A Lutheran Says What?

Sermons and random thoughts on God, the world and the intersection of the two

Wrestling with the Gods Love Sermon on Genesis 32:22-31 July 10, 2016

*You can watch at http://www.bethanylive.org


I’m wrestling this week with the simple fact that there has been an awful lot of law in the world in the past few weeks. By “law” I mean events that seemingly violate the Great Commandment from Jesus of “Love the Lord your God with all of your heart, soul and strength and love your neighbor as yourself.” There has been much that has the potential to drive us to despair, hopelessness and weariness. It seems that there is more that divides us than unites us. It seems that this week in particular has been difficult. I’m simply heartbroken at all of the loss of life on all accounts. I’m also aware of the complexity of all of these events and my own complicity in systems of privilege, power, and security. I pray and hope for the world to be different and yet, that means a huge change in how I experience my day to day existence and that complexity can be paralyzing and frightening.

Evident in all of this brokenness and violence is the reality that we view all of these events through our very human lens of either/or. Either you agree that all Muslims are terrorists or you don’t. Either you are pro-police officers or not. Either you support LBGTQI rights or you don’t. Either you are pro #blacklivesmatter or you not. Not to invoke an inappropriate metaphor, but we see the world as black and white, yes or no, in or out, win or lose, us or them. Social media and mainstream media help to perpetuate this type of thinking in our culture and we get caught in the loop that this is the way the world works and are the only choices that we have. And once we supposedly make that choice it means a certain type of behavior and mindset. If there is an “us” then “them” must be feared and mitigated.

But this is not the reality of the kingdom of God. God is not about either/or but what I have learned as the “third way” or “both/and.” In the Beatitudes in Matthew 5, Jesus is ushering in “third way” thinking. Jesus is pointing out that those whom many would assume might not be a part of what God is doing in the world because they are not what the world would declare as people of power, privilege and authority are exactly who God proclaims as included in God’s kingdom. Jesus declares that there is not an “us or them” paradigm, only one people in the kingdom of God.

Jesus is also turning on its head what it means to be blessed. We throw that word around and connect it to our own good fortune and comfortableness. We’re blessed with material possessions, vocations, health, family, and the list goes on and on of all of the ways that we think we’re blessed. But Jesus doesn’t connect blessedness with any of these comforts of the world. You see, the promise from God isn’t that we would be “blessed” with any of those things, as a matter of fact, all of that, possessions, vocation and health are all temporary, not guaranteed and certainly not signs of God’s kingdom. We worry about losing wealth, status and health and live in the false dichotomy and fear of scarcity or abundance and not the reality that there is only abundance in God’s kingdom and enough to go around for us all.

 But God breaks this either/or as well with what being blessed is really about: What God actually promises is that God is always with you and will call you by name-beloved child of God. God’s blessings of love and grace surround you and me and all of us no matter what and these blessings flow abundantly. Jesus declares that God’s way, the third way, is not that some are in and others out, some are valued more than others, and some lives are worth more than others, but that God’s blessing reaches all, gathers us all and redeems us all regardless of what the world says.

I’ve been pondering this reality, this third way, a lot this week. To live in the both/and of the blessing and love of Christ is not an easy endeavor. It means real sacrifice and yes, pain. It means giving up this either/or worldview and stepping out into the realm of faith, God’s invitation into a life focused on serving my neighbor and not myself. It also means that stepping into this reality of the incarnation of Jesus Christ is God’s way of abolishing either/or requires something of me. As Lutherans we get itchy about anything that smacks of “works righteousness” but I think we miss the boat when we sit comfortably with the notion of “Christ died for me and I don’t have to do anything to earn it.” That is true that the gifts of God are free but that fact that the tomb is empty is life altering, transformative and yes, a painful experience. The empty tomb propelled the women to run. To run and proclaim all that they had seen, even though they didn’t understand, except they knew that now everything is different. The tomb empties all that we know about how the world works, even the reality of death. We’re decentered and put out of joint by God’s reality that when the kingdom of God comes near, we can’t stay the same or in the same place-we have places to go and people to serve. The kingdom of God means that we can’t put everyone and every event into neat little categories because the death and resurrection of Jesus annihilates and defies categories. No longer does death mean death, no longer is the end really the end, no longer is anyone excluded, no longer are we on our own to figure stuff out, no longer is there us or them, no longer are we separated from love, no longer can we be silent, no longer can we accept comfortableness at the expense of others.

