A Lutheran Says What?

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

It’s Hard and It Matters February 5, 2017

Preached on Feb. 5, 2017 at Bethany Lutheran Church, Cherry Hills Village, CO

 

Isaiah 58:1-12New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

False and True Worship

58 Shout out, do not hold back! Lift up your voice like a trumpet! Announce to my people their rebellion, to the house of Jacob their sins. Yet day after day they seek me and delight to know my ways, as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness and did not forsake the ordinance of their God;
they ask of me righteous judgments, they delight to draw near to God. “Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice? Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers. Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist. Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high. Is such the fast that I choose, a day to humble oneself? Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush, and to lie in sackcloth and ashes? Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord? Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin? Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,  and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator[a] shall go before you, the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard. Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am. If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, 10 if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday. 11 The Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places,  and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail. 12 Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.

Matthew 5:13-20New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

Salt and Light

13 “You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.

14 “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. 15 No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.

The Law and the Prophets

17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. 18 For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter,[a] not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. 19 Therefore, whoever breaks[b] one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

 

 

Sometimes things are HARD. You know, just plain ugh. School, work, relationships, raising kids, caring for aging parents, eating kale, exercising, not eating the whole pan of delicious gluten free brownies, writing a sermon instead of watching Netflix, the list goes on and on. I don’t like it when things are hard and I’ve done some hard things in my life and my guess is that you have too. We don’t like it when things are hard, we want things to be simple, easy, enjoyable, you know focused on whatever makes us happy right here right now. Whenever possible we try and make things easy on ourselves usually with some justification of we deserve it, we couldn’t possibly do all those hard things anyway and so why try? No one will know or care if we make our lives a teeny bit easier by avoiding some hard stuff every now and again. It won’t affect anyone else.

Somethings are simply HARD. As I was preparing for the sermon today, one of the commentaries I read stated on verses 17-20: that this is the most difficult passage to be found anywhere in this Gospel. Well….Super. These verses are indeed challenging for many reasons and I considered not focusing on them for that reason, but they kept calling to me. Sometimes we have to wrestle with what is hard. It seems in verses 13-20 that the poet Jesus that Dr. Skinner introduced us to last week with the beatitudes is gone and has been replace by Jesus who has a couple of things to tell us. Jesus starts this long sermon on the mount that we will be exploring for the next couple of weeks, with words that would comfort those people for whom life was hard. Jesus eloquently pulls us in to their hard lives and then moves to make us partners with them in what is hard.

Today’s passage begins with the declaration and promise that we are salt and light, ok, that seems fine, and we hear the words that we use in our baptismal liturgy: “Let you light shine before others so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” Very nice indeed. And then Jesus drops the other shoe. He spells out that he has come not to abolish the law but to fulfill it, and that one who breaks commandments will be called the least in the kingdom of heaven and one who does the law and teaches it will be called great and that our righteousness must exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees or you’re not going to get in the kingdom. Anyone else feel like curling up in the fetal position and throwing in the towel at this point? What??!!! Jesus, you’re supposed to tell us again how we’re tasty salt and gentle and glorious light! Tell us how you’re with us even until the end of the age and how much you love us. Laws, righteousness and commandments? This is too hard Jesus, make it easier!

But Jesus doesn’t let us off the hook about the law. Why? Because it’s not about us at all. That might be the hardest point to hear about the gospel. All the pronouns in the beatitudes and in today’s passage are plural, not singular. It’s “you all” and not “you” individually. Jesus is reminding the disciples and us that the law is all about how we live together as the people of God-all of us. It’s all about relationship, which is Jesus’ parting words in verse 20 to us today. Be more righteous than the scribes and the Pharisees. The scribes and the Pharisees knew every little nuance of ritual and had impeccable theology. But they didn’t want anything to do with people not in their privileged clique.  Jesus isn’t concerned with right rituals and right theology: Jesus is harkening to the Hebrew understanding of righteousness. Righteousness is right relationship with God-how we live in the life of God and so by extension, with our neighbor. And this is HARD because this kind of life, being in right relationship, being oriented to God and not the world, is not about us and whatever makes us happy and gives us an easy life. Jesus doesn’t care if rituals are done correctly, the correct songs are sung, and the correct prayers are said. No, Jesus is wanting us to know that our relationship with God and one another is primary.

The Israelites in Isaiah 58 were also wrestling with this hard reality. They were returning from exile and beginning a new life in Jerusalem. Many were resuming the old rituals as prescribed in the Torah. They were fasting and were annoyed that God didn’t seem to notice them and how well they were performing the ritual. But God saw through the outward act and knew that the fast was all about them. God calls them out and reminds them of the real reason for ritual-to reorient them into right relationship with God. Why? Because their actions as God’s people mattered. Fasting only to follow the rules for the sake of the rules isn’t the point. You fast so that you can share the bread that you were going to eat with the hungry. You fast from isolationism and share your home with the homeless. You fast from materialism and share clothing with the naked. Your actions matter, but your actions are not about you or your salvation, they are about your neighbor in need. When your actions come from a place of serving God, no matter how hard it is, this is when your light shines the brightest and overcomes the darkness that is in the world.

