A Lutheran Says What?

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

Breaking Orbit Sermon on Matthew 21 September 25, 2020

This sermon was preached on September 27, 2020 at Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church in Holladay, UT. It can be viewed on our YouTube: Our Saviour’s Lutheran SLC.

The texts were:

Psalm 25: 1-9
Philippians 2: 1-13
Matthew 21: 23-32

As a child I loved the original Star Trek series. The Starship Enterprise voyaged through the galaxy at warp speed to explore and discover new life and new civilizations. They would enter the orbit of the planet, that invisible yet powerful gravitational pull, explore, learn, and then break orbit to go to some other new adventure. Occasionally, part of the plot of an episode was that they COULDN’T break orbit because of some misunderstanding or nefarious plan of the inhabitants of the planet. Maybe the people of the planet needed a resource on board the Enterprise, or they needed the people themselves, to supply the planet with what they needed for comfort or status quo. In this scenario, reasoning rarely worked, and it took a major rupture of the planetary system or a scheme to leave the orbit that freed the ship and the people. It took a force greater or equal to the gravitational pull of the planet’s orbit to free them. Breaking orbit meant life, freedom, justice, continued exploration, and the fulfillment of the crew’s mission.
As a military kid this idea of encountering new people, the tension of needs of the planet and the needs of the crew resonated in me. As I moved around the world, I encountered people and systems that were foreign and unknown. Some I could understand, some I could not, and some seemed invisible to the people living in that system, even though on the outside, I could see it. It’s only in my adulthood that I am more aware of the orbits I am in, the gravitational pulls to systems, people and actions in which I participate unconsciously and consciously. But what if I need to break those orbits?

Our gospel lesson today is all about orbits, strong and powerful gravitational pulls that keep things moving in a certain direction, around certain people, for a certain purpose. Indulge me as I set the context for us here in Matthew 21: Jesus has entered Jerusalem on a stolen donkey to crowds shouting Hosanna, Save Us Now. We tend to sanitize this story for SS pageants, but let’s be clear-it was a protest. People were coming out to support this Jesus who stood up to the rulers, who healed the outcast on the Sabbath, who ate with tax collectors and sex workers. Then the protest continued with Jesus going to the center of economic power and turning over tables, knocking over chairs, freeing the animals to be bought for sacrifice. And the people were cheering him on with shouts of Hosanna! Jesus then healed those who had come to Temple to buy their way out of misery in the system that intentionally kept them poor and on the outside. The leaders were angry. Destroying property? Protests in the streets? This is not how problems get solved. This Jesus should stay in his place and not make waves. He has no authority or voice here.
The next day Jesus returns to his occupation of the Temple for more truth telling. The chief priests and elders have had enough with Jesus’ disruption of their daily lives and confront him. How dare you disrupt the system! By who’s authority do you do these things? Jesus then asks them an orbit decaying question regarding John the Baptist, who had people breaking orbit from the Temple system to hear words of forgiveness, wholeness and freedom from the status quo out in the wilderness. But the chief priests and elders knew it was a trap. They had a lot at stake as the whole system was set up for them and others like them in power and privilege to be at the center, to be kept comfortable and given resources to support their lives. And everyone else? Well everyone else was merely in their orbit and needed to stay there to keep the system going without interruption.
But interruption is the whole point of Jesus’ ministry and the kingdom of God. God reaches into our orbits and propels us from the gravitational pull of status quo and comfort. Jesus tells the story of the two sons, one who refuses to go to the vineyard but then does, and one who says he will but doesn’t. Gravity is hard to overcome. But Jesus says that this is what the kingdom of Heaven is like. God calls us to break orbit and go to the vineyard, the kingdom of God, and do the hard work of breaking other people out of the orbital systems in which they are stuck. Jesus says that when we break orbit, new possibilities await and arise. Breaking orbit allows us to encounter new people, new places and allows God’s renewing and redeeming love to pull us even closer to God and to one another in true common mission. Breaking orbit allows us to encounter and experience new life.
I’ve thought about this a lot this week. We live in a society that was intentionally erected to ensure the comfort of an elite class-mostly white, straight, cisgender men. The rest of us, women (although white women, we can move in and out of the center and let’s remember our privilege), black people, indigenous people, people of color, LBGTQIA people, poor people, our job is to be in orbit of this system and keep it going. If that offends you, I’m not sorry. It’s the truth. I say this knowing that in being in this orbit myself, I contribute, participate in and affirm this system. I’m guilty of staying in orbit, as it is easier and less work. By staying in orbit, I help keep the systems in place that killed Breonna Taylor, Say Her Name, and allowed police officers not be held accountable. I am not anti-police-I am pro-accountability, for us all. I, too, need accountability for my part in the systems that allows for harm, such as bullying of LBGTQIA people, the system that keeps poor people poor, that keeps women underpaid and without access to reproductive healthcare, that keeps stereotypes and hate swirling.
I have decided that I am breaking orbit. I’m breaking orbit to be pulled by God’s powerful force of love into the work of the vineyard, to cultivate life, to bring forth abundance from dirt, to grow something wild and new. I’m breaking orbit, and I know that it will cause many people around me to be uncomfortable and to ask by who’s authority am I not going to follow all the rules. I’m breaking orbit, not for myself, but for you and for others and for the people whose  names we don’t know to say out loud but are being harmed or killed. I’m breaking orbit, for I will no longer willingly circle around systems that bring death, harm and oppression to anyone. I’m breaking orbit and I pray that you all will hold me accountable for my words to match my actions. I’m breaking orbit, come with me to explore God’s kingdom and discover new life and a new civilization of mercy, forgiveness, hope, justice and love that awaits for us all.
You are loved, you are beloved, go and be love. Amen.

