Posted in Lent, Spirituality, Sermons, Faith, Christian, Christianity

Truth Is Powerful & It Prevails

Psalm 46

Sojourner Truth, an African American abolitionist and women’s rights activist once stated: “Truth is powerful and it prevails.” I believe this statement to be very accurate – however, I wonder, how do we reconcile what we know to be “true” with one another. My truth may differ from yours. We can witness the same event and come away with very different experiences of what truly took place. This is why in his encounter with Jesus, Pontius Pilate asked – “What is truth?” What is it? Whatever it is – according to Ms. Sojourner – it is powerful and it prevails.

When Pastor Lynn determined that our Lenten preaching theme this year would be on hymns, I made a beeline for his office because I knew exactly which hymn I wanted to preach on… not because I already knew much of it’s significance or background, but because it is one that I really, really like to sing. Then, wouldn’t you know… when we created our Family Friendly Lenten Evening Worship Service, it was selected as the opening hymn, so we who have participated in this service regularly, are all acutely familiar with I Want Jesus to Walk With Me. At least with the melody & lyrics. The history, maybe not as much. So, here’s a little of its history…

This hymn comes out of the African American spiritual tradition (most likely dating back to times of slavery) and is a communal lament. The author of this hymn, is unknown, most likely because these words evolved, changed, were adapted, and were added to over the years and years of oppression and slavery. It was adopted by Appalachian culture and evolved into a “white spiritual” as well.

One person’s truth of this might be that those dwelling in Appalachia culturally appropriated this hymn.  Another viewpoint is that the diverse groups that have embraced this hymn points more strongly to the communal nature and breadth of laments like this. All peoples universally understand pain, suffering, grief, and sorrow. These emotions transcend any one person, culture, or race.

Part of the beauty and genius of African American spirituals is that they continue to be adapted and developed. The tune that this arrangement is set to is known as Sojourner and is a heavy tune that breaks out in a syncopated cry in the last two lines. You may have guessed that this tune was named after Sojourner Truth, whom I quoted earlier.

Where the raw material originated or what the original compositional setting might have been, is not as important as the journey, or the walk, that it has taken. In this instance, the living lament, which was the truth of a slave’s existence, filled with pain and suffering, has culminated into a remarkable congregational song which we can relate to today.

We understand the desire for God to be with us in times of trial, when in trouble, and along our pilgrim journey, we too want to know that God is with us.

The feelings of lament and the desire for God’s presence with us is not novel or new. The Psalms, which were most likely sung much as we sing hymns today, are full of Laments which speak to the angst, pain, and sorrow of the Israelites years in exile and Babylonian captivity. Psalm 46 is both lament and hope all rolled into one. This psalm was the inspiration for Martin Luther’s hymn A Mighty Fortress and is most often used as a Reformation Sunday text.

However, when you look closely, there is a lot of fear and anxiety laced through this Psalm. “Though the earth should change, the mountains shake in the heart of the sea; it’s waters roar and foam, the mountains tremble…” – in that time, natural disasters were one of the most devastating occurrences. There was no understanding of volcanic activity, fault lines, el ninos, noreasters, tropical storms, hurricanes, etc… things just happened, often seemingly out of the blue, and when they did, pain, injury, and death were almost always a part of it. Honestly, not much has changed in this regard today, we just know when some of these things are coming before they actually occur, which may or may not be better.

The psalmist goes on to talk about nations in an uproar and kingdoms that totter. War, destruction, slavery, human trafficking, rape, pillaging, mayhem, chaos… this is what the Israelites experienced during the Babylonian siege and exile. This is the brutality that African-American slaves experienced. This is still reality for many, many people throughout our world today. This was and is their truth.

But the psalm is not all destruction and despair. The psalmist also ascertains that God is our refuge and strength. God is present. God is in the midst of the city. God will help. God makes wars cease – breaking bow and spear and shield. The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge.

The Israelite’s truth was that God never abandoned them, even in the absolute most abysmal places and spaces. When it couldn’t possibly get worse – God was there. God was a refuge and strength. This was their truth.

For the African-American slaves who desperately wanted Jesus to walk with them – he did. Jesus was present. Jesus showed up and suffered with them, giving strength and comfort. This was their truth.

For us – when drama, trauma, pain, suffering, unexpected setbacks and sorrow ensue, Jesus walks with us. Jesus comes to us in water, wine, and bread… he is present. We know and we have experienced this truth – and it is powerful – and it prevails. This is our truth.

This truth is powerful and it does prevail. God is present. Jesus Walks with Us on our pilgrim journeys, in our trials, and in times of trouble… he has promised us this… he is our truth…always. For this powerful and prevailing truth, I say – thanks be to God. Amen.

Posted in Christian, Christianity, Faith, Lent, Sermons, Spirituality

BAM! Kick-It-Up-A-Notch!

John 2:13-22

Grace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

I remember it clearly… I came home from school one afternoon in the Spring of 1997. I was a sophomore in high school. My dad was home early from work and was in our family room watching the television on our massively huge big screen tv. Some of you remember the big box tv’s that predated flat screens – the ones that took up half of a room. Ours was elevated on top of an entertainment console that my dad had had custom built to house that monstrosity. As I walked in the front door I heard my dad call to me – Ariel… you’ve got to come in here and watch this.

I walked into the family room and looked at the screen in time to see the Food Network logo just before the show he was watching went to commercial. I remember thinking – Dear God… what horrid Julia Child wanna-be is he going to make me endure? Because at that point in time… most of the Food Network was a bunch of peppy Caucasian women who had a strong penchant for creating concoctions that never looked appetizing to me. As a matter of fact – my family used to make fun of the Food Network shows and hypothesize about what kind of people actually watched them. So imagine my confusion at finding my dad sitting in his recliner actually choosing to watch this station.

As the show my dad was watching came back on I about jumped out of skin when the host yelled – BAM! First of all – the host was a dude. Second – this dude in no way resembled the typical glorified house-wife talking about the perfect soufflé for their next dinner party. He came across as an extra from the movie The Godfather, some Italian mobster who somehow got a cooking show.

I honestly cannot tell you what he cooked on the show that day, just that he yelled “BAM!” and “Kick-it-up-a-notch” and kept telling you to add more “Essence” (which I later learned was just a mix of herbs and spices).

If you still aren’t sure which Food Network star I’m referring to, it’s Emeril Lagasse. So, it turns out, not at Italian mobster… he’s actually of Portuguese decent but you know, grew up in Massachusetts so the accent was deceiving.

Over the course of that Spring, my family watched a lot of Emeril Live! As did many, many others in the United States. The fledgling Food Network suddenly was popular.  Because this show and this host was new and different. He was funny, witty, and incredibly entertaining.  He wasn’t just cooking – he was performing. He made people, like my friend Josh – who was on a pretty destructive path at the time –  reconsider who he was, who he could be, and what he was destined for. BAM! Emeril reset the perception of the Food Network.

In our Gospel lesson this morning Jesus does a little performance art of his own. Just following his first miracle of turning water into win at the wedding in Cana, Jesus heads to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover. It was common at the time for Israelites to pilgrimage for certain religious holidays, Passover being one of them. While there he visits the temple where he finds it to be not just the center of religious rites and worship, but also a center of political intrigue and commerce. There are merchants selling livestock for the ritual sacrifices required of the Israelites at the time. There are money changers who swap out the currency of all of the respective regions and countries of the time and convert it into the temple currency.  There were priests and scribes and beggars and prostitutes all peddling their wares or services.

Jesus makes a whip of cords. He MADE it. He doesn’t just pick something up that someone had lying around in the heat of the moment– he very intentionally and methodically creates this instrument. BAM! He then uses the whip drive out the livestock and the merchants selling them from the temple market. BAM! He turns over the money changers tables. BAM! He tells everyone to get out and quit making the temple into a marketplace.

