As I was first reading our gospel lesson for this morning, there were a couple of moments in this story that stuck out to me as being kind of odd. Despite the fact that this is a wonderful story of Jesus performing a miraculous healing, it is filled almost from beginning to end with fear. In fact, the stage is already set with fear right before we even get to this particular passage. Before this encounter with the Gerasenes, in the same chapter of Luke, the disicples get into a boat with Jesus to cross the Sea of Galilee – and what do you suppose happens? A massive storm comes up – and just as they are all preparing to die, Jesus wakes up from his nap and tells the storm to cool it. In response, the disciples are amazed and afraid.
Then they reach the other side of the sea and step out of the boat into Gentile territory. And literally just as they are stepping out of the boat, they are accosted by a naked man, with iron shackles clanking on his wrists; he falls down before Jesus and starts shouting wildly. After a brief confrontation, Jesus casts many demons out of the man. And when the people of his city come running – all his neighbors and family – they find this man clothed and in his right mind and sitting calmly with Jesus. And then they are afraid. And when the story is told again of what Jesus has done for this one man, the entire country of the Gerasenes is seized with such great fear that they ask Jesus to leave.
It’s not exactly the reception you would expect for such an incredible miracle of liberation! You’d think people would be lining up around the block to have Jesus heal their own maladies. So what is everyone so afraid of?? Is it just that people were so awed and amazed by Jesus’ incredible power over demons that they were afraid of him? I mean, maybe. But it seems like maybe there’s more than that going on here.
Today we celebrate Trinity Sunday – one last white Sunday before a long season of green. We celebrate the nature of God as three-in-one and one-in-three – the Holy Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Now, here’s your pop quiz for the day: does anyone know how many times the word “trinity” actually appears in the bible?
About a month before my 24th birthday, I was starting my second year of service as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the Dominican Republic. I got sent to the next town over from mine to spend the night with a family there, to see whether I thought they would be a good host family for the new volunteer who was coming. They turned out to be really sweet, lovely people who welcomed me with open arms. Esmeralda, the mom, made a delicious meal for us, while her husband Manyango told me all about their community, Jánico. They were curious to get to know me as well – and when they found out that my birthday was less than a month away, they insisted that I come back and celebrate with them.
I joined the Peace Corps when I was fresh out of college. I wanted to travel and see a different part of the world. And I also genuinely wanted to help others, to give some of the abundance of what I have received to other people.
What I didn’t expect about this experience was how much I would receive in return. Over the four years that I spent in the Dominican Republic, I got to meet lots of amazing people. And I found that, more often than not, the person receiving the generosity and help of others was me! I almost had to laugh one time when my community received a bunch of canned food from a ministry group that had come down to the island. I’m sure I probably thought, “Oh how nice that other people are also sending help to this poor community.” Imagine my surprise when members of the community showed up on my doorstep to give me food – because I lived alone and didn’t have any family in the community.
But I think their generosity was most fully on display when my dad and my aunt and uncle came down to visit. We started our visits at one end of the community and spent an entire day going from house to house until we reached my host family’s house at the other end. Every single place we went, a banquet was spread; we were offered coffee and pop and cookies and cakes and sweets. This community that had lovingly accepted me was so eager to welcome my family. But I knew what it must have cost them to offer these things – many of them offered us much more expensive treats than I knew they bought for themselves. It was humbling to receive such incredible hospitality.
I thought of my Dominican friends as I was reading through our texts for today. Today we read a couple of stories that are also about hospitality and about extreme generosity.
In our first reading, we follow Elijah to the town of Zarephath, where he meets a poor widow. Elijah asks her for water and she gives it to him. But when he asks her for bread, we learn that she is literally gathering sticks to go prepare a last meal for herself and her son before dying because they have so little left to eat. Elijah asks her again for something to eat and promises her, “thus says the Lord God, the jar of meal will not be emptied and the jug of oil will not fail until the day that the Lord sends rain on the earth.” This woman sees that Elijah is a messenger of God – and she trusts in God’s promise that God will provide what she needs. And God does indeed provide! With just her handful of meal and her little bit of oil, she and her son and Elijah are able to eat well for what may have been years! Immediately before this story, Elijah actually prophesied to King Ahab that there would be several years with no dew or rain! So through her act of faithful generosity, this woman goes from preparing for her own death and the death of her son to having renewed life and renewed hope. God saves the lives of three people through her meager offering. And her son’s life is actually saved again immediately following this story. After getting sick, her son dies and God, working through Elijah, raises him to life again. All throughout this story, God brings life and hope where before there had only been the certainty of death.
