A Lutheran Says What?

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

“No One Hired Us” Sermon on Matthew 20 September 18, 2020

This sermon was preached at Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church in Holladay, UT on Sept. 20, 2020. It can be viewed on our YouTube Channel Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church SLC.
The texts were:
Psalm 145: 1-8
Philippians 1: 21-30
Matthew 20: 1-16

It is the eighth anniversary of my ordination in the ELCA at the end of this month. As I reflect on my journey to ordination, I am grateful for the joys, the blessings, the challenges, the learning, when it was bewildering and yes, even the times when it was just plain hard. I do know that I have been mostly lucky in my ministry calls so far, and yes I am using the word “lucky” intentionally. Let me tell you why. You see, getting immediately ordained after graduating from four years of graduate level training, yes four years and we only get a master’s degree, for most is a given. But not for all. In the spring of our last semester of seminary, my colleagues and I began the interview process with congregations. Well, some did. I had one interview for a youth and family pastor position, totally my wheelhouse with over 15 years of experience, where in the interview I was repeatedly asked questions about being a mother and a pastor at the same time. Ultimately, they chose someone with more experience they said. It turned out to be a 26 year old, white male. I discovered that even the Church isn’t fair. That was my only interview until later on that summer. My Rostered Minister Profile, clergy resume in the ELCA, went to several churches, but I didn’t get any interviews. One didn’t even open my file once they saw my name. But other colleagues had multiple interviews and were snatched up right away. What did they had in common? Honestly, being white, straight and male. But as I said, I was lucky, I interviewed at another church that summer and they did call me, part-time and drastically underpaid. But it was my only option for work, besides Starbucks. Don’t feel sorry for me, that’s not the point. I have siblings in ministry, women, femmes, Black, Indigenous, people of color, LBGTQIA, who waited years for a call. In these demographics, the average wait is over a year for first call. I have one friend who waited ten years because he is an out gay male. When you are waiting to receive a call from a congregation, you are frequently asked: Why has no one called you? The implication is that there is something wrong with us, that maybe we just don’t have the skills, the intellect, the interview acumen, etc. There is a reason that you are being passed by. And there is. There is something we are lacking. Often, it’s beyond our control. We can’t control our anatomy or skin color or biology.

When we do receive calls, they are often for lower wages, part-time and in less desirable situations. Not all the time, again, I’ve been lucky, as have a few of my colleagues. But I see those who are not lucky. Now, some would say that we’ve made great progress, after all we’ve had ordination of white women for 50 years, ordination of black women for 40 years and ordination of LBGTQIA people for 10 years. But really in the 2000 year history of the Church, we’re relative late comers to the professional work, although these populations have always been doing the work of the kingdom, just without official recognition and compensation. Many in these demographics just aren’t as desirable for congregations as they don’t fit the perfect picture of who should be in leadership in the church. Again, let me say, being a white, straight middle class woman, I am lucky.

But it shouldn’t depend on luck, Jesus says in our parable today. We often read these parables and think that they are about salvation or heaven when we die and I think that often we miss the point that Jesus says that heaven isn’t somewhere else, it’s here. What if here and now, today, in this life, we don’t pass some workers by? What if we hire everyone who wants to do the work regardless of our first impressions, biases or prejudices? What if we recognized that everyone, every ability, every skin color, every sexual orientation, every class, every gender, every body type, every one, has worth? But is that fair, we might ask? What if some can’t work as long, or don’t have the skills or simply don’t come from the same perspective on work as we do? What if we do more and they do less? Jesus is clear in this parable that God isn’t interested in fair. God is interested in justice.

Our challenge is that in our humanness we equate fair with justice and they are not the same. The workers who worked all day and received the same salary as those who came along later, grumbled, we read. They were mad that they were worth as much as the others. How is that fair? Shouldn’t they be worth more? No, Jesus says. Just because they were lucky and hired first, doesn’t mean that they have more skill or more worth. Their colleagues who came to the work later, didn’t necessarily arrive later out of their own doings. No one let them in until later, is that fair? Are they not worth as much as the all day workers? They too deserve to be paid their worth, not only for their time. The landowner is clear that he will pay what is right and that he can do with what he has as he pleases. We often think that the land owner represents God, but I wonder if Jesus is calling for us to see ourselves in the landowner and realize our own biases, and take a second look at people, do what is right and invite them in? We know that in God there is no male or female, Jew or Gentile, free or slave person, first or last, Republican or Democrat or Independent, Christian or Muslim, white or black, abled or disabled, straight or not, we know this. But we don’t act on this. All people belong in the kingdom, doing the kingdom’s work. All.
We have much work to do to be fully inclusive in the ELCA. We have repentance to ask for, we have reparations to make, we have risks to take, we have restorative healing to begin. And it’s not luck that will make this happen, it’s hard work, love, vulnerability, honesty, going out to the people who have been left to stand around alone all day. These are the people to whom Jesus went to, the poor, the tax collectors, the sick, the outcast, the criminals, the sex workers. He invited them in the kingdom of God as fellow workers and siblings. Jesus says that this is the kingdom, that is here, that is for you, and me and for all. We belong, everyone belongs, and we open our hearts to let people in. This is how we heal our world and our souls. This is how God’s justice reigns. Amen.