The Jews present ask him for a sign to show why they should do this… and he tells them that if they destroy the temple he will raise it again in three days. The confused Jews say – this temple has been under construction for 46 years… there’s no way.

It’s noteworthy to know that a more accurate translation of “Jews” would be “Judeans.” Their skepticism is not only because Jesus is causing a ruckus, but because he is a Galilean. He’s a northerner and they are from the south. So regional and cultural prejudice is definitely influencing this encounter. We know nothing of circumstance such as these do we? Culturally the Northern & Southern United States are identical, right?

As a side note, John tells us that Jesus wasn’t talking about the actual temple, but instead about himself.

So, what exactly is going on here? Why is Jesus throwing what appears to be the grand mal of temper tantrums? Is he truly that angry by what he sees in the temple? Is this particular story really important?

We know this story is in fact important because it is one of the few stories that appears in all four of the Gospels. Over 90% of the Gospel of John is unique – so the fact that this is a shared experience with the Synoptic Gospels is telling. However, John places this encounter early in Jesus ministry where the other 3 Gospels place it at the very end.

There are many, many layers of what is going on in this encounter. One of which is that Jesus is being a bit of a social justice warrior.  Jesus is seeking to reset the current status quo. At this point in time Jews were cleansed of their sins through ritual sacrifice made during a pilgrimage to the temple. Much of the livestock was brought from the more rural agrarian parts of Israel into the city.

This livestock was purchased at very low prices. It was then in turn sold back to the very people who originally raised it at inflated prices once they arrived in the city because it was unrealistic for them to transport animals that far.

The money changers would take the local currencies and convert them into the temple currency – much like banks in airports will convert American Dollars to the local currency of a foreign country. Only these money changes charged exorbitant fees and skimmed a lot off the top.

It was an unjust and corrupt system that benefited the wealthy and the powerful. The poor and marginalized had no recourse. Sacrifice had to be made in order for sins to be cleansed.  There was no blowing off the temple just as we really can’t just blow off paying taxes.

Jesus could have shrugged his shoulders and said nothing. Remaining silent in the face of injustice. Instead he made a whip and staged a very public protest. BAM! Jesus challenged societal norms and people in positions of power. Jesus challenged the status quo and transformed society as he cultivated a ministry following. Jesus reset the perception of acceptable temple culture. Jesus Kicks it up a notch!

Which is why this encounter really sets the religious authorities on edge. This is specific fodder for their arguments to put Jesus to death after he has been arrested.

There are places in our world today that require us to kick it up a notch. Corruption, greed, and economic disparities are just as prevalent today as the were in Ancient Israel. There are still those who are hungry and thirsty. Those who are sick and imprisoned unjustly. Those who have no homes, no clothes, no access to education, no hope.

It is our job to give them hope. We are called to speak out, just as Jesus did, in the face of injustice. We are called to love God by loving our neighbors… especially those neighbors who have no voice. As Pastor Lynn is so apt to say – the love and kindness we show our neighbors is not to earn favor with God, instead is a way to give thanks to God.

We are called to be instruments of change in this world. We are called to be instruments of love, grace, kindness, and hospitality. We are called to make our metaphorical whips and use them to implement change. Be they words, gatherings, demonstrations, faith acts, service, or worship. Get out there and kick it up a notch! Jesus showed us how. BAM!

Posted in Christian, Christianity, Faith, Sermons, Spirituality

Hey Woman, Make Me A Sammich!

Mark 1: 29-39

Grace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

When Izzy was 4 years-old she came home from preschool one afternoon and said – “Mommy, can you teach me to cook like you?” “Well sure, baby,” I replied. “You can help mommy now and when you get a little older, I’ll teach you all of my ways.”

“No mommy!” she stated emphatically – “I need to learn now. Because ladies are supposed to know how to cook. We have to feed the mens.”

I stared at her for a stunned few seconds and then said: “Ummmmm – WHHHHHAAAAT?!?!?! Who told you told you that???” Apparently, it was one of the teacher’s aids who was trying to be funny when some of the children were playing with the play kitchen, and told the little girls that it was their job to cook for the little boys.

You may or may not know this about me, but I LOVE to cook. I’ll cook for anyone, any day, anytime. Male or female.  The more the merrier. Seriously – I pretty much always cook enough for a small army. I am a woman who loves to cook!

However, I’m sure you know me well enough to know just how NOT-happy I was to have my 4-year-old thinking that there were strictly assigned tasks that each gender is required to live into.

Especially since her lack of cooking skills had incited some kind of panic. I know plenty of women who are amazing chefs and I know plenty of women who are terrible at cooking. I also know plenty of men who are terrible at cooking and plenty of men who are amazing chefs.  Seriously, can you imagine the Food Network without Alton Brown? Because I cannot!

I found out later that her concern was related to a little boy named Brandon. Turns out, at 4, these two were planning a life of domestic bliss together. According to Brandon’s mother, he was planning to give Izzy “the promise ring.”

Izzy thought that her lack of ability to cook, at age 4, would somehow impact their future together. Sadly, these two were no Paris and Helen of Troy. Once they went of to different elementary schools, their preschool love faded.

Our Gospel text this morning is a bit of a transitional piece. In this time following Epiphany, we have been hearing stories of Jesus establishing himself; he’s proclaimed God’s message that the kingdom of heaven is near and began recruiting his disciples to accompany him and help him in his ministry. Last week this ministry began when he healed the man plagued by the unclean spirit.

Directly following that encounter, Jesus and his disciples leave the Synagogue and go to the house of Simon and Andrew where Jesus heals Simon’s mother-in-law who was bedridden with a fever. Upon her healing she gets up and begins to serve them.

Apparently, word gets around because later that evening people in the city start bringing anyone who is sick or possessed by some kind of a demon (or vice that controls them) to Jesus for healing. He heals them all and once again, prevents the demons from speaking because they know who he is.

The next morning, before the sun has risen, Jesus goes someplace that is solitary to pray. He is hunted down by his disciples and they tell him that everyone is looking for him. (Well duh, they all want some more miraculous healing.)

Jesus tells them that they will be going on to neighboring towns to proclaim God’s message there also. Because that is what he came to do. He came to proclaim God’s message to many places, not just one village. We have transitioned from the build up – to the actual action.

And there is a lot of action happening as we transition in this text. It almost feels like 3 separate stories all crammed together.  As I read and reflected on this text this week, one thing kept leaping out at me as I read the story. And that one thing caused me to have a similar reaction to when Izzy told me she needed to learn to cook for the mens. – Ummmm…. WHAT?

Jesus healed the mother-in-law of Simon so she could serve them? Man, that just reeks of – “Hey woman, go make me a sammich.” Seriously?

Matt Skinner wrote: “There’s something about Mark 1:31 that makes audiences bristle. Why is the healed woman’s first response to serve Jesus and his four disciples? When we learn that ‘serve’ translates diakoneo, most likely indicating food service, and means she ‘waited on’ them, it doesn’t help. Why didn’t Simon tell his mother-in-law to take it easy while he made the sandwiches this time?” Why indeed???

Upon further reflection, there’s a lot more going on. Although societal norms today don’t dictate culinary skills strictly along gender lines, in Ancient Palestine, they did. Women were the ones who attended to the domestic needs of the household. And they did this communally.

It was the right and privilege of the senior woman in the household to present and/or serve what all of the women of the household had created together. Showing this hospitality to important guests was a matter of honor and privilege, not servitude.

Additionally – the fact that she was immediately able to get up and take on these duties speaks to her complete and miraculous recovery. She didn’t need to take it easy – she was well.