God is the giver of all good gifts. And as the widow discovered with Elijah – and as I discovered in the Peace Corps – when we faithfully respond to God’s call to give of ourselves and our possessions, it can be an opportunity for God to bless us even more richly. I know we’re veering dangerously close to prosperity gospel territory right now, but I promise that is not where this sermon is heading.
Giving deeply connects us with God and with other people. Like with my Dominican friends, our mutual generosity and hospitality built up strong friendships, even across cultural and language barriers. I mean, I don’t need to stand up here and tell you all about what it feels like to give of yourself to the people you care about. I watch you do it all the time! You visit the sick and the homebound and do service work in the community and share food with one another. And any time there’s a new illness or a death or some other tragedy, at least four or five different people reach out to me to make sure that I know about it, so that the people who need care from their pastor can receive it.
You are faithful givers. And like Elijah and the widow, you have seen that generous giving can lead to outcomes you didn’t even think were possible. I know that’s true – because I wouldn’t be here otherwise! St. John’s definitely falls into the small-but-mighty category of congregations. And I know that when you entered the call process you were looking for a part-time pastor, or to share a pastor with another congregation. But even in the midst of times of transition, and even with a relatively small member base, you continued to give – you continued to generously invest your time and your money and your presence in this community. And I am here – your full time pastor – because of what God did with your faithful offering.
God takes the things that we give in faith and makes amazing things happen – even if all we can offer is a handful of meal or a couple of copper coins. And when we give to the church, and the church gives to the synod, and the synod gives to churchwide, God grows and grows those gifts into something much larger than they ever could have been on their own. Our small gift can open us up and connect us with people all over the world. Generosity opens us up to the reality of other people’s lives and it invites us to be transformed by it, to receive even as we give.
That brings us to our gospel reading. It’s typical for us to read this passage as a story about a poor woman’s noble sacrifice, but that’s not actually how Jesus presents it. This story doesn’t end with a “go and do likewise.” If anything, it’s a cautionary tale. This is a story about a community that is failing to connect with others and to be transformed by their faithful giving.
Jesus has a lot of harsh words for the religious leaders and the wealthy people in this passage. It’s not like they aren’t being generous. They are making their offerings, just like the widow, but they’re missing something. They are oblivious to the need of a neighbor on their very doorstep. The gifts they give probably help keep the temple’s lights on, but they are not allowing that giving to transform their hearts or their lives or to connect them with other people. Jesus denounces them for being more interested in making themselves look good than in genuinely doing good.
Why does Jesus point out this whole little scenario? We might be tempted to think that this is another case of Jesus telling us that we need to sacrifice everything we own and become poor ourselves – kind of like how we often hear the story of the rich man we read a couple of weeks ago. But again, I don’t necessarily think that that’s what Jesus is asking us to do here. After all, we know that God is the giver of good gifts. God has generously given all things to all people, so that no one will be in need. God wants all of us to have enough.
So instead this story raises the question: why do so many people not have enough? If God has given all things to all people, why are some left with nothing but a couple of copper coins or a handful of meal to live on while others have an abundance to give from? Why do some congregations struggle so much to hire a single pastor while others can afford multiple staff people? Why is it that when we assemble the school kits and quilts and health kits every year we never have to wonder whether there will be enough people who need them? We already know there will be. How did things get so out of balance from the way God created them to be?
I think that faithful giving calls us to more than just distant, abstract giving like the wealthy people in our gospel story. It calls us to be truly invested in the lives of our siblings around the globe. It calls us to be charitable and also to wonder why there is so much need for our charity.
Faithful giving is about much more than just giving of our money or our stuff or our time. It asks that we be involved with our whole hearts and invested in the wellbeing of our neighbor, even when it means wrestling with difficult questions of justice. This is the kind of generosity that opens us up to transformation and connection with the whole family of God.
We can give with boldness and faith, trusting that God will provide. And we can live with the expectation that God – the giver of all good gifts – will continue to do wondrous things with all that we give.