 

“No One Hired Us” Sermon on Matthew 20 September 18, 2020

This sermon was preached at Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church in Holladay, UT on Sept. 20, 2020. It can be viewed on our YouTube Channel Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church SLC.
The texts were:
Psalm 145: 1-8
Philippians 1: 21-30
Matthew 20: 1-16

It is the eighth anniversary of my ordination in the ELCA at the end of this month. As I reflect on my journey to ordination, I am grateful for the joys, the blessings, the challenges, the learning, when it was bewildering and yes, even the times when it was just plain hard. I do know that I have been mostly lucky in my ministry calls so far, and yes I am using the word “lucky” intentionally. Let me tell you why. You see, getting immediately ordained after graduating from four years of graduate level training, yes four years and we only get a master’s degree, for most is a given. But not for all. In the spring of our last semester of seminary, my colleagues and I began the interview process with congregations. Well, some did. I had one interview for a youth and family pastor position, totally my wheelhouse with over 15 years of experience, where in the interview I was repeatedly asked questions about being a mother and a pastor at the same time. Ultimately, they chose someone with more experience they said. It turned out to be a 26 year old, white male. I discovered that even the Church isn’t fair. That was my only interview until later on that summer. My Rostered Minister Profile, clergy resume in the ELCA, went to several churches, but I didn’t get any interviews. One didn’t even open my file once they saw my name. But other colleagues had multiple interviews and were snatched up right away. What did they had in common? Honestly, being white, straight and male. But as I said, I was lucky, I interviewed at another church that summer and they did call me, part-time and drastically underpaid. But it was my only option for work, besides Starbucks. Don’t feel sorry for me, that’s not the point. I have siblings in ministry, women, femmes, Black, Indigenous, people of color, LBGTQIA, who waited years for a call. In these demographics, the average wait is over a year for first call. I have one friend who waited ten years because he is an out gay male. When you are waiting to receive a call from a congregation, you are frequently asked: Why has no one called you? The implication is that there is something wrong with us, that maybe we just don’t have the skills, the intellect, the interview acumen, etc. There is a reason that you are being passed by. And there is. There is something we are lacking. Often, it’s beyond our control. We can’t control our anatomy or skin color or biology.