Some translations of this text say she got up and ministered to them. Providing for their needs out of gratitude and to reflect the love that she had received to the entire household.

Sarah Henrich noted in her commentary reflection that the verb used to describe this service is the same verb that Jesus uses to describe his own ministry of service.

She also states that: “Simon Peter’s mother-in-law is far from being an exemplar of a pathetic, un-liberated woman for whom serving men is her whole life. Rather she is the FIRST character in Mark’s gospel who exemplifies true discipleship.”

So, this wasn’t an act of servitude, but of gratitude. And honor. And respect. She wasn’t cooking for the mens out of expectation or obligation, or hope for “the promise ring,” but as an outward sign of her discipleship. Of her love.

This really isn’t much different than the outward signs of our discipleship – we serve one another and our community in many different ways – Faith Formation, Social Outreach, Justice Actions, Music Ministries, and Worship just to name a few. We also act in response to the love that we have received from God, which unlike Izzy and Brandon’s preschool love, will never fade. And this active love that we exude is not something we due out of obligation. We act out of gratitude.

Rather than fixate on what originally seemed to be horrible gender stereotyping, instead, let us give thanks that we received this shining example of faith in action from Simon’s mother-in-law, so that we too can live as people of action on our journeys of discipleship. We too can reflect God’s love to the world, just as Simon’s mother-in-law reflected her Jesus’ love to that entire household. Amen.

Posted in Christian, Christianity, Devotions, Faith, Faith Formation, Lent, Spirituality

Family Lenten Devotions for 2018

Downloadable Document: Year B Family Devotional 2018- Lent

Background Information for the Devotional:

Lent – What does it mean?:

As early as the mid-fourth century, Christians have observed a time of preparation before the Easter celebration. The Lenten season begins on Ash Wednesday and lasts for 40 days. The forty days of Lent recall the 40 day fast of Jesus in the wilderness after his baptism (Matthew 4:2, Luke 4:1-2) and Moses’ 40 day fast on Mount Sinai (Exodus 34:28). It is a time of simplicity and preparation.

The Principal Themes of Lent include penitence; baptismal renewal; preparation for baptism at the Easter Vigil; prayer, fasting, and service; confession of sin rooted in the promise of God that comes through the cross of Christ.

Purple is the seasonal color which suggests somberness & solemnity as well as royalty.

(Taken from

Lent at home:

Life is busy! Work, school, athletic events, extra-curricular activities, travel, church, civic organizations, friends, family, etc. occupy much if not all of our time. We often choose to “give-up” something for Lent that won’t really be an inconvenience for us. It rarely brings us closer to God.

This Lent I encourage you all to spend time as a family reflecting, praying, and preparing.  This devotional resource is intended to give you tools to have family devotions. It is built around the prayer practices of Lectio Divina & Praying in Color as well as the physical exercise practices of yoga and walking.  The weekly lesson is intended to be repeated each night so that you can continue to learn, reflect, and expand. Your prayers will inevitably shift based on your experiences each day. There are also lessons for Ash Wednesday and Holy Week.

Lectio Divina:

In Christianity, Lectio Divina (Latin for divine reading) is a traditional Benedictine practice of scriptural reading, meditation and prayer intended to promote communion with God and to increase the knowledge of God’s Word. It does not treat Scripture as texts to be studied, but as the Living Word.

Traditionally Lectio Divina has 4 separate steps: readmeditatepray and contemplate. First a passage of Scripture is read, then its meaning is reflected upon. This is followed by prayer and contemplation on the Word of God. For use with children I have simplified the steps down to read, think, pray, and rest. See Appendix A for a visual graphic explaining Lectio Divina.

Praying in Color:

Praying in Color is a concept developed by Sybil MacBeth for the times when we have no words but want to communicate with God. It is particularly wonderful for children as they often have short attention spans, don’t know how or what to pray, view prayer time as a chore, etc. Praying in color incorporates doodling, coloring, & prayer all together. No words are necessary. Think of a person, place, organization, that you would like to pray for. Write down their name and begin to doodle and color on the page while thinking about them. When your picture feels complete, your prayer is also. To incorporate in with Lectio Divina, write down a word or phrase that struck you from the passage you read and then doodle and color the page during the “Pray/Oratio” step. Two sample templates for praying in color are included in Appendix C & D.

Additional information regarding Praying in Color & additional praying in color templates can be found at or by purchasing Praying in Color; Praying in Color Kids Edition; or Praying in Black and White by Sybil MacBeth.

Posted in Christian, Christianity, Faith, Sermons, Spirituality

Can Anything Good Come From…

John 1: 43-51

Grace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

As many of you know, I grew up in Salem, Oregon. I was raised in the South part of town which was considered the nicer part of town. This isn’t exactly true, but it was certainly the perception.  It was also the perception that the further south you went, the nicer it got.  I attended South Salem High School – Home of the Saxons.

Although most of our country glorifies accomplishments for High School and Collegiate athletics, my high school was different. Because to be completely honest – we were pretty TERRIBLE in the athletic arenas. My freshman year of high school we did not win ONE football game. Freshman, JV, or Varsity. Not ONE! Where we did excel and achieve was in the arts. Particularly music.

My high school has a long history of musical excellence – it was not uncommon for the top musical groups in band, choir, and orchestra, to win the State Ensemble Championship for a 6A high school. (I say the top groups because when I was in high school we had 4 bands, 4 choirs, and 3 different orchestral groups. Those are only the concert ensembles. When you added in marching band, pep band, jazz groups, etc… there were many, many, many more opportunities to express your musical passions.)

We had pep rallies for music. Wrap your head around that one!  I myself was a Choral State Champion my senior year of high school. I would have been my Junior year as well – if it hadn’t been… for Sprague High.  Or as we used to call them Spragoo.

This was the high school that was located just slightly further south in Salem. (You know – the nicer part of the nice part of town.) They were our huge rival. We hated those guys. Their school colors were orange and brown – so naturally, we called them all “Pumpkin Heads.” Super original, and very derogatory, I know. What can I say – high school music nerds aren’t known for their super creative and biting slurs. Growing up you could not have convinced me that anything good could come out of Sprague High. They were the worst. They were the enemy.

In our Gospel text this morning, Jesus is in the process of calling his disciples. In the text immediately preceding this, Jesus has called Andrew and Peter as his disciples. In this morning’s text he find’s Philip (who is from Bethsaida, which happens to be the same town as Andrew and Peter) and calls him as well. Philip is clearly quite excited and runs off to find his buddy Nathanael. 

He catches up with Nathanael underneath a fig tree. He tells Nathanael that they have found him who Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote of. And it’s Jesus – son of Joseph – from Nazareth.

Nathanael isn’t so quick to jump on the Jesus is Messiah bandwagon. I mean – come on… NAZARETH??? Which is exactly what he says. “Can anything good come out of Nazareth???” I think Nazareth and Bethsaida may have had a bit of a South Salem vs. Sprague kind of relationship.

Philip tells Nathanael to “Come and see.” And so he does. Now Jesus, being, you know, GOD – knows exactly what Nathanael has said about him. And he’s not having that kind shade thrown in his direction without some kind of reciprocation. As Nathanael walks toward him he says – “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!”

Pastor Schul pointed out in Staff Meeting this week that the Israelite Nation was founded on deceit as it all began when Jacob stole Esau’s birthright by lying. I mean, he was known as Jacob the liar! So, this comment by Jesus is total snark.

Nathanael, not knowing that Jesus knows about the whole Nazareth bashing thing, is wondering what this dudes damage is. And asks him how he would know? When exactly did they meet?  Jesus replies “I saw you – under the fig tree before Philip called you.” And therefore, by implication – heard the whole thing! Whoops!

