A Lutheran Says What?

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

Don’t Be Distracted: Sermon on Mark 7: 24-37 September 10, 2018

This sermon was proclaimed at Bethany Lutheran Church in Cherry Hills Village, CO on September 9, 2018. It can be viewed at http://www.bethanylive.org

Distractions…Children’s sermon: Gather children and say that you have something really important to tell them. Then get a text, say “oh wait, let me look at this…ooo very cool. Do you all want to see this picture of the bouncy house outside? It’s so awesome! Oh look here’s more pictures of my daughter’s cat…oh wait a minute…are we supposed to be looking at pictures on my phone or doing something else? Oh that’s right! I wanted to tell you about Jesus but I got distracted by my phone! Does that ever happen to you? You go to do something or your mom, dad or teacher asks you to do something important and you then you walk by the tv, a game, or a toy and get distracted and don’t do that thing? Yep! It happens to everyone, even adults! What do you think is more important– these pictures on my phone or telling or showing you about the love of Jesus? Love of Jesus! In today’s bible stories, we are reminded not to get distracted by stuff going on in our lives from showing people that Jesus loves them. Sometimes we get distracted. Do you ever get distracted in school? Or by how people look, or act, or what they say, but Jesus wants us to remember that THE most important thing in our lives is to show everyone love by putting people first, not toys, games, or something that we want to do, but what our friends and families NEED us to do so that they feel loved. What are ways to show your friends and family Jesus’ love? Yep! I’m going to talk to the adults some more about that, but let’s pray first.

I am so easily distracted! How many of you here have picked up your phone to maybe text a family member and then get sucked in to social media or another message from someone else, put down your phone 30 minutes later only to realize you never actually sent the text/email you picked your phone up to do! I have found myself doing that.  It can make me worry I’m losing my mind! That’s rhetorical btw, you don’t get a vote on that. But I get distracted by the email or text that is right in front of me and so seems so urgent that I forget the first thing I wanted to do. I get tunnel vision and can miss what is truly important and has value.

We live in a time and culture where someone or something is always trying to pull our attention and distract us: media, technology, politics, hobbies, “to-do” lists,  sports, school activities, jobs and our social lives! And distractions aren’t bad, they can be good and wonderful things. But distractions can keep us from being present in the moment and can keep us from remembering what really matters.

Our scripture texts for today reorient us to what is important, although on the surface, we can get distracted by some other stuff going on. In Mark, it’s easy to get distracted by the uncomfortable exchange between the Syrophoenician woman and Jesus. Jesus makes a very harsh comment to this desperate mother who only wants to save her daughter. “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” I spent a great deal of time distracted this week trying to explain this away and make Jesus sound less harsh, as let’s be clear, this is an insult. We can’t pretty up that Jesus called her a dog. And I don’t think we should let Jesus off the hook either. Jesus is fully human and a product of his culture and time. And Jesus is in a foreign land, he is the outsider in Tyre and the woman is the insider, however, she knows that she shouldn’t speak to a strange man by herself, she knows that there are deep tensions between the Hellenized Gentiles in this region and the Jews that they regularly oppress. But she boldly asks for what she needs from Jesus, and it seems, this is exactly the response she expected because she had a quick comeback “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” She didn’t deny or argue with what Jesus said, she didn’t get distracted by the slur. She stood her ground, spoke her truth to the person in power and stayed focused on why she was there: She knew that Jesus could cast the demon out of her daughter. Fine, I’m a dog, whatever, save my child, this is what matters. You can do it Jesus. You’re the messiah!

Jesus was awakened from his own distractions by this woman and her bold, faithful actions. Yes, Jesus came to proclaim God’s redemption and God’s kingdom here on earth to the Israelites first, first being the important word here, but yes to Gentiles too. Please don’t forget that, the woman asks. Jesus had been distracted by the urgent need of the Israelites but now Jesus reorients to the vastness and inclusivity of God’s kingdom-and he doesn’t just say this, he acts on it by healing from afar. Jesus doesn’t even have to be near to heal and offer new life to the little girl.