This transformation of all that we know, means that we might walk with a limp in the eyes of the world because we’re learning to walk in a new way with God. It means that we value the life of our brothers and sisters more than our own, more than our comfort, more than our security, more than the status quo, more than our privilege, more than our power. This limp will slow us down so that we can listen, learn, educate ourselves and change our day to day words and behaviors to value all of our neighbors. This limp will make us seem weak in the eyes of the world, but it will allow us to walk beside those who are limping under the strain of oppression, fear and hate. It’s painful to walk with a limp, it’s slow, it’s tedious and yet, as Paul writes, it’s in this limping that we find our strength. Our strength is the love of Christ that comes to us like no other love that the world can offer. Not with strings, conditions, rewards, or demanding reciprocation, but with openness, mercy, and the power to make us new in love so that we can respond to the need of our neighbor for such love. This isn’t sappy “Kum by yah” love-it’s love that’s strong enough to wrestle and stay in the relationship, even when it’s hard and it hurts. This is love from Christ that says, “I love you too much to let you stay the same.”

Walking with Christ means walking in the way of embracing the tension of this third way. When the world demands a yes or a no, we offer love for all people. When the world demands an in or an out, we offer love that includes all people. When the world demands black or white, we offer love that values diversity and all whom God has created in God’s very own image. We offer this unconditional love to those who suffer in Orlando, Syria, Istanbul, Iraq, to the families of Alton Sterling, Philando Castille, the Dallas police officers: Michael Krol, Brent Thompson, Michael Smith, Patrick Zamarripa, Lorne Ahrens. (*post sermon addendum: I didn’t realize the Dallas shooter, Micah Johnson, had also been killed. I would have mentioned him as well.)  When violence erupts again, and it will, we offer not just words of love but actions that reveal that God is at work in the world, through the world for the sake of the world.

This will not be easy, simple or a once and for all endeavor. It’s a journey, a process and the way that we live as life long disciples of Jesus Christ. But Jesus promises to be on the road with us, opening up the scriptures time and again to reveal the new thing that God is up to in our midst, even when we don’t see it, or don’t want to see. But Jesus will time and again, drown our preoccupation with self in the waters of baptism and will reveal in bread and wine that all are part of the body of Christ-he begged us to break the bread in remembrance of him, which is not about nostalgia but about literally be “re-membered” put back together as one humanity at the table of abundance where there is room for all. It means sitting with those whom you may not like, be afraid of or even disapprove. It means sitting with those whom don’t like you, are afraid of you or disapprove of you. It means sitting in the tension of God’s love truly being for all-the tension of the both/and of God’s third way for the world. God’s way of radical wholeness, peace, justice, mercy and love. Amen.