Nathanael has an instantaneous change of perspective. He proclaims “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” Apparently – something good can come out of Nazareth after all.

Jesus asks if he believes this because he told him he saw him under the fig tree – and then tells him he’s going to see much greater things than these. Just you wait, Nathanael, just you wait!

This text is incredibly poignant this week. It was impossible to miss the media barrage following comments about certain countries immigrants – and their worth. Those from Africa, those from Haiti, those from El Salvador. Similar comments have been made in the past regarding immigrants from the Middle East as well. 

The somewhat sanitized version of what was said was – Can anything good come out of these countries? The implication being that nothing can and those who came to the United States fleeing violence and oppression are wastes of our time.

I suppose if you have never had any direct contact with anyone from these places then that might be an easier pill to swallow – just like it was easier for Nathanael to think poorly of Nazareth prior to meeting Jesus. It’s amazing how personal connection transforms us.

For me personally, when I heard of this comment, I didn’t think about those living in Africa as nameless and faceless individuals. I immediately thought of my good friend, Pastor Emmanuel Jackson, who is the Senior Pastor at Living Word Lutheran in Katy, Texas which is the fastest growing ELCA congregation in the Houston area. Emmanuel was born in Liberia and his family fled after his father was murdered by Liberian rebels. He is my dear friend and he is an incredible pastor who is a huge asset to our denomination. Can anything good come out of Africa? Yes. Yes it can.

I also thought about the people I met when I went to Central America. Although they had so much less than we have here – they were warm and welcoming and generous. One village that I visited cooked an elaborate meal for our group, with no desire or expectation of compensation or reward. They did it because hospitality is an ingrained part of who they are.

During our return layover in the San Salvador airport – I was INCREDIBLY sick. A woman working at the airport newsstand brought me a bottle of water and a package of mint gum. She would not accept payment. She saw a sick and suffering traveler and she reached out with compassion. Can anything good come out of El Salvador? Yes. Yes it can.

Around the turn of the 20th Century a Syrian immigrant, named Khalil Atiyeh, came to the United States at 12-years-old. He worked hard. He served during World War I with Roosevelts Rough Riders. He eventually married a fellow immigrant named Aniese Haddad. They had 4 children. 11 grandchildren. And many, many great grandchildren. Of which, I am one. Can anything good come out of the Middle East? Yes. Yes it can.

And wouldn’t you know, by a twist of fate – my younger brother and sister-in-law bought a house in the Sprague school district and my new twin nephews will some day be Pumpkin Heads… perish the thought! So – can anything good come out of Sprague High? Well – I suppose, yes. Yes it can. And it will.

Good things come from all places. Nathanael learned that the Messiah, the son of God, the King of Israel… came from Nazareth. And that man from Nazareth showed him amazing things… just as he promised he would. Jesus transformed his life. And Jesus continues to transform our lives today.

Jesus gathers all kinds of different people from all kinds of different places together. Our diversity and differences are one of our greatest assets. Yet, in Baptism we are all transformed from African, or Haitian, or Syrian, or El Salvadoran, or Norwegian, or American to Children of God. Gathered, welcomed, loved. In Holy Communion we are all fed the same heavenly food. No one is more worthy or deserving than another. We are all God’s people. Every last one of us. Even those Pumpkin Heads from Spragoo.  Amen.

Posted in Advent, Christian, Christianity, Faith, Sermons, Spirituality

This Was Not The Plan

Luke 1:26-38

Grace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

In March of 2005 I stood in my ex-husband’s office at Arkansas State University staring at the wall. On the wall he had a huge calendar that marked all of the Women’s Soccer important dates and practice itineraries. As I stared at the calendar I had a huge realization wash over me – you see… I had just counted dates and realized that there was a very real chance that I was pregnant. As I stood there staring, he noticed me and asked if I was okay. I looked at him and said “Ummm… we need to make a stop at the store on the way home.”

He stared at me for a minute, then his eyes got wide and he said: “For real???” I replied: “For real.” He then responded: “Oh, poop!” (He didn’t really say poop… I’m sanitizing this story for all of you. I’m sure you can all deduce what was actually said.) The next morning I took a pregnancy test and validated my suspicions. I was pregnant. Oh poop!

This was not the plan. We had only been married for 9 months… the plan was to wait a couple of years. Precautions had been taken. This should not be a thing… however, as Patrick’s ongoing presence testifies – it was most certainly a thing. My emotions ran the gamut… I fluctuated between feeling excited and between a complete state of disbelief.

Again – this was not the plan. I was only 24-years-old… was I ready to be a mother? Would I be good at it?  Well – ready or not… this was my reality. It was happening.

In our Gospel this morning Mary has a similar, yet more extreme, experience. She is visited by the Angel Gabriel. Gabriel greets her as “Favored one and tells her that God is with her.” Mary is originally startled… Old-Wives-Tales of the time stated that visits by angels to women often meant that one’s husband was going to die.  As someone who was formally engaged, if something happened to Joseph at this time, Mary would be considered a widow. So, needless to say, an Angel Visit probably brought on a little anxiety.

We are told that Mary was perplexed by these words and pondered what this greeting might mean. I’m sure she is trying to figure out how “Greetings favored one… God is with you” translates to – Joseph be DEAD.

Gabriel goes on to tell her “Do not be afraid. You have found favor with God.” Well that’s good news… hopefully favor with God means her betrothed is okay.

Then Gabriel goes on to tell her that she will conceive a child and bear a son and will name him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give him the throne of David and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, AND his kingdom will have no end.

Holy cow… because if a visit from a celestial being who typically brings messages of life changing doom wasn’t scary enough… now this being is telling her she is going to become pregnant and her child will get a more impressive title than some of the most educated individuals we know today.

Mary is understandably somewhat baffled by this announcement… I mean, it’s kind of a lot to take in… and asks – “How can this be since I am a virgin?” Clearly THIS is not Mary’s life plan! Much like I experienced upon my conception of Patrick… Mary is experiencing some disbelief. I mean… come on. She is a young woman… probably 14ish years old… and a virgin. Unwed motherhood was definitely not on her agenda.  Not to mention – it’s a physical impossibility!!!!

Gabriel tells her that her child will be conceived by the Holy Spirit and will be holy… the son of God. He then goes on to tell her that her cousin, Elizabeth, has also conceived a child. Elizabeth was previously barren and is quite advanced in years so this news would have definitely been surprising and miraculous.

Gabriel tells Mary that NOTHING will be impossible with God. That physical impossibility can and will be overcome.

Mary accepts all of these explanations and shifts from a state of disbelief to a state of acceptance and joy. She says: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Following this as we heard in our psalm, she then sings a song of joy and praise.

Her life plan just got upended. I think that in today’s climate of sexual abuse scandals it is very important to note that Mary consents to this plan. She agrees to it. Many commentarians have pondered the possibility that she was not the first visit Gabriel made. There may have been others before her who said – Yeah… great honor and all God, but NO THANKS! Not my plan.  Regardless of whether or not she was the first who was asked to be the mother of God is really not all that important. What is important is that she accepts this role.

In a very short span of time she shifts from a state of terror, to a state of confusion, to a state of acceptance. From disbelief to joy. Karoline Lewis states: “She makes a radical transformation in only three short verses, from peasant girl to prophet, from Mary to mother of God, from denial to discipleship. In a very real way, this is the appropriate transition from Advent to Christmas. Mary’s story moves us all from who we think we are to what God has called us to be, from observant believer to confessing apostle. Moreover, remarkably, impossibly. Mary’s story demands that we acknowledge the very transformation of God. It is no small journey to go from our comfortable perceptions of God to God in the manger, vulnerable, helpless, dependent. Yet, this is the promise of Christmas.”