When we do receive calls, they are often for lower wages, part-time and in less desirable situations. Not all the time, again, I’ve been lucky, as have a few of my colleagues. But I see those who are not lucky. Now, some would say that we’ve made great progress, after all we’ve had ordination of white women for 50 years, ordination of black women for 40 years and ordination of LBGTQIA people for 10 years. But really in the 2000 year history of the Church, we’re relative late comers to the professional work, although these populations have always been doing the work of the kingdom, just without official recognition and compensation. Many in these demographics just aren’t as desirable for congregations as they don’t fit the perfect picture of who should be in leadership in the church. Again, let me say, being a white, straight middle class woman, I am lucky.

But it shouldn’t depend on luck, Jesus says in our parable today. We often read these parables and think that they are about salvation or heaven when we die and I think that often we miss the point that Jesus says that heaven isn’t somewhere else, it’s here. What if here and now, today, in this life, we don’t pass some workers by? What if we hire everyone who wants to do the work regardless of our first impressions, biases or prejudices? What if we recognized that everyone, every ability, every skin color, every sexual orientation, every class, every gender, every body type, every one, has worth? But is that fair, we might ask? What if some can’t work as long, or don’t have the skills or simply don’t come from the same perspective on work as we do? What if we do more and they do less? Jesus is clear in this parable that God isn’t interested in fair. God is interested in justice.

Our challenge is that in our humanness we equate fair with justice and they are not the same. The workers who worked all day and received the same salary as those who came along later, grumbled, we read. They were mad that they were worth as much as the others. How is that fair? Shouldn’t they be worth more? No, Jesus says. Just because they were lucky and hired first, doesn’t mean that they have more skill or more worth. Their colleagues who came to the work later, didn’t necessarily arrive later out of their own doings. No one let them in until later, is that fair? Are they not worth as much as the all day workers? They too deserve to be paid their worth, not only for their time. The landowner is clear that he will pay what is right and that he can do with what he has as he pleases. We often think that the land owner represents God, but I wonder if Jesus is calling for us to see ourselves in the landowner and realize our own biases, and take a second look at people, do what is right and invite them in? We know that in God there is no male or female, Jew or Gentile, free or slave person, first or last, Republican or Democrat or Independent, Christian or Muslim, white or black, abled or disabled, straight or not, we know this. But we don’t act on this. All people belong in the kingdom, doing the kingdom’s work. All.
We have much work to do to be fully inclusive in the ELCA. We have repentance to ask for, we have reparations to make, we have risks to take, we have restorative healing to begin. And it’s not luck that will make this happen, it’s hard work, love, vulnerability, honesty, going out to the people who have been left to stand around alone all day. These are the people to whom Jesus went to, the poor, the tax collectors, the sick, the outcast, the criminals, the sex workers. He invited them in the kingdom of God as fellow workers and siblings. Jesus says that this is the kingdom, that is here, that is for you, and me and for all. We belong, everyone belongs, and we open our hearts to let people in. This is how we heal our world and our souls. This is how God’s justice reigns. Amen.

 

Forgiveness and God’s Power Sermon on Matthew 18: 21-35 September 11, 2020

This sermon was preached on Sept. 13, 2020 at Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church in Holladay, UT. It can be viewed on our YouTube channel Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church SLC.

The texts were:
Psalm 103
Genesis 50: 15-21
Matthew 18: 21-35

Forgiveness is officially defined as “the action or process of being forgiven or forgiving.” Ok, that’s a good place to start, but as I ponder forgiveness, I realize that it has a lot to do with power. How we use power, particularly in conflicts. If I apologize, do I give away my power? If you forgive me, am I beholden to you? If I forgive, am I giving you more power, or exerting my own power? What about when one group uses power over another? Do we stay silent or speak up? We are constantly weighing the power dynamics in our relationships. Often, we keep silent, walk away, “mind our own business,” and just worry about ourselves, thinking that is better, even noble. Yet, when nothing is said, when forgiveness is cheapened by repeating bad behaviors,  harmful actions are ignored and allowed to perpetuate and fester, people can remain caught as pawns in systems of abusive power and this doesn’t only damage individuals, but the community.

Peter’s question to Jesus on forgiveness is oozing with power, “if someone in the church (notice this is about people close to him) wrongs me how many times do I have to forgive? Seven times?” Seven is considered a holy and perfect number in Jewish numerology if you get into that sort of thing, which I’m not sure that Jesus does, as he blows it out of the water with his answer of “nope, seventy-seven times” or in some translations seven times seven. In other words, there is no perfect number for this question. Forgiveness is too complex and too much is at stake.

