A Lutheran Says What?

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

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.

 

We Already Know Sermon on Luke 16: 19-31 September 29, 2019

This sermon was preached on September 29, 2019 at Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church in Holladay, UT.

Texts: Amos 6: 1a, 4-7
1 Timothy 6: 6-19
Luke 16: 19-31

Children’s sermon: gather the children up front. Start with the closing prayer! Dear Jesus, thank you for showing us God’s love and how to love others. May we notice those around us who need what we already have an abundance of your love and grace. Amen.
Then ask them, when do we normally do that prayer in children’s time? At the end! Yes, we always know that we are going to end with a prayer but today we started with the prayer because our bible stories are a little like this today. In reading the Luke story about the rich man and Lazarus, the rich man already had everything he needed-food, housing, clothes, and Lazarus did not have those things. Now, I want to let you know that this story is NOT about what happens when we die, we don’t have to worry about that and Jesus promises that we will never be alone in this life or the next. There is a not a bad place that you need to worry about going to, that’s not what God wants. This story is about the last sentence we read, that we already know Jesus, we already listen to God telling us to love everyone and to make sure that everyone has what they need to be healthy, happy and safe. Just as you already know that we will always end children’s time with a prayer, we already know that God’s last word for all of us is love. And this last word of love means that we already know the whole story, that love and life never end! Just like a circle never ends, being in God’s love and life is like that too. We are all in this circle of love. So, since we don’t have to worry about that-we can stop focusing on ourselves and focus on people around us. We can see people like Lazarus who are sick, hungry and without a house. How do we help people like that here at OSLC? YES! We have Family Promise, we collect food to hand out, we will be collecting diapers, all kinds of ways! Ok, we’ve already prayed and I’m going to talk to the adults some more about this.

We all love a good story and want to know how it will end. Whether it’s movies or books, we can’t wait for the ending to see how it turns out. There is great satisfaction in knowing the whole story. We take this same tactic with our lives too it seems, we are always wondering how things will turn out-what will our whole story be? Will I get that promotion? Will we move into that bigger house? Can we go on that vacation? What will my children be when they grow up? What will we do in retirement? How will my health be as I age? We want to know everything, we want assurances, we want details and, of course, we want control.

This was what the rich man in our parable from Luke today was trying to do. He was trying to ensure that he had what he needed for the future so that he could control and predict the outcome of his life story. Jesus doesn’t say that he’s a bad person, Jesus doesn’t condemn him in anyway. Jesus merely points out that the rich man is so concerned with his own life that he doesn’t notice the lives around him, particularly the man right outside his own gate-Lazarus. While the rich man is dressed nicely, eats well and has safe housing in a gated community, Lazarus languishes nearby hoping for just a modicum of what the rich man has. And then both men die, death is the great equalizer it seems. Although Lazarus is carried away by angels and the rich man is buried. Now as I told the children, the point of this parable is certainly not to say that there is a heaven and a hell as places. Whenever Jesus in the gospels talks about Hades or in Matthew Ghenna-which is the garbage heap that gets burned outside the city, it’s all about being separated from God and community. Hell isn’t a place where bad people go when the die, hell is a place any of us can be in this life when we separate ourselves from God and God’s people. We create our own hell.

We read that there is a great chasm-that God didn’t create, the rich man did. The rich man is so oblivious, blinded by his wealth and excess, that he doesn’t know his own arrogance and entitlement. It never occurs to him that he could bridge or remove that chasm. But instead he barks orders at Father Abraham to have Lazarus do things for him. Even in death, the rich man thinks that he knows more and can control his own predicament and write his own ending. “Have Lazarus give me water, send him to warn my brothers.” The rich man seems to not know that his wealth and status are fleeting, aren’t his whole story, aren’t his to begin with and are a distractor for what is really important. Jesus doesn’t say that his wealth is the problem, it’s how he uses it, or in reality, how the wealth uses him. Money isn’t a problem, loving money, or loving anything more than God or people is a problem and is a root of evil. When we put anything before God and others, we do harm, we separate ourselves and think it’s only about us. We deny others their full story. Jesus came to show us how to reorder our loves. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength and love your neighbor as yourself.” Just as God has loved us from the beginning, we are to love God and each other all the way to the end.