Who we think we are – to who God has called us to be.  Who do you think you are? Who is God calling you to be?  I thought I knew who I was. I thought I had my life planned out and in a single moment… that plan changed. I went from being Ariel – newly married woman who was going to get the job and the house and the car all lined up before starting my family to – Ariel – dweller of a crummy one-bedroom-apartment, soon to be mother… too bad all the ducks aren’t in a row. This is happening anyway.

Life has a funny way of throwing us curveballs… be it impending parenthood, or unexpected relationship changes, or employment transitions, relocations, or even random encounters with strangers that forever change us… we think we know who we are. We think we have life planned out… but we never really do. And in these curveballs we often are reminded of who God is and who God is calling us to be. Like Mary, we are given the opportunity to shift from a seat of observation to a place of engaged disciple.

Kristine Johnson states that: “We are made in God’s image and we are filled with God’s power to act in this world. To welcome that which is of God – love, blessing, dignity, and justice – and to reject whatever is not of God – hunger, fear, injustice, and oppression. Or perhaps even the thought that we are not good enough. God is at work today, all over this world, breaking in to people’s lives and liberating them from whatever it is that is holding them captive.”

Sometimes that which is holding us captive, what keeps us forever trapped in the season of Advent and prevents us from fully transitioning to Christmas, is our own plan and our own ideas of how things can, should, and will progress in our lives. We can focus so hard on our end destination that we miss opportunities and encounters along the way.

We know what happened when Mary let God work in her. Are we letting God do that work in us? Are we willing, like Mary, to be bearers of God in this world?

God’s work in the world depends on our “yes.” Mary bore Jesus, the Savior of the world. And now, we are Christ’s body carrying on his mission. As we transition from Advent to Christmas let us also transition from who we think we are, to who God is truly calling us to be.

Like Mary, we too are engaged disciples, called to share God’s message of peace, love, and reconciliation with a hurting and desperate world. We are called to get out of our own way, forget who we think we are, and live into who God is calling us to be. Even if this calling comes at unexpected times and in unexpected ways. Amen.

Posted in Christian, Christianity, Faith, Sermons, Spirituality

Risk Taking

Gospel: Matthew 25:14-30

Grace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

In the fall of 2011 I had an informal interview with several members of the Southwestern Texas Synod Candidacy Committee as I was discerning a call to ordained ministry but had no idea how the process worked and wanted to get some more information. I had been serving as the Director of Child, Youth, & Family Ministries at Emanuel’s Lutheran for just over a year and was getting that little nagging sensation that maybe I was supposed to do more. Over my time here at Grace, I’ve shared with many of you that the nagging sensation began when I was about 16-years-old, but I just kept trying to ignore it or avoid it, telling myself that I didn’t really fit the “pastor” mold, so it couldn’t really be a valid call. I pretty much did everything possible to avoid this life that I now lead.

On that day, I drove to San Antonio, Texas and met with two women who served on the committee at that time. They asked me questions about my sense of call and ministry direction, and explained the whole candidacy and seminary process to me, which as I’m sure most of you have realized by this point – is extensive.

I was very encouraged and optimized by this meeting and was beginning to think the nagging sensation might actually be real, AND, then it happened – one of the women I was meeting with left the room for a few minutes to get me a resource book, and the other woman turned to me and said – “You know, you sound like you have a sense of call, but I do have one concern, your appearance isn’t exactly pastoral.”

I was confused and must of have looked confused because she continued – “You are too thin, you wear too much makeup, and your hair is far too long. You may end up being a distraction.” So, no one ever told me that a love and excessive use of mascara precludes one from having a pastoral calling. The more you know! She also told me that during my internship, there was the possibility that I could be separated from my family for the year, and if I wasn’t willing to do so, then I might not really be called.

I was shocked and horrified and felt shamed and inadequate. I was immediately filled with all kinds of self-doubt and fear. Because of this meeting, I determined I must not really be called, the nagging feeling was not for real, and I did not apply for candidacy. It took me two years of affirmation and encouragement by numerous other people to get me to a point where I felt confident enough to apply. And another year beyond that before I began seminary. Because of this one meeting, I buried my talents and ignored my gifts and my calling. I functioned in the capacity of the third steward that we hear about in our Gospel lesson today.

In the text, Jesus pulls aside the disciples, and begins to tell a parable that is meant for their ears only. In it he speaks of a man who goes on a journey – a long journey – and entrusts his property to several of his slaves. To one he gives 5 talents, to another two, and to the final slave, he gives one.

A talent was a unit for measuring money. And not just a small sum of money – we are talking big bucks. A talent was equal to the wages that a laborer would accrue over a 15-year span of time. So, the slave who received 5 talents received 75 years’ worth of annual income. He was given what we all spend a lifetime working for, today.

This slave and the slave who receive two talents, went and traded with them and ended up doubling the amount that had been entrusted to their care. The third slave dug a whole in the ground and hid his master’s money. This would not have been an uncommon practice at the time – burying ones treasure meant keeping it safe.

Years and years go by and finally the master returns and wants to settle-up with his slaves. He praises, honors, and rewards the slaves who took risk and doubled what they were given. The slave who buried his talent admits that he was afraid and so just kept it safe. Nothing wrong with that, right?

WRONG! The master is angered by this and tells him at the very least he should have invested it with bankers, so he could have gotten some interest. He then takes the talent from this slave and gives it to the slave who had ten and banishes him. Man – HARSH! I mean, it’s not like the guy LOST the money, he just didn’t take any risks with it.

So – why would Jesus tell this parable to his disciples? Just what exactly is he trying to get across to them??? Contrary to what some modern-day televangelists profess, this is not a story justifying a gospel of economic prosperity. Instead, the disciples at the time, and we today, are encouraged to emulate the first two slaves by using all that we have been given for the sake of God’s kingdom.

Jesus knows his time with the disciples is limited, and he is trying to prepare them for the life that they will lead without him. He is telling them that they will need to endure difficult times, times where their faith is tested, when they are criticized, ostracized, detested, and disliked.  But through all of this, they are to live in the anticipation of his return, working daily to continue his mission of feeding the hungry, curing the sick, visiting the imprisoned, clothing the naked, welcoming the stranger, blessing the meek, and serving the least.  Using every gift and resource at their disposal to do so.  Everything they have been given. Everything that they are.  Listening to the nagging feeling inside of them that tells them this is what they are meant to do and to keep on doing it.  This is not a safe vocation. This is not an easy vocation. It involves a tremendous amount of risk.

Risk is something that we are taught to minimize. Sure, it’s okay to take a reasonable amount of risk – particularly when managing financial resources, but we need be cautious. We need to hold back a little. Save some. We don’t want to lose everything, afterall! We take out insurance policies, we diversify, we save.

But this parable is speaking to so much more than just financial resources. Risk is also something we take when sharing our gifts and talents with the world. And just like the disciples, there are times when we will need to endure difficult times, times where our faith is tested, when we are criticized, ostracized, detested, and disliked.  But through all of this, we also are to live in the anticipation of Jesus’ return, working daily to continue his mission. Our gifts may not always be appreciated or welcomed. They may not always be understood. They may not even be noticed. They may be marginalized at the expense of superficiality. And some days we may just be at a loss for how to act or what to do.

Living into Jesus’ mission can be hard and thankless work.  It can be confusing work.  I mean, how much is enough? What truly encompasses giving your whole self? Where is the line between risking the talents that have been entrusted to us and burying them?  It is really easy to get discouraged and to feel doubt and despair and think that there is no point in continuing to try.

