A Lutheran Says What?

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

God’s Powerful Word October 8, 2021

This sermon was proclaimed in the community of Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church in Holladay, UT on Oct. 3, 2021. It can be viewed on our YouTube channel: Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church SLC. The texts were:

Genesis 2: 18-24
Psalm 8
Mark 10: 2-16

Young Friends Message: How many of you know any words in another language? Yep, I know a little as well. I took French in high school and college, that’s actually the class where Mike and I met our sophomore year, and I can remember learning some words and phrases in French that when translated to English made no sense at all and were kinda funny to me when I was 15. Such as when we are walking in a mall or on a street with shops but not going in, we say that we are window shopping. In French, the words for that activity literally translate to “window licking.” Mike and I still use that from time to time. When we went to Paris and we didn’t see anyone licking windows, which is good as that’s gross. But if we took it literally and didn’t know the culture of France, we might think that people went around licking windows. Or that the word “gateau” in French is “cake” and in Spanish is “cat.” You don’t want to mix that up!
Something we forget when we read the Bible is that we are reading a translation. It wasn’t written in English originally but two ancient languages of Hebrew and Greek. So, we are careful when we read the Bible, particularly passages that seem hard to understand. The English words may not tell us exactly what’s going on, and then we misunderstand. Today we have two bible stories that are hard for us and have been used to make people feel bad about themselves, to make certain people seem less important or to imply that God doesn’t love them. If you learn nothing else from me, I want you to know that yes, that God sometimes says some hard things, but God only wants you to be healthy, safe, and loved. All the words, the words we don’t like, the words we don’t understand, the words that make us uncomfortable, are all words in the Bible are ones that we should hear as love you and for everyone. And sometimes it’s hard for us to remember that.  We’re going to talk a little bit more about that.

You might think it’s a cop out to take this angle of how we read the Bible with these two really hard passages from Genesis 2 and Mark 10 in our lectionary today. And maybe you’re correct, but what I couldn’t shake all week was how these two stories are ripped from their cultural, historical and textual (which means the placement in the Bible) contexts deeply matters in how we wrestle with them. It matters that what we understand that what we read in English, isn’t the same as in the Hebrew or the Greek. These words have power, because God’s word has power, and it matters how that power is wielded. You see, when we take passages such as the creation of humans, and one of Jesus’ teachings on divorce and use the question “what does it mean for me?” instead of “What does God intend?” we will always pervert it. The Genesis 2 passage has been used for centuries to exert power over women and to deny LBGTQIA+ folks relationships. But when we really dig into it, that’s not what God intended. Genesis 2 tells us how God uses God’s power to create what God desires, community and connection. God sees that the new human is lonely. Here’s where words matter: the Hebrew that is translated in English as man, isn’t “man” in the Hebrew. It’s ha’adamah, the earth, mud creature. No gender. In Jewish tradition this person is non-binary. And while in our English we use the word “adamah” as a proper name of Adam, in ancient Hebrew there are no capital letters. None. Not even for God, Yahweh, Elohim, El Shaddai nor the gender pronouns used for God. (Gender pronouns for God is another sermon.) Giving the first letter of certain nouns a capital letter is a western concept and one that is directly rooted in hierarchy and human power.

