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!

 

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Difficult conversations and being one in Christ: Matthew 5:21-37 February 16, 2014 February 16, 2014

Filed under: sermon — bweier001 @ 9:00 pm
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In chapter 5 of Matthew-Jesus is really just getting started in his sermon about what it is to live together as people of God. Jesus is not afraid to have these difficult, taboo and even down right hard conversations about life in community. All of these statements about anger, adultery, divorce and telling the truth to one another are not nice, neat, coffee and donut hour types of talks. Jesus is calling out on the carpet the fact that we might know and follow religious or civil laws- but only for our own sake or protection. We adhere to laws so that we can say that we are law abiding people. Jesus proclaims that laws are so much more than just being blameless but about giving life and dignity to all people.
These four issues that Jesus takes on in today’s readings are steeped in relationships. Relationships with neighbors, friends, and spouses. Jesus addressing adultery and divorce in this manner, is pretty radical for first century Palestine. In Jesus’ time, women were property and had little to no say in their own lives. If their husband wanted to divorce them, the woman was then without a home, protection, income or community. Women were not seen as full people and were often blamed for any improper behavior of men so its radical for Jesus to claim that if a man lusts after a woman, it is not her fault. How she dressed, or acted or where she happened to be at a certain time of day was not the cause of another person’s actions.
So these laws from Deuteronomy might have allowed for the human reality of broken relationships and imperfect people but Jesus is pointing out that they don’t always affirm human worth. Those things simply can’t be legislated but has to be rooted in something more than just what makes life easier; living together as people of God has to be rooted in love that calls for seeing all people as truly made in God’s image and with inherent worth.
This issue of all people having equal worth has unfortunately not been fully resolved. Some of you may know, I was in Chicago at the ELCA offices to be trained as a process builder for the social statement Women and Justice: One in Christ that will be in process over the coming years. What that means is that I will facilitate listening events in this synod around the issues of women, justice, safety, equality, cultural norms, media, etc. Some of these topics are not easy. How do we enter into the conversation as a church around the uncomfortable realities of women in the US and in the world of abuse, media and cultural objectification, inequality in leadership positions, access to education and in socio-economics? What do we as a people of God have to say about this?
We too have laws in the US and abroad that are intended to remedy some of these issues, but the reality is that laws don’t solve all of the problems. Of course this is not only a gender issue: racial, sexual orientation and other forms of inequality exist. But I am choosing what is my lived experience.
Here are some examples of how laws in the US have not improved equality for women. In the US Women make up 51% of the population but only 17% of government officials are women. In the 2010 midterm elections women lost ground in representation for the first time since 1979 and at that rate women will achieve parity with men in government in 500 years. Yes, 500 years. The US is 90th in the world for female leadership-behind countries like Iraq. Women earn $.82 on average for every dollar a man earns. This is an average and hispanic women earn $. 59 on the dollar and and African American women earn about $.78 on the dollar. White women do better and Asian women make the most at $.88 on the dollar. This is in spite of equal pay legislation. Media representation of women is a major issue in our country but at the heart of that issue is that women only make up 3% of leadership in media corporations.
It’s not just secular leadership where this inequality exists. Many denominations do not allow female leadership-and before we pat ourselves on the back in the ELCA- women make up a little better than 50% of the Masters of Divinity, ordained track students in seminaries but the ELCA reports that only 19% of actual ordained clergy in a call are women. There are congregations who will never call a female pastor. And this is just a snapshot of the US, we could use the whole rest of the day to discuss the life of women across the globe. Despite laws, resolutions, and good intentions, we still have not figured out how to truly speak plainly, listen openly and go beyond laws that are just about what’s fair and move to what is loving, life giving, and builds authentic community where everyone’s worth as a child of God is affirmed and upheld.
Jesus proclaims that the second we stop seeing the person in front of us as a child of God as a whole and complete person who is not there for our own use or neglect then we have damaged their humanity as well as damaged our own. Because we are all made in God’s image, we are also interconnected and the only way to live in community as one people of God is to keep this fact in front of us at all times. The only law that we need to worry about is the that of God’s unending and unconditional love and grace for us all. This is the law to live fully into.
In this text today, Jesus tells us the truth about how difficult it can be to live together in healthy, life giving and loving relationships. We can’t do it on our own, no matter how hard we try with great and well intentioned laws. Jesus shows us the possibility and reality of another way of life together. Jesus included women, gentiles, tax collectors, the unclean, the non religious, the foreigner all sorts of people into community and relationship with him and each other. Jesus very presence tells us how much God loves us—enough that God sent Jesus to tell us these hard things and to show us that our differences and uniqueness are a gift from God that should be affirmed and cherished by a whole community.
To God, it matters that we are all together, that we work together, it matters that we speak into darkness, it matters when we are complacent and silent on issues that deny full and abundant life to anyone for any reason. It matters that we offer and receive forgiveness from one another, it matters that we build each other up and tell the truth. This is the real messiness of life together. But in the midst of all of this talk of law today-Jesus is clear with the good news: in God’s kingdom here and now we all matter, we can point to and offer God’s vision of what the world could be like when all people are truly equal, all have dignity and all have a voice. God proclaims this radical equality of us all in the waters of baptism, and in welcoming all to the table to share in the bread and the wine with the promises to be with all of us for all time. These sacraments do more than draw us into the life of God but into life with one another, for the sake of a world waiting for this reality. Thanks be to God for our lives together as one people of God.