It’s very easy to become the third slave just as I did all those years ago. It’s easy to listen to the shamers, naysayers, and enablers. To ignore the nagging feeling that we know to be true. To not take the risks that we know we are called to take. To clock in and out of church each Sunday and call that good enough.  Jesus is telling us that this is not good enough. God comes to us through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus offering grace, love, mercy, salvation, and eternal life.  We in turn are called to extend this grace love, and mercy to our neighbors. Empowering one another and bolstering one another.

We are called to get involved, advocate, serve. There are so many ways we can use our talents to show love to our neighbors. Here at Grace we support Out-Of-The- Cold, the Crop Walk, Stop Hunger Now, and Jared Boxes just to name a few.  When the Hurricanes hit Texas, Florida, and Puerto Rico, we gave generously and supported the relief efforts.  There are also many, many ways to engage in our community. To speak up in the face of adversity. To advocate both inside and outside of the church. There is an unlimited number of ways that we can serve.  This is what it means to be community. This is what it means to be the Body of Christ – each one of us working for the betterment and fulfillment of the whole. Using our talents, not burying them.

And as we do this – Jesus promises to always be with us. Meeting us both in the waters of baptism and at the table – nourishing us and empowering us to keep going. To keep using those talents.  Sending the Holy Spirit to continuously steer us on this journey.

Don’t bury your talents. Don’t ignore the nagging feeling telling you to act. Don’t listen to those people who cause you to fear and doubt. Give of yourself and give generously. Take risk. God created you, Jesus redeemed you, and the Holy Spirit continues to guide you. Live in the security of God’s love, and share that love with others. When we do this we truly live life and live it abundantly. Amen.

Posted in Christian, Christianity, Faith, Sermons, Spirituality, Uncategorized

There’s a Place at the Table

Matthew 22:1-14

Grace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

On Monday night, in Lubbock, Texas, a 19-year-old Texas Tech student named Hollis Alvin James Reid Daniels, III was arrested by campus police because they found illegal substances and drug paraphernalia in his dorm room. While they were processing him at the police station this young man (who was not handcuffed) pulled out a gun and shot and killed the police officer who was with him. The gun was somehow missed when he was arrested. He fled the station which led to Texas Tech being locked down until he was recaptured later that night.  He has been charged with Capital Murder of a Peace Officer and bail has been set at 5 million dollars. This was national news, some of you may have seen or heard it.

This young man, Hollis, is from Seguin, Texas. That city name might sound somewhat familiar to you because that is the town where I lived and served as youth minister prior to attending seminary. Hollis went by one of his middle names, Reid, and he was a member of my youth group. I’ve known him since he was 12-years-old.

It is heartbreaking and devastating to know that the sweet, goofy youth that I knew and who I watched grow into a caring, hardworking, young man, made such poor life choices, that this is now reality.

It was equally as heartbreaking to watch how corporate media painted the picture of Reid and his family; and how people on social media, who don’t know he or his parents, were quick to condemn and judge. Some of what people had to say was just cruel and ugly.

It made me realize how many times in the past, when events like this have occurred, I have been quick to condemn and judge and be cruel and ugly.

But the thing is, Reid, although a horrible sinner who made a devastating choice with hugely expansive and overarching consequences for many, many, many people, is still someone’s son. He is still a brother. He is still an uncle. He is still a friend to many. He is still the goofy, sweet, hardworking, caring person young man I knew. The paradox of his identities makes for a very fuzzy and blurred overall picture. And we in modern America, don’t like blurred lines. We want sharp definition. Black or white. No grey. Good or bad. Not both.

Which is why I think many modern Christian traditions are often drawn to this morning’s Gospel. They like what comes across as hierarchy and justice.  They like the perceived judgement and condemnation.

In it, Jesus tells a parable. In the parable there is a king whose son is getting married. He invites all of his friends and colleagues to the wedding banquet. He does this as convention at the time dictated – first with a formal invitation that one would accept or decline (almost a save-the-date, if you will) and then reminds them with a personal summons the day of the event.

For some reason, the guests who formerly accepted, do not come. The King even tries enticing them with descriptions of slaughtered oxen and fatted calves.  Because we all know people show up for barbeque!

This still doesn’t work. In fact, some of the invitees go away – one goes on a business trip, another to his farm, and the rest – well they just seize, mistreat, and kill the slaves delivering the message. Because that’s a rational and normal response to a wedding invitation!

The king is furious (obviously!) and destroys those who slighted him. He burns their city to ground. Then he tells some of his slaves – we’ve got to have guests, clearly those I just smote were not worthy – so go out and find me some people! The slaves go out into the streets and gather everyone they can find, both good and bad and fill the wedding hall.

When the king arrives he notices one guest who is not dressed appropriately. He is not wearing a wedding robe – the king asks how he got in??? When the guest does not answer – he has him bound and thrown out.

Upon first review, it seems pretty harsh, at least for those who offend the king. Often this is interpreted that those people who reject God and/or do bad things in the world are the ones who get destroyed or thrown out of the banquet. It fits into modern societies need for vengeance, justice, judgement, and absolutes.

The only problem, is that this, like all parables, is not meant to be taken literally. It’s allegory. Matthew had a strict Jewish piety and therefore minimalized the use of the word “God” and instead chooses “King” which was a common metaphor for God.  The wedding was also a common metaphor for God and God’s relationship with Israel. This is meant to tell the tale of salvation history.

So, the king represents God. The original guests are the Kingdom of Israel, God’s chosen people. Whom God sent prophets and messengers to, informing them that the Messiah was coming. Yet many of them still rejected him and killed him when he arrived. The son who is getting married represents Jesus. The wedding is his act of salvation on behalf of the world. The guests who are gathered from the streets are Jews and Gentiles alike. Good people and bad people.

And the wedding clothes that they wear – is the cloak of love, grace, forgiveness, mercy and salvation that we receive when we are baptized into the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Sharon Ringe states that: “The final invitation that will fill the banquet hall is inclusive in the extreme. In that sense it mirrors other instances of Jesus’ table community that embodied the hospitality and inclusiveness of the divine project or empire he proclaimed. Questions of social status or observance of Torah regulations, or even ones ethical behavior are set aside in favor of the urgency of the host’s plan.”

Erick Thompson states that: “Our culture resonates deeply with Christopher Nolan’s Batman when he says, “it’s what we do that defines us.” For many of us our world creates jobs and family situations where our performance is deeply tied to our sense of worth. Many people in our culture want to be the best employees or best parents because that will dictate whether or not they are okay… For many people, we know that we are okay, that we are justified, because we have fought the good fight, done our duty, been a good person, etc. In the parable, the king responds by turning our systems on their head. By sending out his troops to destroy the people and their ‘city,’ the king is destroying our human notions that what we have done and built has value when it comes to the wedding banquet, the kingdom of heaven. Instead, the king invites everyone in the main streets: the good and the bad, the non-elite. No longer are we worried about the elite, the wealthy, or those who control society. Instead God is declaring [God’s] preference for the marginalized. This might be like hearing that one’s workplace is giving bonuses to everyone; even the bad employees, or even employees who have been fired… If we remember that God’s grace is what saves us, we won’t worry about how we are clothed, or who else God has decided to include in the Wedding Banquet. There is no room for piety or first-rate Christians in the kingdom of heaven. There is only room for those whom God has chosen.”

We are really good at creating hierarchy and structures of moral superiority. We are really good at passing judgments. At criticizing others. Of telling ourselves that our sin is lesser or that we are better people because – well – it’s not like we’ve killed anyone.

I know I have done my fair share of making assumptions and forming opinions based on media stories or perceptions. I’m sure we all have.

We want that role of first-rate Christian. We want to condemn and cast aside the Reid’s of the world.  In this parable we are being told that we can condemn and cast aside all we want, but God will not do this.  No sin is greater than another, and in baptism, we all receive an invitation to the wedding banquet. The good and the bad. God doesn’t care how great we are or how much we fail. There is plenty of room for everyone. God has chosen all of us. Me. You. The highly successful. The abysmal failures. The criminals. The socialites. The rejects. The scholars. The middle-of-the-roaders. Everyone has a place. We are all invited to come and eat.