This morning, we continue our journey through the gospel of Mark. We’ve been walking with Jesus and the disciples on the way to Jerusalem and the cross. And it seems like the closer we get, the harder Jesus’ teachings become. In the last few weeks, Jesus has told us we must be last of all and servant of all; he’s told us that we must lose our lives in order to find them; and just last week, he told us that if our eyes or hands or feet cause us to stumble, we should cut them off!
Good evening/morning! It is such a delight to be here again at Grace Lutheran. I have missed you all. I bring you greetings from the people of Peace Lutheran Church in Las Cruces, NM, and also from Pastor Mike and Kristin Ostrom, who are now at Oregon State University!
It’s so good to be here with you all again. And it seems very fitting that love is such a prominent theme in our texts for this weekend. Grace has always been a community in which I have experienced great Christian love.
To eat meat, or not to eat meat – that is the question! Our passage for today from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians probably sounds kind of strange and antiquated to our 21st century ears. We don’t really talk much about religious dietary restrictions nowadays, or worry that the food we eat will somehow impact our relationship with God. But for the Christian inhabitants of first century Corinth, Paul was addressing a very serious concern, one that went well beyond the question about food. Continue reading “Sermon: Rightness and Reconciliation”→
This is a truly joyous festival day in our calendar. The work of this year’s harvest is over and now we can celebrate the bountiful, abundant gifts that God and the good earth have given us. Where I grew up in rural Nebraska, my little hometown was surrounded by a patchwork of of cornfields and soybeans and alfalfa, and around this time of year, the air was always filled with the warm, golden scent of freshly harvested crops. At my family’s house, this was always salsa-making season. Our garden produced fruits and vegetables by the bucket load, and our house would be filled with the aroma of roasting tomatoes, and freshly chopped onions and garlic, and spicy jalapeños. Continue reading “Sermon: Blessings of Thanksgiving”→
As I prepared to make my final oblation as an oblate of St. Benedict, back in November 2013, one of the things I was required to do was to write a rule of life, adapting the principles of the Rule of St. Benedict to my own life. I was pleased to see that one of the final projects for a spiritual formation class I’ve been taking this semester was composing just such a rule! So much in my life has changed since I composed my first rule of life, and it was refreshing to sort of lay out some of the tangled strings of my being and make lists of things I want and don’t want in my life. As I did so, I began to see patterns emerge, and five major components or paths or whatever began to solidify — Time, Health, Joy, Relationship, and Responsibility — so I decided to organize my rule around them, as centering principles of how I want to live my life. And because I’m a creative, artsy type, it felt truest to myself to draw it out! So here it is. Perhaps it will be inspiration for you to draw (or write, or whatever) your own rule of life!
One thing that I love about this activity is that, although there is no specific branch dedicated to “spirituality,” faith, or religion, I can see the way my own spirituality flows all throughout it: sabbath time, dance, care and love for my body, creativity, worship, community organizing, and even study are all fertile soil for meaningful encounter with the divine.
Now we know that whatever the law says, it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. For no human being will be justified in God’s sight by deeds prescribed by the law, for through the law comes the knowledge of sin.
But now, apart from law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed, and is attested by the law and the prophets, the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by God’s grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith. God did this to show God’s righteousness, because in divine forbearance God had passed over the sins previously committed; it was to prove at the present time that God themself is righteous and that God justifies the one who has faith in Jesus.
Then what becomes of boasting? It is excluded. By what law? By that of works? No, but by the law of faith. For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law.
I have to be honest: When I was assigned to preach a sermon for Reformation Sunday, I groaned a little on the inside. It’s not that I’m not proud of my Lutheran heritage or anything. I see the value in celebrating the dramatic ways in which God has renewed the church and more fully revealed to us God’s grace. And of course, it’s important to honor saints like Martin Luther, Philip Melanchthon, and others who have gone before us to be agents of renewal in the church.
But I can’t help but wonder whether, in commemorating the Reformation, we are acting as though God’s most important acts of renewing the church all happened in the past. By focusing on an act of reformation that happened nearly five hundred years ago, I wonder whether we are ignoring the ways in which God is still making the world new today. I worry that focusing on the transformative change that happened so long ago may be a means for protecting ourselves from the transformative change that God would wreak on us today. Continue reading “What Becomes of Boasting?: A Body Positive Reformation Sermon”→
This semester at seminary, I’ve been taking a preaching class, and last week, one of my classmates – Denise – preached a really awesome sermon about this evening’s gospel text. She focused on Jesus’ act of washing his disciples’ feet, but what really stuck with me about Denise’s sermon was that she didn’t just preach it; she actually took off her robe, poured water into a basin, and made it very clear that she had every intention of actually washing our feet.
