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.

 

 

 

Too Much of a Good Thing? Mark 7: 1-8, 14-15, 21-23 Pentecost 14B August 30, 2015 August 31, 2015

Many of you know that I was a teacher before I went to seminary. I loved (still do!) teaching the younger children-mostly preschool up to third grade. One issue with younger children is that they are literal little people. You tell them a rule and they apply it to everything. If you tell them on a field trip that they need to hold hands with their “buddy” they will think that they need to do that every single second of the field trip-including snack time and going to the bathroom. There is no such thing as nuance with young children and it can get in the way of learning. For example, we didn’t let the children play with rocks on the playground for reasons you can deduce. If a little boy picks up a rock, it will get thrown, it’s just how little boys are. So we had a pretty strict no picking up rocks or the ground bark rule.
But one fall day we were going to make a nature collage in art and do some nature science projects. So we took the preschoolers on a nature walk around the church, gave them each a paper lunch sack and told them to pick up objects from nature that they would like to use in their art project or just explore. We got back to the classroom and one little boy had nothing in his sack. We asked him why and he said, “because you always tell us not to pick up rocks or bark and that was the only thing I wanted!” This particular little boy had a penchant for throwing things, so he did hear the words “put the rock down please” a lot. Perhaps that rule for him was too much of a good thing as it impeded in his ability to understand the different context of the nature walk. Rules gone astray.
Rules most definitely have their time and place but often they can also become barriers to common sense. Rules are necessary to shape us, to keep us in check, from hurting other people, and to hold us to some standard of behavior. While rules affect us individually, they are in reality, more about how we live together, how we interact with each other and the well-being of the whole community. But when we adhere to certain rules in an individualistic strict sense , that can also harm others. Whether we like it or not, we tend to never out grow the right/wrong paradigm of rules and don’t quite ever grasp the concept of nuance.
The Pharisees are struggling with context and the nuance of the religious purity rules or laws in Mark 7. Some of Jesus’ disciples were eating without washing their hands. Now that is considered just gross in our culture, but the Pharisees were taking a purity law regarding how the priests in the temple had to wash their hands before handling ritual food and applying it to everyone who considered themselves Jewish. No nuance, only that there is a rule about washing and everyone should therefore do it or be unclean and thus far from God. The Pharisees were completely befuddled as to why Jesus, who claimed to be teaching about God, had followers not adhering to what they considered basic rules for relationship with God.
Jesus calls them out-actually calling them hypocrites. Is it hand washing that’s really all that important when it comes to being close to God and showing God to other people? Does demanding that other people follow some arbitrary rules reveal God’s love to them? Or is it something else?
As human beings who love rules, we often use rules to draw boundaries between ourselves and other people. Some of these rules still perpetuate systems of racism, gender and LBGT bias and denigration of anyone who is not culturally normative. Who falls inside the rules (some of which can be unspoken) and who doesn’t can be a dividing line between who is welcome in our community and who is not. While we like to think that we offer rules for the sake of being healthy community together, I sometimes wonder if our rules are too much of a good thing. Real people get hurt with these kinds of rules or traditions. It’s not just culture that has rules that can be harmful. In the ELCA, we have rules regarding when and who receives holy communion, we have rules regarding membership, we have rules regarding budget, etc. It can seem that we have a rule for everything and for everything a rule. Jesus asks the Pharisees and us, what then becomes our guiding principle? Our rules or God? Do we focus on ourselves and what we think keeps us close to God or do we recognize the diverse needs of our neighbor? What’s in our hearts? Are we more concerned with being safe and comfortable than proclaiming the Gospel?
The list of evil intentions that Jesus offers at the end of the reading, is not exhaustive, unfortunately, but is a lens through which to understand the purpose of rules or the law. The list all are ways that we use creation and other people for our own building up and gratification and not the building up and health of other people and the community. Laws and traditions that don’t build up your neighbor and show them God’s love but exclude them and denigrate them are not part of God’s law. The problem is that we can take a perfectly fine law and turn it into a source of pride or piety for ourselves. I talked with a woman this week who told me as a younger woman how hurtful it was that she was excluded from Holy Communion at a Catholic Church because she wasn’t baptized Catholic, actually she wasn’t baptized at all. The law of only certain people participating in the body and blood of Christ did not reveal God’s love to this woman, but only showed the pride and exclusiveness of the law. To be clear, this could have just as easily been a Lutheran or any mainline church. Jesus is clear that God’s boundaries are wider than we can ever imagine and God’s law is that of pure love and inclusivity.
Many of our rules, laws or traditions go unexamined. They become simply what we do without question or deeper thought into why or what the consequences of our traditions might be-such as communion, confirmation, worship, or even how I preach. A quote I love from theologian Jaroslav Pelikan is “Tradition is the living faith of the dead, traditionalism is the dead faith of the living. And, I suppose I should add, it is traditionalism that gives tradition such a bad name.” Traditions are not bad in and of themselves and Jesus is not suggesting that we live willy-nilly with no compass or grounding principles. Jesus is holding a mirror to why we do what we do and does it reveal and point to the work and love of God in the world for the whole world.
How do we reveal God’s love here at LOTH? How do we examine what we’re doing or what we’ve always done to ensure that we are pointing to God’s work and love in the world and not our own need for rules and boundaries for our own sense of order? Our mission statement is a great lens through which we can examine all of our ministries and traditions. Do you know it? By heart? It is a little long-I’ll grant you but do you know the thrust of it? “Lord of the Hills is a welcoming home rooted in Jesus Christ. We honor the past, meet the present and change for the future. Young and old, we have joined together in mission to: proclaim the Gospel, serve the needs of the community, grow in faith, experience God’s grace through worship, welcome the visitor, and celebrate our diversity.” This is truly a Christ centered mission statement. And one that doesn’t allow us to become stuck in unhelpful or excluding traditions but admits that change might be necessary.
What I also love about this statement is that it’s clear that God is the focus of our lives together. We fully believe, just as we heard in our Deuteronomy text, that we have a God who is always near to us and hears us when we call. This good news of a closer than close God, orients us toward how we do live together, how we do ensure that the gospel-the good news that God with us all always- is proclaimed in our community and in our homes. This statement reminds us that diversity and nuance is needed, too much of a good thing can be life denying, when the gospel is all about offering life and offering it abundantly. This statement focuses our hearts on other people, all of God’s people, and not ourselves and what we want or think we need. It reminds us that God crosses boundaries to come to us in Jesus Christ and so we too cross boundaries to reveal Christ to the world.
Sometimes as humans we can have too much of a good thing in the rules, traditions and laws that we impose and can deny life and freedom to people. But Jesus proclaims that we can never have too much of the good thing of God’s love for us. In God’s good thing of love and grace, there is an overwhelming abundance that flows out from Jesus for the inclusion and reorientation of our hearts to the only rule that matters: God’s love. Thanks be to God.