This is the comfort and security that I have clung to this week. Earthly consequences are appropriate and necessary for Reid, but that doesn’t negate God’s love for him. He will always have a place at the banquet table. He will always be clothed in Jesus’ grace, mercy, and forgiveness.  We all will. Every last one of us. Thanks be to God this. Amen.

Posted in Christian, Christianity, Faith, Sermons, Spirituality, Uncategorized

Jesus’ Conflict Resolution Plan

I realized that this sermon from September 10th was never posted… a month late, but here it is.

Matthew 18:15-20

Grace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

Conflict Telephone5 years ago – in the Spring of 2012 – I received a telephone call from one of my youth minister friends. She was a graduate student and part-time youth minister at a small congregation in my synod. Her congregation was located in a neighborhood that had once been affluent but was not any longer. She had done a lot of amazing ministry with the local neighborhood youth who as I’m sure you can imagine, did not fit the typical membership demographic of this small, traditional, German Lutheran Church. These youths had never experienced traditional liturgical worship. They had never engaged in the standard pew aerobics that we take as common and normal. (You know – stand, sit, kneel, repeat.) They didn’t know what was considered appropriate or not. My friend would often sit with them and help coach them through worship. This was going very well, until one Sunday she was asked to play guitar for worship.

This Sunday no one sat these youths. No one helped shepherd them through what was still a rather foreign service. And as teenagers are apt to do – they were off task and a little noisy. The cultural differences between the congregation and the neighborhood became very apparent. Rather than kindly address behaviors that were deemed inappropriate with the youth directly, or even with my friend shortly after worship, a small faction of the congregational members instead started up gossip-mill. They wanted these youth expelled from worship and began the process of trying to make this happen.

When word finally got to my friend, via the pastor, the suggestions were – create a youth only worship service that she was responsible for leading so that they wouldn’t bother anyone else, or tell them they were no longer welcome. Obviously, my friend was very upset.

As we talked about this she was at a loss for what to do and was looking for any perspective I could offer. She didn’t want her hurt, anger, and frustration to cloud her judgment when engaging in a meeting with her Pastor and the ring-leader of the upset congregants. I told her this:

#1) I don’t believe in fractionalizing the Body of Christ. We don’t separate out subgroups of people and cast them into corners. We worship as a community. So noisy children, people with special needs, people with mobility issues, people from different cultures with different standards for what is socially appropriate, people with different stylistic worship preferences, and people who are “normal” are all welcome and necessary for the body to function at its best.

#2) If we say: “All Are Welcome” – one of those quintessential Lutheran catch-phrases – Conflict welcomethen we really have to mean that! We can’t just say all who look, act, behave, and function like us are welcome. And when new people enter our community, part of what it means to welcome them, is to help guide them. And to incorporate in their what they bring to the table.  Even for longtime Lutherans, entering a new community invokes some anxiety. No congregation does things the same… there’s always a learning curve to try to figure out how worship functions, how communion is served, where you go after worship is over, etc… This is exacerbated by about a million for non-Lutherans.

#3) It is never okay to complain and stir up conflict when you have not addressed an issue with an individual first. It may not go over super well because they won’t want to hear it, but you need to quote Jesus’ Conflict Resolution plan when you meet with this group.

By Jesus’ Conflict Resolution plan, I meant this morning’s Gospel. In the text the author of Matthew depicts Jesus as addressing conflict amongst the body of believers. Our translation states that: “If another member of the church sins against you, go point out the fault when the two of you are alone.” It’s noteworthy to understand that in the time of Jesus, “the church” did not exist. Commentators argue that a more accurate translation or portrayal of this would be – if a brother or sister sins against you. The intent is to portray a deeper level of intimacy – not necessarily just some random stranger or acquaintance.

Conflict-Resolution-Puzzle-PiecesAs Jesus is giving these instructions to the disciples it is highly likely that he was trying to give them guidance for how to proceed in the future when they are more active leaders. Not only with those whom they are helping to guide, but also amongst one another. We know that Peter, James, Paul, and many of the other early church leaders, did not always get along, and did NOT always follow Jesus’ Conflict Resolution Plan.

The plan itself seems fairly simple – if conflict exists. If someone sins against you – TALK TO THEM ABOUT IT! Direct communication. Work it out.  When my kids were little they would often come to me tattling about something that one or the other of them did. You know, because reading their book without permission or looking sideways at a beloved stuffed animal was a grievous sin and completely tattle worthy. I would tell them – “I’m sorry. Mommy doesn’t understand tattle. My ears don’t hear it. You’re going to have to go figure it out!”

If for some reason direct one-on-one communication doesn’t work, then you bring in another member of the community. Have another set of eyes and ears. Get additional perspective. It’s definitely possible that you have been seriously wronged. It’s also possible that you are completely overreacting. Extra perspective often can bring about resolution.

If the private intervention doesn’t resolve the issue, bring it before the entire church. Sometimes it takes hearing that we are wrong from many, many people before we are willing to accept our sin.

no-passive-aggressiveBasically, Jesus is saying – no passive-aggressive behavior, no triangulation, no “parking- lot” conversations, no gossip. Just forthright communication. It’s much easier to complain to others about our perceived offense than to address it with the offending party. Elizabeth Johnson stated that: “Jesus leaves no room for self-absorbed grudge-nursing. Restoring a broken relationship must begin with conversation between the parties concerned.”

Finally, Jesus states that if this still doesn’t bring about any kind of resolution, then treat the offender “as a Gentile and a tax collector.” In the context of the Jesus’ ministry, Gentiles and tax collectors were often part of the fold. Friends. Followers. Contributors to the ministry. People who Jesus reaches out to regularly. So, this is a very tongue-in-cheek comment.

Karl Jacobson stated that: “Being a member of the church means you have a responsibility. If your sheep gets lost you don’t look for an hour and call it quits. You get out there and find that sheep. If your brother sins against you seventy-seven times, that’s how many times you forgive him.”

So – If neighborhood teenagers are disrupting worship, you talk to them and you guide them through worship. If a child is being noisy, you walk them around the sanctuary or get them a book or crayons and paper. You help their quite possibly overwhelmed parents get through worship.

If your least favorite hymn in the history of ever is sung, you sing joyfully because your least favorite is someone else’s absolute favorite. When the scary crotchety kitchen dragon lady fusses at you, you respond in kindness and point out that she could have been gentler in her approach.

Eric Barreto pointed out his is commentary of this text that: “This is no mere handbook for resolving conflicts. Simply following this order of confrontation will not ensure a result consonant with God’s hopes. It is not as simple as moving through these steps. We know that the mechanics of decision making do not always reflect our values. Checking off these duties step-by-step will not guarantee a decision rooted in God’s love for us. This process could so easily be co-opted by selfishness and dislike and so many other human frailties. Instead, what matters here is the concern for the other and the community.”

gathered-in-my-name-prayer-fullUnfortunately for my friend – concern for other did not prevail. Shortly thereafter she decided to focus on her studies and I suspect the relationship with those youth diminished.  Jesus knows this is a possibility and continues with saying that anything that is agreed upon by two on earth will be done for them by the Father in heaven. This is a promise. He finally ends with: “Where two or three are gathered in my name I AM there among you.” I AM – God. Jesus. The Trinity is among you. Present. Really present. Not just where two or three are gathered and getting along. Not where two or three are gathered and in complete agreement on doctrine, liturgy, and mission. Just, where two or three are gathered.