In response to the rich man’s request to send Lazarus to his brothers, Abraham admonishes him, they know this story, this truth. They have already heard it, over and over again, from Moses to Joshua, from Amos to Isaiah, God’s word of redemption, reconciliation and salvation-wholeness, have been spoken. They know this, but they won’t live it. Will hearing the story one more time from someone who has been resurrected from the dead matter? When they grasp the end, they will change how they live today.

We know the ending of the story, brothers and sisters. We have the witnesses of the resurrection to know that in the end, God’s end, is death is no more, love wins, the chasm is once and for all bridged and God’s kingdom of wholeness is here and is still to be revealed. And we know that God sent Jesus to remove any chasm, nor death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything can now separate us from God’s love and each other. This is not in dispute. This good news is freedom from worrying about ourselves, from our ends, we are free to be content with our here and now. As we read in 1 Timothy, we can take hold of eternal life and our life today-they are one in the same. There is a not a separation between today and eternal life with God. How we live today is as important as our eternal life with God. As followers of Jesus, this is our call, to live in such a way for all to see this eternal love right here and now.

We already know this unity of our lives today and eternal life opens us to see the plight of others around us, their need to be whole. Our present life entwined with the eternal life to come, bridges any chasms that we have created between others and ultimately God. We bridge chasms when we talk to people who are living on the street and holding up signs off of interstates. We bridge chasms when we elicit from our neighbor what they really need and don’t assume and speak for them. We bridge chasms when we recognize that we have enough-enough wealth, power and status-and we share the excess that we have so that all may be content. We bridge chasms when we recognize whatever wealth we have as a resource to be used in God’s kingdom and not as an entitlement or for power. We bridge chasms when we see what our neighborhood around us needs from us-how we can be together-whether it’s Scouting, diapers, food, hosting meetings, or places for children to play.

We already know the whole story, we have already heard the good news, and we have been richly blessed. We already have all that we need to bridge any chasms, to love our neighbor, and be generous, so that all may take hold of true life with God: life and love that we already know doesn’t end. Thanks be to God.

 

Looking for Power in All the Wrong Places Mark 6: 14-29 Pentecost 7B July 12, 2015 July 16, 2015

When I was two, I learned a new word and couldn’t wait for an opportunity to use it. (Now don’t worry this is a family friendly sermon.) One day I had my chance. My parents had taken me to a beach in northern CA where we were stationed at Vandenberg AFB with some friends. After a full day of playing on the beach and in the water, it was time to go home. My mother went to scoop me up and put me in the rather rudimentary 1972 car seat and I realized my chance to try out this word. I did not want to get into my car seat and I now had the vocabulary to articulate my desire for power and control. I put my hands on my hips and looked at my mother and said, “Now, wait a minute dumb-dumb.” Where I had heard that pejorative word, who knows, (older kids probably) but my two year old brain had quickly recognized that I could own more power by trying to take away someone else’s. What my two year old brain had not processed is that my parents were still bigger and waaaaaay smarter. I ended up in the car seat, screaming I’m sure, with my parents wondering why they bother to ever leave the house with me. *Kids-it is never ok to call names or say something mean to anyone-especially your parents! *Parents-you’re welcome.

Figuring out what you have power and control over in your life starts nearly at birth. Learning to control our limbs, head, and neck is about three months of work right there! Then there’s rolling over, crawling, walking, running, toileting, riding a bike and all of the gross motor skills. Alongside control of our physical bodies, we learn that our emotions can control our actions and how that can be good and bad. As we mature, we begin to want more power and control in our lives. The teen years are all about power and control. Figuring out what you can and can’t do without negative consequences is a major part of adolescence, as well as learning where you don’t have power in your life.