And again, in the healing of the man who was deaf and couldn’t speak, Jesus doesn’t get distracted by the fact that this man too is a Gentile and therefore unclean, and not only touches him, but uses his own spit and touches the man’s tongue, (who here would do that?), to not only free him from his condition but also free him to be included back into the community. Despite Jesus saying not to speak of this healing, the man and his friends can’t help but to proclaim the power of Jesus. Their words affirm Jesus’ actions of risk, boundary crossing and faith. They can’t be distracted from what they have experienced in Jesus, their faith is focused on sharing the new life that Jesus offered this man.

I know that I often get distracted in my everyday life and in my faith life. I get caught, like Jesus, in the tunnel vision of the things I think are more important, or as the passage from James states, focusing on the people and things that are comfortable, easy and don’t challenge me. I can see suffering, hunger, loneliness, pain, and say, well, I’ll offer a word of hope and prayer, but I’ve got to get ready for Bible study, Rally Day, or this sermon or Confirmation. I’m distracted by what seems important at the time, but perhaps is not really what I should be focused on. James’ community is struggling with this too, the people are distracted by what is comfortable, easy and they don’t want to get their hands dirty. Certain people are given more importance, value and attention than others. Those who appear to have no worldly resources or status are pushed aside while the people are distracted by those who seem to have money and social status. I love that the writer of James names these worldly and cultural distractions for us so plainly and reminds us in these well-known and well discussed words “Faith without works is dead.”

This makes us itchy as Lutherans as we know that we are saved by God’s grace and not our own works, but we need the reminder, that just like we can’t let Jesus off the hook for his words, nor are we off the hook for ours. James brings us to task that what we actually DO matters. We can’t simply offer kind and trite words of “I’ll pray that you find food.” Or “I’ll pray that you get housing.” Or “I’ll pray that you aren’t judged by your gender, race or sexuality.” No, we are called, dear siblings in Christ, to bold, risky and loving actions for the sake of those whom society throws away and doesn’t value. Don’t be distracted by political rhetoric, don’t be distracted by wealth, don’t be distracted by those who seem to have power or authority, don’t be distracted by social status, don’t be distracted by your own comfort and wants, don’t be distracted by flattering words and don’t be distracted by harsh, critical words either. Stay focused on what matters: the kingdom of God, where God works through us, yes us, in bold and unexpected ways, to ensure that all people have voice, dignity, value, are included, are cared for and all people are deeply and unconditionally loved.  Faith is a loving gift from God and our works bring this faith alive in Christ for the sake of the world without distraction.

As we kick off a new program year today, may we as the people of Bethany stay focused on what matters, on what has true value. May we offer bold words that speak this truth to the powers that need to hear them and may our faithful actions  reveal the kingdom of God in our very midst. But most of all, may we live undistracted, undeterred and uninhibited in the grace of God’s love that is for us all people. Thanks be to God.

 

 

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Don’t Get Distracted (And Don’t Cut Off Any Body Parts Either!) Mark 9: 38-50 Pentecost 18B Sept. 27th, 2015 September 28, 2015