It certainly includes all of those things, but it also includes where two or three are gathered and not acting as their best selves. Where two or three are gathered in conflict. Where two or three are gathered and cannot get along. Where two or three are gathered and are unable to come to any sort of resolution.

Because no matter how great the plan that is laid out for us is. No matter how much sense it makes. No matter how clear Jesus was… ultimately, we almost never do it that way. We do gossip. We do triangulate. We do act in passive-aggressive ways. We do look out for ourselves first and community second. We do ostracize and isolate those who are different from us. The noisy neighborhood teenagers are often NOT welcome. And in all of that Jesus is present. Especially in these times, Jesus is among us. In our times of joy, in our times of sorrow, in our times of peace and harmony and agreement, and in our times of contentious conflict, Jesus is with us. We are called to do our absolute best to live lives according to the Gospel – and when we fail – and we do!… Jesus is with us. We are loved. We are forgiven. We are extended grace. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Posted in Christian, Christianity, Faith, Sermons, Spirituality

Nevertheless, She Persisted!

Grace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

I’ve gone back and forth all week on what I felt called to proclaim this morning. I mean – it’s been a heck of a couple of weeks. So much drama, violence, anger, lament, and sadness all packed into a very short span of time. Just over a week ago we all saw the protests that were taking place and getting very ugly – ugly to the point of injury and death – in Charlottesville, Virginia. I’m sure many of you were thinking the same things that I was – how is this our country? How has it come to this? How can anyone spew that much hate rhetoric? How can anyone claim that God has sanctioned and condoned words and actions such as these?  Why as humans are we so conditioned to hate one another – purely on the basis of being different. Purely because someone else is the “other”. Where is God in all of this? Where is love?

When situations like this occur scripture is often one of the first places I go for comfort and understanding… I’m not saying that I singlehandedly flip through the Bible and find the perfect passage that applies… I’m fairly biblically literate, but I’m not a perfect passage savant. Besides, I have plenty of Facebook friends who do that for me! But somehow, in some way, that is always one of the first things that happens.  This week – I didn’t actually have to look very far for that passage that spoke to me and to the situation I was praying about.  As it so often does – our Gospel story this week is prophetic in its ability to speak to our modern world and these situations today.

Jesus is teaching his disciples that true purity is a matter of the heart rather than outward religious observances. You see – they were being criticized by the religious authorities for not washing their hands before eating, and sharing meals with those members of society who were considered “unclean.” Cleanliness codes were institutionally obsessed over. The slightest wrong move could cause you to be physically, emotionally, spiritually, and/or ritually unclean. The book of Leviticus is full of all of the ways that one can potentially fall into the uncouth and shameful realm of the “unclean.”

According to the religious authorities, by not washing their hands before eating, the Matt 15v11disciples and other followers of Jesus had defiled their food therefore defiling their inner selves by consuming said tainted food. Jesus’ response to this accusation – “well that’s just crazy talk!” “Listen – and understand: it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.” He’s then pressed to explain himself further, because the disciples are often dense, literal, and slow to pick-up on things, and most likely think when he says it’s what comes out of the mouth that defiles, that Jesus is speaking to some gross bodily function.  So, he further explains – “Whatever goes into the mouth enters the stomach, and goes out into the sewer.” (Because – we haven’t had enough bodily function imagery already in this text. Lovely. Thanks Jesus!) He then goes on to say – what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and that’s what defiles. We can externally put up a great front. Amazing projections of ourselves. Look at me – I’m pious, I’m pure, I’m a dedicated servant. I’m a good person. It’s easy to fake the world into believing these things.

But what we harbor internally – well that’s where we find evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. And these are the things that defile a person. To eat with unwashed hands??? Nah… not so much.

As I read these words all I could think about was the angry, ugly, judgmental comments I’ve read and heard almost non-stop. From all sides and all people. Now don’t get me wrong – I will NEVER condone the words, actions, mindsets, and behaviors of White Supremacists and Neo-Nazi’s. There is nothing about what they stand for that correlates with the God that we profess to believe in. And we are called as loving Christians to speak out against oppressive forces such as these, but there are ways in which we can do so without stooping to the level of those whom are acting in the role of the oppressor. And this is something that I’m sorry to say I failed to see anyone execute well.

Hatred seemed to be met with hatred. Anger with anger. Fear with fear. Judgment with judgment. We are right and you are wrong. Defiled from within. Where was God in all of the responses? Where was love?

Fortunately for all of us – we have Jesus – God and love all combined into one awesome package. And if this were ANY other story in the book of Matthew, that would come with some great life lesson or parable or human interaction where we can look to Jesus to be the model for us on how we should behave and how we should respond.

However – this week, we get the stand-out story.  The story where Jesus doesn’t come across so hot. In fact… he comes off quite poorly.  Almost immediately, after the lesson on what defiles, Jesus’ teaching is tested when a gentile woman, considered to be all kinds of unclean, approaches him for help.

This woman is said to be a Canaanite. It’s of note to know that in Mark’s version of this ethnic slurssame story, she is identified as a Syro-Phoenician. During the time that Matthew was writing his Gospel, Canaanites were no longer a functioning independent civilization. The term “Canaanite” was basically just a dirty word, or ethnic slur, meaning Gentile. This word choice would have invoked a visceral emotional reaction similar to what we experience when we hear ethnic or racial slurs today. Only that audience would have most likely used, accepted, and agreed with said slur.

The woman’s daughter is sick. Tormented by a demon. I’d imagine she has done everything she can. Exhausted every option. What loving parent wouldn’t? And here comes, as luck would have it, not just a great prophet and healer, but the Lord… son of David himself. She recognizes and acknowledges Jesus as Messiah before his disciples do! And in response – Jesus gives her the silent treatment. Completely ignores her. She is afterall – just an unclean Gentile.

She keeps on – won’t be deterred. Finally, the disciples ask Jesus to make her stop. Send Persistedher away. Shut her up! So, in an attempt to do just this, he tells her he only came to save the house of Israel. She still will not be deterred… She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless she persisted. Jesus’ next argument is that it is not fair to take food from the children and throw it to the dogs.

That’s right – Jesus just called this woman a DOG. I don’t know about all of you – but I would not take terribly kindly to being referred to as a canine. (Particularly of the female persuasion.)

With what I’d imagine to be a profound amount of sass and swagger the woman responds – “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat crumbs that fall from the table.” Awww snap. Take the shame – Jesus – take the shame! Jesus responds “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter is healed. Jesus’ mission is impacted by this brave Gentile woman.

In this story we see a very human Jesus. Marilyn Salmon states “We see ourselves mirrored in Jesus’ attitude toward the woman, but not our best selves. We know very well the tendency to define and fear an “other” on the basis of skin color, nationality, class, or creed, deeply ingrained stereotypes that go back centuries. We resent being bothered by the concerns of those people… we are very good at justifying our actions rather than admitting the prejudice that persists. The story is about Jesus, and in Jesus we see the very best of human potential in relationships with others, even those we avoid and fear. We see in Jesus the possibility of perceiving common humanity where we could see only difference. And when we encounter the “other” as one who shares our humanity, we can never see them as “other” again.”

This exchange broadens Jesus’ mission in the world. At the end of Matthew when he commissions the disciples – he sends them to ALL nations, not just to Israel. Jesus heals this woman’s daughter just as Jesus heals us too. In these times of trouble and torment we are called to love our neighbors as ourselves – even those neighbors whose ideologies and mindsets we find abhorrent. This is not an easy task. Particularly while simultaneously living into our call to speak out in the face of oppression. To stand up for the metaphorical Canaanite Women of today. All we can do – is our best.

Fortunately for us, through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, we all have redemption. We all have salvation. We all receive grace and forgiveness and mercy. God is always present. Love always wins.  Amen.