That kind of freaked me out a little bit. I mean, baring your feet and letting someone else touch them is awkward under the best of circumstances – but in my case, I actually have a skin infection on both of my feet and one of my toenails that’s kind of embarrassing and gross (in fact, it’s actually really hard to even admit it here), so I was mortified by the idea of taking off my shoes and socks and showing my gross feet to everyone.
In our gospel story, the disciples – especially Simon Peter – were also a little put off by Jesus’ act of footwashing. Obviously, we don’t know whether any of them suffered from any sort of skin infection, but after roaming around the streets of Jerusalem and the Judean countryside in sandals, it’s a pretty safe bet that their feet didn’t exactly smell like roses. It’s understandable when Peter declares to Jesus, “You will never wash my feet.” Continue reading “Feet are Gross: A Maundy Thursday Sermon”→
“Gloria a ti, Señor Jesús.” Creo que esta semana, más bien quiero decir, “¡Pero caramba, Señor Jesús!” ¿Qué hacemos con esto? Hoy nos toca leer otra enseñanza de Jesús que es un poco difícil, igual que su enseñanza sobre el divorcio en la semana pasada. “Anda, vende todo lo que tienes,” dice Jesús al hombre rico. Nosotros ni somos tan ricos, pero también nos cuesta imaginar deshacernos de todas nuestras posesiónes.
¿Por qué diría Jesús a este hombre que venda todas sus cosas? No vemos en el cuento que es una persona mala, y podemos presumir que ganó sus riquezas honestamente. Además, conoce bien los mandamientos de Dios y dice que ha cumplido con ellos desde que era joven. Le pregunta muy sinceramente a Jesús que debe de hacer para heredar la vida eterna. Pero la respuesta de Jesús es que será muy difícil para él entrar en el reino de Dios. ¿Qué tan difícil? Dice Jesús que le resulta más fácil a un camello pasar por el ojo de una aguja, que a los ricos – incluso este rico – entrar en el reino de Dios. ¡Caramba, Señor Jesús! Continue reading “My ninth sermon / mi novena sermón: Breaking up with Stuff / Para Dios, Todo es Posible”→
Good morning! I have to say, it’s a little intimidating to be standing up here after that tongue-lashing from last week’s reading from James: “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for those who teach are judged with greater strictness. And all of us make many mistakes.” Well, I can promise you I’ll make at least a few of those, haha.
All throughout James’ letter, he is very straightforward in pointing out our human brokenness and our tendency to sin. That’s not the kind of stuff that’s always very pleasant to read or hear. But James isn’t writing these things in order to make us feel bad about ourselves. Neither is James writing to give us a reason to think better of ourselves than others. Rather, James is trying to inspire us to live more deeply into relationship with God. Continue reading “My eighth sermon / mi octavo sermón: Wisdom from Above / Sabiduría de lo Alto”→
I’ve been reading the book “Christianity After Religion” by Diana Butler-Bass — a book I highly recommend to anyone interested in religion or religious trends — and among the many things that have struck me so far is the following quote: “…some Christians are very comfortable defining themselves as adherents to a way of life modeled by Jesus rather than adherents to a particular doctrine or creed.”
It brings to my mind something I’ve alluded to previously but never really written about: my time with Jehovah’s Witnesses. I think it’s something I’m finally ready to start writing about. Despite the many, many issues I take with their theology, I think that there are many things about their religious community — and, more to the point, their way of life — really worth contemplating.
To give a brief bit of background, I encountered a group of JW missionaries during my years in the Dominican Republic. The small pueblo where I spent the first two years of my time there was home to a fledgling JW congregation being developed by a number of missionaries, mainly from the US and Canada, also England, Denmark, and perhaps another European country or two I’m forgetting now. Right off the bat, we found lots of common ground in our respective experience and worldviews and quickly became friends. I was already immersed in a personal study of the Bible and grew particularly close to two young women — one from Canada and another from England — who graciously offered to open their studies to me.