Jesus calls us to do hard things: the life of following Jesus isn’t promised to be easy, without obstacles, without pain, without sacrifice. Jesus calls us to set ourselves, our own wants, our own perspectives, our own comforts aside for the sake of our neighbor. It’s hard, as when we follow the call of Christ out into the world we do so with the needs, dignity, and humanity of our neighbor first and foremost in our minds, hearts and spirits. This is the way of love.

Thankfully, Jesus doesn’t leave us alone in these hard things and simply says, “good luck!” No, the promise is that Jesus walks with us. The promise is found in our Bible Verse of the Month from Is. 58: 9a “Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.” Here I am with you, because your actions matter-not for your salvation-for we know the promise is that nothing will separate us from the love of God. God desires nothing more than relationship with us-all of us, even if it’s hard. Your actions matter so that this promise of God’s love and care is experienced by all people through the people of God. Jesus declares that we are beloved children of God and are already salt-we add God’s zest for abundant life to the world and we are already light-we reflect the light from Christ into the world. It means that we go to lifeless and dark places where we might not want to go but are sent, because it’s not about us but the need for our neighbor to taste, see, hear, and experience the love of Christ in a concrete way-from us. When we truly live in this promise of deep relationship with God and neighbor it will indeed exceed the scribes and the Pharisees who were more concerned about their own rituals and their own wants, than their neighbor. Our light shines because in baptism we die to our old selves and rise through the water, as Emerson will this morning, as a new creation clothed in the promises of Christ.

Jesus proclaims to us over and over again to remember that the heart of the law is love: love that flows from God and moves us in thought, word and deed to do hard things. As a disciple of Christ, I want to learn to love so deeply that these things that we are called to do don’t seem hard but are a joy. I want to learn to love so deeply that when I see people who are different, I only see Christ in my brothers and sisters no matter where they are from. I want to love so deeply that I quit worrying about how my actions may look to others or what other people may think about me. I want to learn to love so deeply that my actions are from a place of love from Christ and focus solely on my neighbor. I want to love like it matters.

Paul reminds us in Philippians 2 that we can do these hard things because God is at work in us, through us and with us. And in Phil. 4:13 he declares “I can do all things through him, Christ, who strengthens me.”

We know that it will sometimes be hard. It is a life long journey to learn to love in this way-to love how Jesus loves. Love that matters, love that feeds the hungry, love that clothes the naked, love that houses homeless, love that welcomes the stranger, love that changes lives, hearts and the world. Love that shines not so that people see us, but see God. I want to love this way, even if it’s hard. Amen!

 

 

Divine Dust Ash Wednesday, February 10, 2016, Year C February 11, 2016

False and True Worship

58 Shout out, do not hold back!
    Lift up your voice like a trumpet!
Announce to my people their rebellion,
    to the house of Jacob their sins.
Yet day after day they seek me
    and delight to know my ways,
as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness
    and did not forsake the ordinance of their God;
they ask of me righteous judgments,
    they delight to draw near to God.
“Why do we fast, but you do not see?
    Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?”
Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day,
    and oppress all your workers.
Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight
    and to strike with a wicked fist.
Such fasting as you do today
    will not make your voice heard on high.
Is such the fast that I choose,
    a day to humble oneself?
Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush,
    and to lie in sackcloth and ashes?
Will you call this a fast,
    a day acceptable to the Lord?

Is not this the fast that I choose:
    to loose the bonds of injustice,
    to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
    and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
    and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
    and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
    and your healing shall spring up quickly;
your vindicator[a] shall go before you,
    the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.
Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer;
    you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.

If you remove the yoke from among you,
    the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil,
10 if you offer your food to the hungry
    and satisfy the needs of the afflicted,
then your light shall rise in the darkness
    and your gloom be like the noonday.
11 The Lord will guide you continually,
    and satisfy your needs in parched places,
    and make your bones strong;
and you shall be like a watered garden,
    like a spring of water,
    whose waters never fail.
12 Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt;
    you shall raise up the foundations of many generations;
you shall be called the repairer of the breach,
    the restorer of streets to live in.

 

Maybe these phrases resonate with you tonight: “I don’t know how much more studying I can do, I’m so burned out.” “I’m exhausted from arguing with my teenaged daughter. I’m burned out on the fights.” “My supervisor just keeps piling on the requirements without allowing enough time or resources for the project. I’m burned out on her not listening.” “I can’t listen to any more political commercials. I’m burned out on the nonsense.” “I keep going back to drinking, gambling, overeating. I’m burned out on trying to change.” “I’m never going to be as good as my friend, colleague, classmate, neighbor. I’m burned out on not feeling good enough.” “I don’t know if I can make it one more day without my husband, wife, mother, father, child. I’m burned out on being sad.”