 

Forgiveness and God’s Power Sermon on Matthew 18: 21-35 September 11, 2020

This sermon was preached on Sept. 13, 2020 at Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church in Holladay, UT. It can be viewed on our YouTube channel Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church SLC.

The texts were:
Psalm 103
Genesis 50: 15-21
Matthew 18: 21-35

Forgiveness is officially defined as “the action or process of being forgiven or forgiving.” Ok, that’s a good place to start, but as I ponder forgiveness, I realize that it has a lot to do with power. How we use power, particularly in conflicts. If I apologize, do I give away my power? If you forgive me, am I beholden to you? If I forgive, am I giving you more power, or exerting my own power? What about when one group uses power over another? Do we stay silent or speak up? We are constantly weighing the power dynamics in our relationships. Often, we keep silent, walk away, “mind our own business,” and just worry about ourselves, thinking that is better, even noble. Yet, when nothing is said, when forgiveness is cheapened by repeating bad behaviors,  harmful actions are ignored and allowed to perpetuate and fester, people can remain caught as pawns in systems of abusive power and this doesn’t only damage individuals, but the community.

Peter’s question to Jesus on forgiveness is oozing with power, “if someone in the church (notice this is about people close to him) wrongs me how many times do I have to forgive? Seven times?” Seven is considered a holy and perfect number in Jewish numerology if you get into that sort of thing, which I’m not sure that Jesus does, as he blows it out of the water with his answer of “nope, seventy-seven times” or in some translations seven times seven. In other words, there is no perfect number for this question. Forgiveness is too complex and too much is at stake.

In typical Jesus fashion, he tells a parable. Now, we have to remember that parables don’t contain every response we might be looking for and can only freight so much meaning and I doubt that Jesus intends for this particular parable to tell us everything we need to know about forgiveness or mercy. Jesus tells the disciples about a king (probably not a stand in for God in this parable) who is one with all the power. One of his servants, a high up official, apparently owed him so much that it would take something like 600 years for him to pay it back. The king threatened to sell this man and his family to pay the debt; but the servant boldly and shamelessly begged the king for his life and the life of his family. The king reconsidered-and then forgave the whole debt! Before you think how super altruistic and merciful the king is, consider how much more is this servant now indebted to this king? The king just used his power to buy himself a loyalist for life.
This newly unburdened man goes on his way and encounters a fellow servant (probably on a lower societal rung) who owes him a much more nominal amount and it’s clear that first man has all the power in this relationship. He puts a choke hold on this second man and demands his money. The second man can’t pay and so is thrown into debtors prison until he can…much like our bail system, how in the heck is he supposed to pay his debt if he’s in jail and can’t work? It’s criminal to put him in jail frankly as now his family also suffers. There are witnesses to this event, and apparently these witnesses had heard of the first man’s good fortune with the king and are distressed and appalled that the first man would treat the second man this way. They understand that the balance of power has been shifted, that the forgiveness of the king to the first man had not rippled through the community as it should have. The witnesses knew that if this was allowed to stand, it would only breed more distrust, more injustice and more abuse of power, so they went to the king who is appropriately outraged. And the man gets his comeuppance, a favorite word at our house. The king hands him over to be tortured, not by the king, but by the man’s own actions of exerting abusive power over his fellow human being.

It turns out, Jesus is saying, that forgiveness isn’t only about us as individuals and our feelings. We don’t forgive only to have someone simply more indebted to us. We don’t forgive and keep allowing abuses to occur. We don’t forgive in order to be the better person or to bring ourselves peace or whatever self-help thing we read on the internet. Jesus models that forgiveness is about the empowerment of people to break systems of abusive power. Forgiveness is the power of truth telling and accountability. Forgiveness is about how we live together as messy, complex and imperfect people in community. Forgiveness recalls that what happens to one of us, happens to all of us, good and bad. Forgiveness is deeply rooted in our Lutheran theology of the cross where Luther purposes that part of life with God and each other is the power to “calling a thing what it is.” We have the power in God to call evil as evil and good as good and not get them confused. When they get twisted and mangled, the body of Christ is harmed. Jesus repeatedly says what the world calls is good, God condemns: some in power over many, excessive consumerism, ostracizing the sick, marginalizing women and foreigners, not feeding the hungry, ignoring the children. Forgiveness, breaking the systems of abusive power, is at the heart of Christian community.

Jesus entire mission and ministry reveals how in God’s kingdom systems of power are upended and that using our power for the sake of others is how we love. At the last supper, right before Jesus is betrayed, denied and abandoned by his closest friends, Jesus says his blood is poured out for forgiveness, the power of God’s love to heal, unite and tell the truth. Forgiveness is indeed power, the power to usher in a new system of God’s love that will bring abundant life for all. Thanks be to God.