In seminary I took a class in Chicago for two weeks where we studied different urban ministry settings-mostly in impoverished and struggling communities. We went to St. Sabina where Fr. Pfleger had focused on the church building up the community to provide social services and combat racism. We went to Trinity UCC with Rev. Dr. Otis Moss III (formerly the congregation Jeremiah Wright served) where the focus was on building up people to be faithful followers of Jesus no matter what their struggles might be. We visited a small Lutheran congregation that ran an assisted living facility for elderly who were low income. We visited soup kitchens, programs to move people off the streets to self sufficiency and several other kinds of ministries. But the one that hit this (at the time) fledging soon to be pastor was a UCC congregation in the Latino part of Chicago.
This congregation ran a soup kitchen that fed lunch to 150 people from the streets every single day. They partnered with a nearby Catholic school for the youth to help serve; they coordinated massive food donations each week; they offered counseling for those in need, not to mention prayer and love. They were not a large congregation, maybe an average worship attendance of 100 or so and certainly not a wealthy congregation by any means. But they were focused on living out the gospel by whatever means necessary. What was more striking to all of us in the class was that this congregation had not had a pastor for two years. None, not even an interim. They had some supply pastors float in and out but no consistent pastoral presence. They deeply desired that presence, they wanted a pastor but it’s difficult to get one to come for what they were paying in that part of Chicago.
A parishioner named Rosaria had decided that the soup kitchen would be her ministry and while she had another full time job, she managed to put together a team of people both within and without of the congregation to work with her. She greeted us at the door and proudly told us all about that ministry and congregation. We sat and listened to how each member of this congregation played a role, how they had put aside the anxiety and fear of no pastor in place and just got on with the ministry that God had called them too, and they did it well. They were the busiest people I have ever seen and yet the calmest people I have ever seen. When something didn’t go exactly how they had planned, they readjusted and just kept moving around, over or through the obstacle not worrying about who is getting credit, or who is in charge. I marveled at the calm, as my personal M.O. is to worry about all of the things that could go wrong. I actually found myself concerned for them! But they ignored all of the possible distractions and were simply focused on God’s children who needed food for the day and a word of God’s love, mercy and grace.
“Be at peace with one another.” We tend to think that peace looks like serenity, rest, status quo, an easy life, or no hardships in our path to whatever we think we need to do to be at peace, happy or content. But peace is not any of these things. Peace in this text comes from the Hebrew word “Shalom” which means wholeness. Wholeness. Peace in God’s kingdom is about all people being whole: being wholly loved, wholly included, and wholly equal. I can almost see Jesus rolling his eyes when the disciples come to tattle tale that someone else is doing what they perceived to be solely their work. “Jesus this person is casting out demons! That’s what we do! We should stop him!” I mean heaven forbid that all of the demons get cast out and then everyone is healthy! Then we won’t be special! The disciples, and us, like to over think situations and make them more complex and more fearful than they really are.
Jesus then goes on to talk about whoever is not against us is for us, don’t put up obstacles, and then some gruesome words about cutting off body parts that keep you from fully participating in God’s work of peace in the world. Now we know that we can’t take such language literally, Jesus does not want us to cut off body parts or put a millstone around our necks but does want to get our attention and to think deeply about what distracts us from God’s peace, God’s wholeness and being part of God’ work that reveals God’s love in the world. What obstacles do we put up to keep out some of God’s children who make us uncomfortable? We love distractions from our real work at hand and we spend much more time creating them than actually just getting to the task of God’s work given to us. We worry about what other people are thinking or doing, we worry about what other people say about us, we worry that some people may not believe the same way, or will get mad, or not like us, or something may not work as well as we want. We worry, and in our anxiety and fear we create obstacles, we look for pitfalls and failings. What we don’t do is look to Christ who works in our midst, in our mess and promises to be forever present.
Hell is separation from God (it is not a place and no one is being sent there!) and we create our own hell. We create ways to exclude hope, joy and love so that we can say “I told you so” when things don’t quite work out how we envisioned. God desires for everyone to be close to God and wrapped in God’s love with no separation-hell is not God’s judgment or punishment; it’s how we punish ourselves. * But God never leaves us and never wants us separated from God or God’s loving community, yet we look for ways to resist God’s desire, thinking it’s safer to go it alone than to participate in the reckless abundance, generosity and love of Christ. Christ opened the way for all –removed every single obstacle that the world could provide-even death-in order for all creation to be in God’s peace, God’s Shalom and God’s love now and forever.
What distractions need to be navigated in your life, here at LOTH or in the community? How are we caught up in our own worry and anxiety and miss what God is doing right here, right now in our midst? We have the Prayer and Care ministry that offers mercy, hope and community right when people need it the most. We have all of our education opportunities that dive us all at any age deep into God’s word of love for us all. We have Habitat for Humanity and Prayer Shawl ministries. We have our buildings that offer safe places for our brothers and sisters in Christ to meet. God is at work here-no matter what obstacles we perceive!
Jesus removes all obstacles and simply calls us to do the same. The UCC Church in Chicago learned that Christian community isn’t about a pastor, a church building, a budget or anyone of the things with which they could have distracted themselves. Christian community is recognizing that Jesus has already removed all distractions, has already given us all that we need for the journey and has gathered us all into one body for the sake of loving God and our neighbor. “Be at peace with one another, for God is with you.”
*My own personal view point on Hell is that it is not a place where those who are “bad, evil or don’t make the cut get in.” God’s salvation is for all and all are in! All means all! That person right now you’re saying to yourself ‘not them’…yes them too! This is good news as nothing separates us from the love of Christ, not even our own attempts at self-sufficiency! If your head is hurting-good! God’s love and mercy are that mysterious and that overwhelming!