So, this mud creature is lonely, and the animals aren’t quite cutting it as friends. Our English alludes that it’s the mud creature who can’t find a suitable partner, but in the Hebrew, it alludes that it’s God who thinks the animals aren’t suitable. Ha’adamah might have been perfectly happy with a cat, but it’s God who decides to make another earth creature.  The English translation says God wanted to make “ha’adamah” a helper, but that’s problematic, as that word in Hebrew is “ezer”, and means divine helper and is only used in the rest of the Hebrew Bible to reference God. That doesn’t sound like a subordinate creature to me. God causes ha’adamah to fall asleep and takes a piece of them and creates another creature who is slightly different from the first creature because God loves diversity. The mud creature wakes up and see the other human and speaks words that were a Hebrew idiom or poetry for connection. “Flesh of my flesh” can mean “one who faces my face.” This new human pair are standing together, connected, both created by God, equal, not separate. There is not a command to be fruitful and multiply in this creation story as well. They are created to simply be together with each other and God. God’s power creates flourishing relationships and community. Yes, that gets disordered just a few verses later, but the rest of the Bible is God’s word to us that God is at work to bring us back to this face to face relationship with God and each other.
And we come to Mark 10 and this pernicious passage on divorce. This too been used and abused to wield power and shame, so let’s dive in. While ancient divorce mores are far different than ours today, a commonality is that divorce is hard, can cause economic hardships, often leaves women and children vulnerable and causes grief for all involved, even if it’s needed and the best answer. The Pharisees are trying to trap Jesus and ask him if a man can divorce his wife and Jesus asks them what Moses says. Yes, Jesus knew Deut. 24:1, but he was curious how these learned leaders would respond. They quote the verse. Jesus doesn’t disagree with them and notes how humans are always looking to exert power over each other, even the people we’re supposed to love. And then Jesus flips the script on the pharisees, he recalls Genesis 2 and what God does, what God’s desires and what God’s power enacts: connected, beloved community. Jesus showed this power throughout in the previous nine chapters of Mark as well as, throughout all the gospels, but time and again, the disciples, the religious leaders, the Roman leaders keep getting stuck in their own power needs. This is evident when the disciples asked Jesus again, and Jesus levels the playing field and responds that anyone, male or female, who simply discards a relationship for a new one, causes hurt. What Jesus doesn’t do here, is condemn anyone. Jesus doesn’t use his power for condemnation only to reveal God’s love and mercy.
This is witnessed fully in the last verses seemingly unconnected to the divorce conversation, but they’re not. As we discussed last week, children were the most powerless and vulnerable in ancient society. Jesus welcomes these powerless and vulnerable little ones and says that this is what power in the kingdom of God looks like, it looks like not worrying about your power and coming to God. And then Jesus blesses them, by touching them and gathering them to himself and holding them. This is God’s power on full display.
These texts have power, not because they give us specific rules of what we are supposed to do, the Bible is not a rule book. The Bible has many stories of humanity’s broken relationships: marriages, families, friendships, and even Israel herself divorcing into two kingdoms. The Bible also has many stories of God’s power to create love, connection, of community authentic and healthy relationships. It’s stories of God’s presence and blessing amid heartbreak. Broken relationships are real, and God understands that they break for reasons that are valid and necessary for healing and wholeness to take place. God never wants us in relationships that keep us powerless. If you hear nothing else today, divorce is sometimes necessary and yes, can be a holy and good decision that God supports because God loves you, and the person you are divorcing. Not every relationship is for a lifetime and that’s part of the human paradox.
The Bible opens us to witness God’s power active today, as we are more divided and divorced from each other than ever. God gathers us and blesses us, all of us, people we like, people we don’t, and people who don’t like us. God’s word of love echoes from the past to now translated by God’s Holy Spirit. God created us, for God’s purposes of wholeness. God blesses us to bless others, to be part of God’s gathering and care for the vulnerable in our society and speak words of love and connection, not condemnation or separation. God’s word joins us together to be face to face, not separated, and that is a powerful blessing. Let’s turn to the person next you and offer this blessing: +God’s powerful word of love is for you+
Amen.

 

“Blessed: Life and Death” Mary’s Song December 14, 2017

This sermon was preached on Wednesday Dec. 13, 2017 at Bethany Lutheran Church.

Mary and Jesus

Luke 1: 46-55  The Magnificat

What do you know about Mary? We tend to know the most about her from the birth narratives and from the passion story. We have snippets of normal mom stuff throughout, but Mary takes on multi-dimensions at Christmas and Good Friday in our church year. And these two days are inextricably linked for her, even from the beginning of her pregnancy. Mary is often portrayed as meek, mild, obedient and nurturing. I wonder about this. She was a young woman, a peasant, part of a minority religion, in an occupied territory, who was unwed and pregnant, ran away to the hills to a distant relative, who never says one word to her parents or about her parents in this whole narrative. Sounds like a head strong, defiant and stubborn teenager to me!