Always Worth It, Sermon on Luke 14: 25-33 July 1, 2016

*This sermon can be viewed on the archives of http://www.bethanylive.org June 29, 2016
This text is hard. I read numerous commentaries, some said God is the king, or the tower builder, or some wrote that Jesus is talking about transforming families, Jesus is saying that you have to give up all your possessions, you have to suffer to be a disciple, on and on. I read and reread those and none of that resonated and didn’t even make that much sense to me. I tried looking at this parable from a Lutheran lens, where’s God active? Where’s God’s grace named? Mmmm not obvious… I tried looking at it from what we know about the gospel of Luke: community matters, social justice matters, caring for the poor and marginalized matters. I got bumpkis. Parables are often hyperbolic and metaphorical. Ok….nope, doesn’t really work with this either. Here’s the deal: This parable is hard because sometimes, life and following Jesus is hard. This parable doesn’t really make much sense because sometimes, life and following Jesus doesn’t make much sense. This parable makes us very uncomfortable because sometimes, life and following Jesus is uncomfortable.
This is not a touchy, feely let me give you some free bread and fish Jesus. This is a Jesus who is more akin to what we might recognize from the Old Testament, Jesus seems to be saying that it means something to be God’s people and there are hard things that you may have to do. In our Bible in 90 Days bible study class we just survived reading Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. We read through all of the laws and what God expects out of God’s people-not to make God happy or to appease God’s anger but to make living together as a people a bit more just, fair, and life-giving. Don’t take what doesn’t belong to you, don’t withhold from the foreigner or the widow, don’t harm each other, don’t take up after other gods or idols because they are shiny and easier to deal with. You are a set apart people, so you should probably act like it. If something or someone is in your way, keeping you from not acting like part of the people of God, remove it. Harsh isn’t it? We don’t like that at all. We love our version of God that loves us just the way we are. We love to rest in the idea that we are ok and nothing more is required of us. That is great pop psychology, but not really what being a disciple is all about. We want God to affirm all that we like, all whom we like and for God to operate in the way that makes sense to us. We like to predict what God will do, who God will bless, and who God will correct. We make God into our own image.
You see, those laws, those seemingly harsh, impossible, limiting, offensive, guilt-ridden laws, were not about punishment, exclusion or God’s love and grace having conditions. The law was about God loving us too much to leave us alone and to our own devices. The law was about breaking us open in order for God’s grace to pour into us and through us to the world. God breaks us open to make us whole, whole as a person and as a community. God breaks us open with the law to make room for God and each other in our lives. God’s heart is to be in relationship with us, whom God created. God desires only good for us, not perfection, and that could mean separating from anything or anyone who diminishes our fullness as a child of God. God created us in God’s image and God will continue to work in us, through us and around us to reveal the true us, which is indeed in God’s image.
That sometimes looks like separating from even your family, Jesus says. Family was everything in first century Palestine and it’s even the crux of Levitical law-but Jesus recognizes that those closest to us can also lead us away from God. It might cost you relationships to follow Jesus. Like James and John, the sons of Zebedee, you might have to drop your nets and walk away, leaving your own father standing alone on his boat. It might cost you the understanding of your friends and family as you go a different way.
Sometimes that looks like separating from the life you once knew, Jesus says. It might cost you when you walk away from the life you’ve always known, your own privilege, financial security, and comfortableness. When we drop our nets to follow Jesus, we are picking up the risk and the cost of building the kingdom of God. In the kingdom of God, we build messy, risky relationships with those whom society pushes to the edges but God commands us to love, our neighbors, all of our neighbors: our Muslim neighbors, our LBGTQI neighbors, our black neighbors, our native neighbors, our Asian neighbors, our Jewish neighbors, our Hindu neighbors, our immigrant neighbors. We will lose our privilege, we will lose our comfort, we will lose our status, but we will also lose our prejudice, and we will lose our ego. You will lose everything that you know today. It will be hard and there is a cost.
There is a cost. Can you afford it? Will you afford it? Can you afford not to? Can we as a people of God afford to stay in our bubble of what we know, of the world telling us that we are only as important as our status, who we hang out with, what we own and where we live? Can we afford to continue to wage war on those who differ from us, who scare us and whom we want to exclude from God’s kingdom? What is it costing us? Jesus says it’s costing us our very lives.
We were not created to own stuff, to wage war, for unhealthy relationships, or for death. God created us for life. God created us to reveal God’s Shalom, which is wholeness, grace, and love. The way of Shalom is not the way of the world. The world levies taxes on us that we will never be able to repay. There will never be enough to satisfy the bill of ego, material possessions, and status. But in God’s kingdom, there is not only enough, but we are enough, not because of what we say or do, but because of who God is, and what God promises: the promise to be with us always, the promise to fill us with the Holy Spirit that is always making us new and transforming our lives, our relationships and all of creation. We are enough for God to work with and we are worth the cost for God. God so wants us to know abundant life, love and grace that God risked great cost in Jesus. Jesus came to proclaim that love poured into us is always worth the cost-even his own life. This love transcends any separation from God and Jesus promises that this love is everything that we need and is free to us.
We are called to reflect and be this love from Jesus. But Jesus knows and affirms that for us, love that is not about self, is hard. Love that pulls you out of your own needs and wants is risky. Love that moves us to change our behaviors so that our neighbor knows this same love is costly. But when we connect with that love of God for the sake of following Jesus out into the world for the sake of our neighbor, it’s always, always worth it, not matter what the cost. Amen.