In typical Jesus fashion, he tells a parable. Now, we have to remember that parables don’t contain every response we might be looking for and can only freight so much meaning and I doubt that Jesus intends for this particular parable to tell us everything we need to know about forgiveness or mercy. Jesus tells the disciples about a king (probably not a stand in for God in this parable) who is one with all the power. One of his servants, a high up official, apparently owed him so much that it would take something like 600 years for him to pay it back. The king threatened to sell this man and his family to pay the debt; but the servant boldly and shamelessly begged the king for his life and the life of his family. The king reconsidered-and then forgave the whole debt! Before you think how super altruistic and merciful the king is, consider how much more is this servant now indebted to this king? The king just used his power to buy himself a loyalist for life.
This newly unburdened man goes on his way and encounters a fellow servant (probably on a lower societal rung) who owes him a much more nominal amount and it’s clear that first man has all the power in this relationship. He puts a choke hold on this second man and demands his money. The second man can’t pay and so is thrown into debtors prison until he can…much like our bail system, how in the heck is he supposed to pay his debt if he’s in jail and can’t work? It’s criminal to put him in jail frankly as now his family also suffers. There are witnesses to this event, and apparently these witnesses had heard of the first man’s good fortune with the king and are distressed and appalled that the first man would treat the second man this way. They understand that the balance of power has been shifted, that the forgiveness of the king to the first man had not rippled through the community as it should have. The witnesses knew that if this was allowed to stand, it would only breed more distrust, more injustice and more abuse of power, so they went to the king who is appropriately outraged. And the man gets his comeuppance, a favorite word at our house. The king hands him over to be tortured, not by the king, but by the man’s own actions of exerting abusive power over his fellow human being.

It turns out, Jesus is saying, that forgiveness isn’t only about us as individuals and our feelings. We don’t forgive only to have someone simply more indebted to us. We don’t forgive and keep allowing abuses to occur. We don’t forgive in order to be the better person or to bring ourselves peace or whatever self-help thing we read on the internet. Jesus models that forgiveness is about the empowerment of people to break systems of abusive power. Forgiveness is the power of truth telling and accountability. Forgiveness is about how we live together as messy, complex and imperfect people in community. Forgiveness recalls that what happens to one of us, happens to all of us, good and bad. Forgiveness is deeply rooted in our Lutheran theology of the cross where Luther purposes that part of life with God and each other is the power to “calling a thing what it is.” We have the power in God to call evil as evil and good as good and not get them confused. When they get twisted and mangled, the body of Christ is harmed. Jesus repeatedly says what the world calls is good, God condemns: some in power over many, excessive consumerism, ostracizing the sick, marginalizing women and foreigners, not feeding the hungry, ignoring the children. Forgiveness, breaking the systems of abusive power, is at the heart of Christian community.

Jesus entire mission and ministry reveals how in God’s kingdom systems of power are upended and that using our power for the sake of others is how we love. At the last supper, right before Jesus is betrayed, denied and abandoned by his closest friends, Jesus says his blood is poured out for forgiveness, the power of God’s love to heal, unite and tell the truth. Forgiveness is indeed power, the power to usher in a new system of God’s love that will bring abundant life for all. Thanks be to God.

 

Freed to Tell the Story Acts 12 September 4, 2020

This sermon was preached on Sept. 6, 2020 at Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church in Holladay, UT. It can be viewed on our YouTube Channel Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church SLC.