And then we have her song here in Luke: not a lullaby, not a sweet song of love for Joseph or her child, but a song that proclaims a political manifesto, a rearranging of the social system, a reversal of power, hope for the down trodden and a God who walks with those whom the rest of the worlds casts away. This is no ordinary birth announcement! A song of freedom that bursts forth from an ordinary young woman who would be considered a disgrace, a nobody, possibly even a problem. She has nothing and is nothing in the eyes of the world, but in her heart, she has everything-she is blessed.

When have you felt blessed? What does it mean to you to be blessed? What do you think it meant for Mary to say “from now on all generations will call me blessed?” Mary demonstrates how even in seemingly imperfect circumstances, God’s blessings abound. Mary is blessed by new purpose, relationship with God and part of God’s work of reconciliation. Mary’s purpose is not an easy road, she is taking on one of the most dangerous activities in the ancient world: childbirth. There was a very high maternal mortality rate and an even higher infant mortality rate. Life and death inextricably bound together.  Joy and grief, hope and despair. Mary would know the joy of holding her son only a few minutes alive and the soul shattering heart break of holding her son only a few minutes dead. Yet, all generations will call her blessed. Not because her life was easy or without risk or heart break, but precisely because she took this risk to be a part of what God was doing in the world, through her, and through her child even if it pierces her heart.

Mary’s song sings into our lives today with this powerful melody of blessings, not from the world’s perspective of being first, the best, and with the most but from God’s perspective of humility, self-emptying love and justice. Our lives sing like Mary’s when we live into the blessings of following God despite the risk, the blessings of pointing to God’s work in the midst of discomfort, the blessings of proclaiming God doing a new thing that is good news for the poor, the hungry and the lowly as they will be freed from injustice and the good news for the rich, the powerful and the proud as they will be freed from the oppression of being controlled by money, status and self. God’s blessings are sung in the midst of confusion and chaos by a peasant girl, by a mute prophet, by an old barren woman now pregnant, by angels, by shepherds and sheep, and by God as Jesus Christ, God with us, to save us, to heal us, to free us and to call us into the song God’s promises for us and all creation of hope, mercy and joy.

 

The Ordinary Reveals the Extraordinary Work of God Luke 2:22-40 Christmas 1, 2014 December 29, 2014

