A Lutheran Says What?

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

Called Out: Sermon on Amos 2 June 15, 2021

This sermon was proclaimed at Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church in Holladay, UT on June 13, 2021. It can be viewed on our YouTube Channel: Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church SLC. We continue our sermon series on the prophet Amos: Let Justice Roll Like Waters.

The texts were:
Amos 2: 6-16
Mark 11: 15-19

Young Friends Message: Gather the younger members together (if you’re doing that right now!) and tell them that you have 11 fingers. They will tell you that you are wrong. But do the old trick: “See I’m going to count them! One, two, skip these three, (start counting fingers on the other hand) four, five, six, seven, eight, (move back to the three fingers you skipped), nine, ten, eleven!” They will probably get all riled up and tell you that you did it wrong. You can egg them on a little and do it again if you want! But in the end, let them teach you that yes, you do only have 10 fingers….(unless you really have eleven and then congrats!) Talk about how you are grateful that they taught you how to count correctly and sometimes we need someone to tell us when we’re off course. Our Amos and Mark stories are about this. It was more serious than just counting, the Israelites were not treating each other very well and needed God to point it out. Amos was the person God sent to them to point this out and of course, God sent Jesus too! Jesus not only told us what we should do but showed us. Jesus actions in turning over the tables and wanting to stop people from being cheated and losing their money that they needed for food tells us that sometimes you have to not only need words but actions to show us how we can learn differently and do better. We’re going to talk a little more about that.

I heard a song this morning from Cold Play called Clocks. A line in it always hits home for me: “am I part of the cure, or am I part of the disease?” One of the hardest lessons I’ve had to learn in my life, is how to be wrong. Maybe it is for you as well, but as a self-proclaimed, always in recovery perfectionist, it is really quite devastating to not know something or to get something wrong. To be wrong on one thing, to me, feels like negating everything I do know, or the things I do get correct. As I look around the social media and even just the mainstream media landscape, I don’t think I’m alone. And what I have learned is that there are times when I NEED to know that I have messed up, to hear the truth that I have harmed someone, that I have made a situation less safe or have been unhelpful. To only give me participation trophies doesn’t help me either. Some of the most difficult learning I have had to do has come in the past couple of years around my privilege as a well-educated, white upper middle class woman in the US. When someone first made me aware of this, I bristled. My immediate response (that thankfully I didn’t voice out loud) was one of indignance, to list off the ways I have had to work hard, make smart choices, lift myself up by my bootstraps and to defend that my privilege wasn’t an obstacle for me to unlearn. I mean, I didn’t grow up rich, I’ve had some sort of job since I was 12 and I worked really hard in school to get good grades. I deserved everything I have, right?
Well, maybe not so fast, I have since unraveled. Through classes where I had to confront my whiteness and economic privilege, to immersion experiences that revealed how much I didn’t know, to personal conversations where friends of color loved me enough to tell me the truth of what they were experiencing from me. All these situations were indeed uncomfortable, devastating in some cases, and they were necessary. I had to hear the truth, to be reminded that the privilege isn’t who I truly am, that someone’s lack of privilege and resources isn’t who they truly are either. And all these situations are ones that I now know were holy ones. Holy in that they were set apart, consecrated experiences where God’s Holy Spirit could find a crack in my façade to invade me for the sake of transforming my thoughts, words and actions into ones that told the true story of who I am as a child of God, part of God’s work on earth. And as part of that true story, I also have accountability to tell it, to live it. I’m not saying that we have to earn God’s love and grace, oh no, far from it. I am saying that in order to honor God’s love and grace that God so generously and with abandon pours out on us all, we have something at stake in responding to it in kind. Often, this is where I fall short, where I don’t want to do the hard work of living in a way that honors other people’s dignity and human flourishing. I want what is cheap, easy and fast, even if it is to the detriment of someone else, and it often is.

We have the current public debate if this is “call-out culture” or “cancel-culture.” People’s feathers get ruffled when they are held accountable for actions and words that publicly disrespect or harm another human being. I mean, they said or did those things before with no consequences. Why does it matter now? I personally think the move towards holding people accountable for their actions and words is a good and healthy thing. Without consequences and accountability, we lose the ability to live in true community where life flourishes for all, not just for some. And we must possess the humility to realize when we are the ones that need to be held accountable and experience consequences.

Amos knows that the people of Israel would have a hard time with this call-out of their actions and deeds. It’s why, as we read last week, he started with the other nations, circling around Israel and zeroing in like a bullseye on the northern kingdom. Israel might have had a sense of satisfaction as they heard Amos skewering their enemies for war crimes. When they heard the oracle against their kin nation of Judah, they might have been a bit more nervous, but were still ready to point the finger at them. And then the boom lowered here in chapter 2, verse 6: And for three transgressions of Israel and for four, I will not revoke the punishment. But instead of a list of crimes that they have committed against other nations, like what was previously stated, it was a long laundry list of how they were treating each other in their own nation. They were abandoning the covenant in the commandments, those with privilege, voice and status were not caring for their neighbor but were getting richer, ensuring self-comfort, and securing their own futures at the expense of fellow Israelites. High taxes on wine, keeping cloaks from people who were in poverty and would sleep outside at night, worshiping at other altars, denying justice for those without means, perverting family relationships. Amos reminds them of their identity, who they are and who’s they are: God’s. God who freed them from slavery, who protected and cared for them in the desert. God who brought them to the promised land, God who gave them all that they have. God whom they now ignore, neglect and want to relegate to only one day a week, and a few festivals throughout the year. God wasn’t going to let them off the hook; God loved them too much for that.

The consequences were coming, and they would be severe. We have to be clear that God isn’t causing the consequences, the people of Israel were, just as we cause the societal consequences we are experiencing today. God uses Love and Logic parenting, i.e. natural consequences. When you don’t take care of those who need it, eventually, you too will need care, and there won’t be anyone to help you. A society that refuses to acknowledge and reconcile the harm perpetrated on any segment of the population, is setting itself up to be conquered eventually. Perhaps not a military conquest as in the history of Israel, but conquered by hate, fear, division, greed and perhaps the deadliest, our egos. We send ourselves into exile. We cause our own demise. We think that we can prepare: create an army, build a wall, drive the stock market higher, hoard our finances, deny our vulnerability, or the vulnerability of the environment, or outsmart, outwit and outplay God. But God is clear that none of those things stand a chance against the truth of God’s power in the world for love and wholeness. Nothing can bear the magnitude of God’s grace.

God sends Jesus right into the thick of humanity’s injustices to call us out to another way. Not to let us off the hook, but to call us out to respond to God’s love and grace for us. Jesus calls us out-for God simply won’t stand by while we literally kill ourselves and each other-God cares too much about us all to let that happen. Jesus calls us out and we listen and then respond. We respond-not with defensiveness and contempt for the messenger but with humility, love and grace. We respond how Jesus showed us to respond: with actions that yes, might put our actual lives on the line, by giving up our comfort, our status quo, our standard of living, our privilege, our ego, to give up everything we might know. To flip the tables on our own thinking, words and actions, so that we can flip the tables of society to live as God envisions. As followers of Jesus, we are indeed called out, called out for justice, called out for love, called out for grace, called out for mercy, called out for hope in the Kin-dom of God. Thanks be to God.

 

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.

 

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.