We are wired to like power, control, and agency. Unfortunately, we struggle to move past what my two year old brain had put together, that in order to have power, control and agency, we must diminish someone else’s.

On a cursory reading of today’s gospel text, we could say that the theme is power. Herod’s power over John, John’s unlikely power over Herod, Herodias’ (Herod’s wife) power over her daughter, Herod’s daughter’s power over Herod, the power of keeping up appearances, and then we have the power of Jesus and his disciples with the crowds that frightened the puppet king. Power is indeed a key player in this text. We see people entangled in a system solely based on the need for personal power over and against other people. In this ancient soap opera, the most powerful person-the person with the most political clout, the most agency, the most status-wins. And it’s all about winning with Herod. He is in a power struggle with Herodias and John. John had exposed Herod’s wrong doings in marrying his brother’s wife (Days of Our Lives, anyone?)  and that threatened Herod’s power. Herodias had obviously traded up in husbands and married for money and power. In first century Palestine, Herodias only had as much power as her husband, so if Herod lost power so did she. Herod must maintain control and agency over John, even though Mark tells us that he kind of liked John. John told the truth to Herod of his abuse of his power; Herod deep down knew it but was too afraid to act. What if he lost all of his friends, his pawn throne of the Roman Empire, the lavish banquets, and all of the royal trappings? What if he became a nobody in Jerusalem?

At the end of the day, power is about ensuring that we are a somebody. We are worthy, important, special, famous, a mover and a shaker. This means that if I am all of those things, then you can’t be. There is not enough power for all of us to share. We can’t all be important! What if you have more influence and control than I do? Then what?

Power is definitely a theme in this story. But not the power that Herod desires, Herodias fears and kills John. It’s not power that is control and agency over and against someone else, but it’s the power of presence. The kind of presence that is hard to grasp, seems elusive and yet is palpable all through this story that seems to be about human power at its worst, human agency at its worst and human fear at its worst.  There is another power at work that is barely named and appears to not be part of the equation: Jesus. Counter to the power of humanity that seeks power for its own sake, for its own elevation, for its own sense of control and self worth, Jesus offers the power of his presence. This presence gives away power instead of accumulating it. Jesus and the disciples are busy giving away God’s power of healing, mercy, grace and love, while Herod is busy hoarding his power. Power of presence is power that seeks to elevate others, offers freedom to others and empties itself out to others.

Too often we think of power as personal, individual and scarce. Just like I was sure that I needed to assert power over my parents to be happy and have well being, we look for ways to take power and not share it and the world encourages us to do this. But God proclaims that in God’ creation and kingdom that is a lie that we choose to believe. God emptied power into the most powerless creature on earth, a newborn baby. Through Jesus Christ, God reveals over and over again how real power is given away. When we put other people’s needs first, when we understand and say “no” to the world’s system that wants us to compete with our neighbor for money, resources and status, when we stand in solidarity with people whom are told that their lives don’t matter, when we act to support the black churches that have burned down, when we see past labels and see people as God sees them, beloved, no matter where they live, what they believe, whom they love and who loves them, we reveal the power of the presence of Christ. God’s power is love for all people no matter what and this power conquers all fear, all hatred, and all sin, which is anything that separates us from this power of love in Christ.

This power of love is not a theoretical concept or a sappy philosophical thought but is embodied in Jesus and his actions on the cross where the loss of worldly power became the ultimate of God’s power of love, reconciliation and presence in the systems that lead to suffering in this world. This power of God’s presence is tangible in the waters of baptism, in the bread and the wine and in each one of us. Through the Holy Spirit we live this powerful presence that is Christ’s power of love. In Christ’s power, God declares that we are all somebody; we are all somebody in the body of Christ and beloved children of God marked the cross of Christ and sealed by the Holy Spirit. Christ’s power is at work in you, in me and in the world. Thanks be to God.