Many of you know that I was a teacher before seminary. When I lived in Lincoln, NE, I did some substitute teaching after graduation and a Roman Catholic school, Blessed Sacrament, liked me so well that I taught there nearly everyday for a year, doing both long term (several weeks in a row) and short term substitute positions. Before this I had limited experiences with the Catholic Church. I had attended one wedding when I was 10 and my college roommate is a devout Catholic but I had never attended mass with her.
Blessed Sacrament students and staff attended mass each day at 3 p.m. Now, I had been a part of a fairly pious Lutheran congregation in ND, but nothing prepared me for the level of ritual and piety that is the Roman Catholic Church. I was completely fascinated with the Rosary, the differences in the Lord’s Prayer, communion practices and liturgy (which I was not able to be a part of) and the candle lighting with the saints particularly was interesting to me. It seems that the Catholic Church has a ritual for everything and for everything a ritual. I watched as many of the older children and adults participated in these rituals, praying, singing, standing and kneeling as seamlessly as breathing. Young mothers with babies crawling all over them could recite the Rosary and keep track of their toddlers without missing a beat. It was all very ordinary and common to them, as well as giving them a laser-like focus on what was important in their lives. Honestly, I was a little jealous of all of this. Going to mass each day was like stepping through a spiritual portal where, while I was an outsider, I was being swept in and enfolded by their singing and speaking words of praise and confession that proclaimed Jesus presence as the central pivot in their lives. Mass allowed me to experience the ordinary rituals of my Lutheran tradition in new and extraordinary ways that revealed Jesus as central in my life.
Now, I am a (good?)Lutheran girl and I know why Martin Luther critiqued some of these rituals and why they can be actually in the way of a meaningful and authentic relationship with God. But in attending mass at Blessed Sacrament and witnessing what was for this congregation, ordinary and common practices that oriented them to God, I glimpsed something that made me think differently about God in my life, differently about my own spiritual practices and differently about what God was doing in the world. I was also made aware of all of the things that I did day to day that were “rituals” but not necessarily ones that connected me to God and the love of Jesus Christ. What part of my day made me stop and look for the love of Christ around me? Where did my ordinary life intersect with the mystery of God? What practices did I have that revealed God to other people?
Mary and Joseph didn’t think that they were doing anything extraordinary by going to the temple with two pigeons for Mary’s purification after childbirth. This would have been as natural and rote for them as the Rosary is for Catholics and saying “The Lord be with you. And also with you” is for Lutherans. Nothing to see here but two sleep deprived parents of a five week old baby. But they went to the temple for the purification ritual, just as they had taken their baby boy for circumcision when he was eight days old. They were following all of the rituals of their tradition as they had themselves witnessed since birth, brought up in homes where God was the focus of their lives. Mary and Joseph assumed that this trip to the temple would be quick and then they could go home and maybe catch a nap before baby Jesus got cranky.
But in the ordinariness of this ritual, something extraordinary happened. An old man Simeon, arrived at the temple as he did each day but knew that this day was different, this baby was unlike any other baby presented to the priest. This baby revealed God’s salvation, light and glory to all people. Mary and Joseph had to have been shaken from their complacency of the ritual by his words and his blessing. It’s not every day a complete stranger sings God’s praises while holding your child, blessing him and proclaiming your son’s role in God’s activity in the world. And for Simeon it was not every day that his life intersected the revelation of God’s promise for creation.
And if Mary and Joseph were not already struck by the difference of this day, Anna, a prophet whose whole life was focused on praising God, echoed Simeon’s words of who this child was, is and will be. This ordinary ritual act of coming to the temple that had been done by thousands of families, on this day revealed God’s extraordinary work, love and mercy for the world. Mary and Joseph must have had the sense of being swept up into something beyond themselves. This simple ritual refocused them to what God was doing through them and Jesus.
We view so much in our lives as ordinary. We go to our ordinary jobs, ordinary schools, run our ordinary errands, take our children to ordinary activities, go to our ordinary homes, see ourselves as ordinary and assume that nothing much is significant in all of that ordinariness. But in Luke today we hear that there is extraordinary in the ordinary and it is in these seemingly innocuous intersections where we are reminded that God is the focus of our lives and swept up into the mystery of God. Rituals have the power and the ability to orient our minds, souls and bodies to the one who created them. It’s not just about rituals in a church building, but it’s about the church as the people of God pointing to God in the world wherever and whatever they are doing.
This morning we celebrate the ritual of baptism with Owen and Cooper. Through ordinary water and words spoken by ordinary people, God’s love, mercy and promises for eternal life are revealed and proclaimed. God declares that in the ordinary water washing over their heads, Owen and Cooper belong to God, belong to the community of God’s people, are swept up into the mystery of life with God and are extraordinarily beloved. Their lives and our lives, reflect and proclaim the promises of God for everyone-no place, person or circumstance is too ordinary for God to be present. Today we are all promising to help teach and include Owen and Cooper in rituals such as The Lord’s Prayer, Ten Commandments, Apostles Creed, Holy Communion, daily prayers, scripture reading, faith conversations and blessing. We are promising to each day reorient our lives to center on Jesus as we walk with them in their faith journey. But even our day to day “ordinary” rituals also have the capacity to remind us, to reveal to us and others around us, that we are surrounded by the love of God in our lives.
The Holy Spirit reveals for us that in the life of God, all is extraordinary, as God has created us, all of us, to participate in God’s work of redemption in the world. With each breath, we are a part of the mystery of God’s presence and love. We may not always understand this or even recognize it as so, which is precisely why we gather to share in rituals of the ordinary earthly elements that point to so much more than we can see today, here and now. Through songs, words, water, bread and wine we focus ourselves on the reality of Jesus’ presence and love. Like Simeon and Anna, we offer with one another praises to God and speak, share and reveal to one another Jesus in our lives, the one who dwelt among us, sweeps us up into eternal life with God, with one another and who came to redeem us all. Amen.