The texts were:

Psalm 119: 45-56
Acts 12: 6-19

Woman after woman filed into the multipurpose room where rows of chairs had been set up in three distinct sections and the women sorted themselves into either section 1, 2 or 3 according to their designation. I had decided to sit in section three, as this was my first time there and I didn’t want to appear frightened, judgmental or frankly, a white middle class overly educated privileged person, which, of course, I am, and I don’t think I fooled anyone, only myself. Women filled in around me and I smiled and said hello. Some returned the gesture, others, well, others simply stared at me with understandable suspicion. I was kinda suspicious of myself at this point. My bravado faded when a young woman sat down next to me, not because she wanted to, but because it was the only chair left. She was irritated and it showed. My smile was met with a scowl, which once again, I understood. How many times had this young woman had someone pretend to like her, be nice to her only to use or abuse her? I looked down at my bulletin as my friend and colleague Pr. Emily welcomed us to worship at New Beginnings, a worshiping community inside the walls of the Denver Women’s Correctional Facility. She reminded the women that they had to stay in their assigned sections-she had earlier explained to the volunteers that the section numbers had to do with their behavior in the prison and did not reflect the reason for their incarceration. “One’s” had exemplary behavior, “Two’s” were doing pretty well, “Three’s” were struggling with self-regulation and “Four’s” and “Five’s” were struggling to the extent that they had lost privileges such as attending worship. As I said, I purposefully sat in section three. My reasoning was sometimes people just need to know that they are loved even when they try and push others away.

Worship began, led nearly entirely by the women. A petite, blonde and charismatic woman who was a fantastic guitar player and singer led the music. She shared her story of how she was incarcerated for killing her boyfriend, who was abusive, and how prison had really set her free. She started coming to New Beginnings simply to get out of her cell at first (very common in the prison) but then God started working in her, speaking to her, freeing her heart, freeing her soul and mind. She recounted all the things that the Lord had done for her in prison and her joy was contagious. Other women also shared their stories and while the details changed, the stories were essentially the same: what the Lord had done for them when they were scared, at rock bottom, or seemingly at a dead end. God had provided new opportunities, new pathways and new life. I was struck that in their stories, I heard my own. Again, the details were different, but the emotions, were not. I too knew what it was like to be scared, to be at rock bottom, and at what seemed like a dead end. I, too, knew what it was to have God release me from those realities for a new one. No, I have never been institutionally incarcerated, but I have been a prisoner to my own fear, shortcomings, actions, and feelings. Maybe you have too. And I know what it is to have God free me from my own baggage to undo the shackles of false idols of pride, ego and self-sustainability. I know that it’s the Lord who helped me. God has sent angels, people to walk with me along the way, even if for only a little while. But that is what God does. These women of New Beginnings knew that God had sent them angels, the volunteers, the pastor, the outside board, the synod, partnering congregations, and each other. Yes, angels come in all forms and are in all places.

The story of Peter’s release from prison recounts that we are all in bondage to something and can’t free ourselves. Peter was wrongfully imprisoned for proclaiming that Jesus is the son of God who turns the world upside down, brings rulers and authorities down from their thrones, lifts the people who are thrown away by society and says that in the kingdom of God, our story is the story of what God has done, is doing and will continue to do for us and creation, no matter our status, what we have or haven’t done, who likes us and who doesn’t. Peter’s release freed him to tell another chapter of the story far and wide in the world. Peter’s story forces us to rethink our human systems of incarceration and authority. So many in this country are wrongfully imprisoned.
This story pulls at the threads of our stories and weaves them with the stories of people who live a different life than we do, who have had different experiences and yet are part of the same fabric of God’s story of restoration, redemption and love for God’s people, all of us. This story, takes seriously listening to stories that seem fantastic, incomprehensible and requires critical thinking to uncover what the Lord is doing in the life of that person. Stories reveal our commonalities and our interconnectedness. God’s story, the story that we all love to tell, is the ultimate story that tells us that love wins, forgiveness reigns, mercy flows, and hope abounds.

A couple of year later, there was another chapter to that woman’st story that Mike and I were privileged to hear it when we attended a fundraiser for New Beginnings and she was the musical guest. Yes, she had been released and reunited with her family. She had been freed from incarceration but she told the audience how God had freed her long before her release date. She had been freed to tell more people her story in God. To declare that God was powerful and could and would do anything to show the world God’s love through Jesus Christ. God will go to great lengths to transform us and the world, to wrap us in promises of love and abundant life today and forever. This is the point of God’s story, of the woman’s story, Peter’s story, and our story. God frees us and we love to tell the story. Amen.

*If you would like to support New Beginnings ministry please go to http://www.newbeginningswc.org. This is an important and vital ministry!