kingdom,

            a reign of peace that will be realized

            when Jesus comes again in glory in the last time.

Read More

Promises of Life on the Eve of Death

Holy Thursday
Exodus 12:1-14; John 13:1-17, 31b-35
Thursday, April 21, 2011

Grace to you and peace, from the one who is, who was, and who is to come.  Amen.

 

“This month shall mark for you the beginning of months,” the Lord says to Moses.

            It shall be the first month of the year for you.”

Beginning. First.

With these words the Lord initiates a new thing and indicates a promise of deliverance.

The beginning that the Lord announces –

            the Passover and deliverance of God’s chosen people from slavery into freedom –

            the beginning, oddly enough, hasn’t quite yet begun, actually.

Pharaoh still keeps the Israelites in bondage.

            But time has begun, the Lord says.

The promise has been spoken.

Read More