“I’m burned out.” It’s become a phrase that we throw around with our friends, family and colleagues pretty casually. Sometimes we use it as a badge of honor in relation to our busy and so obviously important schedules. Being burned out means that we’re so vital in whatever little kingdom we inhabit and so of course all of our resources are simply not only crucial but must be depleted. Otherwise, nothing will get done, right?

We also use this phrase to highlight our distaste and the repugnancy of whatever situation we are witnessing or are caught in. Politics, religion, money, taxes, are just a few venues in our lives where its seems that our capacity for engagement has a limit. We gaze out at the socio-economic-political landscape and what catches our sight is often less than hopeful, less than joyful, and less than secure. It’s difficult to near impossible to hear past the rhetoric and posturing of the political candidates to uncover anything of substance, anything that might be life-giving or anything that we might be able to grab on to for security and hope. We yearn for conversations of integrity, honesty and truth. We optimistically listen for what the future might bring for our children, grandchildren and even ourselves and then gut wrenchingly realize that perhaps we’re the only ones who are concerned for those who come after us. We begin to wonder that maybe change isn’t possible and this is the best that we can expect from our systems of government, education and yes, even the Church.

Or maybe you’ve used this phrase as a whisper of desperation for a relationship with a loved one or….yourself. When we’ve hit rock bottom and all we have left is the crippling knowledge that we are caught in a cycle that we alone, all by ourselves without any help, can’t break. When we’ve cried the last tear, because we’ve cried so hard, for so many days, that there is nothing left but long, dry, heaving sobs. When our hearts are not just broken, but shattered into so many pieces that we’re fairly sure that not only will it never go back together again but that there WILL be pieces forever missing. You’ve screamed the words in the car, in the woods or in the bathroom, “God, I’m burned out! I can’t do this anymore!”

God, we’re burned out. We’re depleted. We’re spent. Some days it seems that there is nothing left of our lives but ashes. Those dusty, dirty remnants of an object or thing that used to be, that used to be something of substance, of importance, of usefulness. Now, a pile of ashes, useless, easily scattered and easily blown away. What good are we as ashes and where is God when we are burned out, burned away to what feels like nothingness?

Isaiah writes, “Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.” God hears us, listens to us, walks with us, cries with us, and sees us. God sees that we are burned out, that we are stuck in only going through the motions, that we spin our wheels and only send more dirt and muck flying up into the air, covering ourselves and those around us with the grimy specs of our attempts to take care of ourselves, go it alone, tricking others and ourselves into thinking that we have it all together, and that we can clean ourselves up at any time.

Ash Wednesday is the intersection of our dust, dirt, mess and fear of death and the reality of God’s promises for life . It’s when we admit not only our humanness and mortality but that we are being killed each day in millions of little and big ways. It’s when we run smack into the what it means when we pray “And do not bring us to the time of trial, but rescue us from evil.” God promises to be our rescue. Not in a super hero sort of way swooping in at the last minute to take care of the bad guy or to fix a helpless situation and then dashing off until needed again. God’s rescue is on-going relationship with us each and every moment of our lives. God’s rescue involves a cross, suffering, death and then an empty tomb. God’s rescue is the promise to witnesses our ashes, the ashes that we keep hidden and secret from the rest of the world, and proclaim our beauty, love, and worth. God’s rescue is a return to our true identity as God’s very own children as well as a return to wholeness for all people as one people and creation.

God doesn’t see us as spent or used up but proclaims that we are created in God’s image, we are made from dust, dust that created the earth and all of the cosmos, divine dust. As divine dust creatures, it means that in baptism our lives and our deaths meet God’s promises for soaking love and for eternal life with God where sorrow and suffering is no more. We are showered with these promises so that we shower the dusty world with this life-quenching reality. There is enough in the river of life for all to be fed, clothed, housed and treated with justice and dignity. God’s justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like an every-flowing stream (Amos 5: 24) and we are swept up in that tide. That tide that transforms us and the world, that tide that demands that we do not ignore God’s vision for wholeness but participate in radical justice and peace for the sake of our neighbor, who is also burned out on being pushed aside, transparent and scapegoated.

God takes our ashes and re-creates us, molds us, and enlivens us to shine with Christ’s light through our dust, to bring love and life into a world that is dying, dying to hear that brokenness is not the last word. Burn-out is not the last word. Oppression is not the last word. Death is not the last word. It is God who speaks the last word into our days spent in the messiness and chaos of life as God spoke the first words into the nothingness, chaos and dust and brought forth all of creation and life. God’s word always brings life; God’s word always brings hope; God’s word always whispers in your ear when you are screaming that you are burned out: “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return. I can do a lot with dust. You are mine, I see you, I love you and I am here.” Thanks be to God.