I was fascinated by the things they had to say and by the new perspectives they brought to the study of scripture. They encouraged me to consider scriptural passages and many of the basic ideas of faith I’d absorbed over the years in a very different light. The result was enlightening, unsettling, and even disturbing, and the questions the experience raised have taken me a long while to digest, but ultimately, I think that this sort of uprooting of my faith was beneficial to me, as it freed me to re-pot myself in much more fertile soil.
What most drew me to their community is something for which I still hold them in deep respect; namely, that they embodied precisely what Butler-Bass describes in the quote above: adherence to a way of life modeled by Jesus. (They are, of course, also adherents of a very strict set of doctrines and creeds, to a degree that becomes un-Jesus-like in its implementation. I wish to make clear that I am decidedly not a proponent of becoming a Jehovah’s Witness.) What I mean by this is that they take the Gospel very seriously. The message it contains of a new kingdom of love and salvation is one that — if allowed — must necessarily change the way we live and the way we see our place in the world. Continue reading “Wit and witness”→
This past weekend was full of history — personal history — for me. I went up and spent a few days in my hometown, Coleridge, in northeast Nebraska. Saturday night was the all-class reunion they have periodically, and also my ten year high school reunion — it’s amazing to see how people change and where they end up. It’s a blessing to me to look back and see the path my own life has taken since then. How much has changed.
The other big reason I went home was actually to preach in my home church. It was a little disconcerting at first to be standing on the other side of the pulpit I’ve been staring at for nearly three decades, addressing a congregation that’s known me since I was in diapers. But it was thrilling, too, to be preaching in the very same church where my great-great-grandfather was pastor, and where generation after generation of my family has belonged since then. Every time I set foot in that sanctuary, I feel the depth and richness of my own family history; and through it, I sense our connectedness to an even larger, older family — our Christian family through blood and faith. Going home to Immanuel Lutheran always seems to ground me and helps me orient myself and find my place in the larger Christian story.
Even the text I preached on this weekend was a great reminder that the story is far from over. We are still writing it, word by word, act by act. In this weekend’s gospel reading, Jesus sent out the 70, commanding them to preach the good news of God’s kingdom come near, to pass along his peace and to heal the sick. Jesus’s command doesn’t end with the 70 — he tells them, “the harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.” We are the laborers. When we go out in love, sharing the good things God has promised to us, we become part of this mission, this story, this history, too.
I was sitting in the park knitting yesterday evening and having an imaginary conversation with a friend of mine. I do this a lot, actually. I’m not crazy or anything, but the conversations help me to sort of process my thoughts, and this conversation in particular is one I’ve more or less had — in reality — with a number of different people.
Anyhoo, this conversation was with a certain friend of mine — let’s call her… Cordelia? Cordelia. Like many of my friends and acquaintances, Cordelia isn’t a very religious person. She may believe in something beyond the tangible world, but doesn’t necessarily buy into the organized religious aspect of spirituality. In our conversation, she was a little uncomfortable and even semi-apologetic to me for this, knowing that I am very religious and somehow expecting that I would judge her or think less of her for not being “churched.” I assured her that nothing could be further from the truth, and went on to observe that, in his letters, Paul lists faith among the different gifts of the Spirit, leaving open the suggestion that some (or many) people won’t have faith. But we all have gifts and we are all moved by the same Spirit and I told Cordelia that I knew she had wonderful gifts, gifts I have personally seen her share with others to teach and nurture them and help them grow. I told her that I believed that God created all of us and loves all of us no matter what we believe, and that nothing could be more pleasing to God than that God’s gifts be used for the good of others. Then she asked me a question I didn’t know how to answer. “Why should I go to church, then?” Well… why should she go to church? Continue reading “Why should I go to church?”→
How well do you know the Lord’s Prayer? If you’ve found your way here, I’d be willing to bet you’ve at least heard it, if you don’t know it by heart:
Our Father in Heaven,
Hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come;
Your will be done
On earth as it is in Heaven.
Give us today our daily bread
And forgive us our sins,
As we forgive those who sin against us.
Save us from the time of trial
And deliver us from evil.
For the kingdom, the power, and the glory are yours,
Now and forever.
In the last few weeks, my confirmands and I have been exploring this prayer, taking it slowly, line by line, to see what Jesus was getting at when he told us to pray this way (Matthew 6:9-13; Luke 11:2-4). This morning, we discussed the second line: “Hallowed be your name.” Think about it for a minute. What do we really mean when we say this? Continue reading “God, by any other name”→