We can’t do it

Pentecost 21B           October 14, 2018

Hope Lutheran Church         Riverside, CA

Mark 10:17-31

Mark is getting hard.  The lessons the past few weeks are leading us to the cross and in all honesty, they are uncomfortable.  I could try to make these feel less painful, but I would be failing in my job. My job is to preach truth and in an age old saying, “to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”  If you are comfortable in your faith this morning, I hope you are ready to not like my sermon. If you are struggling, if you are full of pain and doubt or you just think you probably are not the best Christian and want to do better this week, then this sermon may just be a balm and buoy.  Either way. It isn’t me, or how I preach it, it is the word of Mark and how he points to Jesus in this story.

It begins with the timeless and  classic question: Teacher, what must I do to have eternal life?  

And the story ends with the man walking away in grief over the answer.  

We will never have an answer that we can achieve.  The young man had great wealth and it was beyond his person to sell it all- he just didn’t have the capacity. Some don’t have the capacity to serve the poor.  Some don’t have the capacity to honor the sabbath. It doesn’t matter whether we struggle on Sunday mornings or get judgmental over how a beggar will use the money we give them.  We all face an obstacle of not being able to follow the rules enough to earn eternal life. Not one of us. We can’t do it. We can’t earn it, work for it, believe it, pray for it, or buy it.  And lest you are the person in the pew saying to yourself that you are the exception, “I have faith, I claim Jesus, I keep the commandments AND I serve the poor.” I am going to call you out. If it were possible for you to keep the laws enough to gain eternal life, then we don’t need Jesus.  If you are the one who is good to go because of the good life you have lived, then Jesus wasted his time and his followers are fools.

You can’t do it and neither can I.  It just isn’t possible- any more than it is possible to have a camel pass through the eye of a needle.  It cannot be done.

Maybe you are one who has heard we can but it is really hard. Maybe you heard the eye of the needle was a gate through which camels could barely pass unless they were unloaded and crawled through on their knees; that we too must unburden ourselves and drop to our knees in prayer.  I hate to break it to you but that is false. It was made up in the middle ages as a way to make sense of this passage, to offer a way to earn your way to heaven. It was an effort to make it possible to buy your way into eternal life- yet another painful lie from the church to control.  It was a story which became a tool of abuse against the poor, the hungry, and even the hurting. The problem is, it still depends on us to earn it. And we can’t.

We can’t earn salvation.  We can’t give enough away, we can’t pray enough hours or for the right things.  We are stuck in sin. That is the law and no human is exempt or above it. As Martin Luther discovered in his monastic studies, we are saved Sola Gratia (grace alone); sola fide (faith alone); solo Christo (Christ alone) – In grace alone, by faith alone, in Christ alone.

No wonder the young man walked away in despair.  He understood what Jesus was saying, “there is nothing YOU can do to have eternal salvation.”  

If the young man had stayed, if he had owned his in-ability and leaned into the discomfort of knowing he can’t be good enough he might have asked the next question:

“Is there no way to have eternal life?”  

And Jesus would have answered as he does in other places:  “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” Christ is the grace, the faith and the answer.

God knew we couldn’t do enough.  The children of Israel tried for 40 years in the desert and still kept messing up.  The most ideal of our abrahamic mothers and fathers kept messing up. The most beloved kings set on the throne by God, messed up.  No one could do it. They couldn’t keep the law and God had made it pretty simple. 10 Simple Rules and no one could keep them.

This is the beauty of our God.  A God who changes God’s own mind (because God can do that!), sets a new standard, and gives us life when we least deserve it.  Enter Jesus. The master(’s) plan. The plan who frees us from our own inability and relies solely on the absolute sovereign divinity of God alone.  The one who shifts the question away from what we can do and instead answers who can save us.

The only thing required of us is to receive.  God is offering us gift of presence, gift of accompaniment, gift of salvation through Jesus Christ.  God is gift, not a contract or equation. We can’t keep up our end of the bargain, but God can. We can’t reason or work our way out of sin, but God can. We can’t find our own way, but God did. We won’t succeed, but God will. With God, through Jesus, we have our way through the eye of the needle because with God all things are possible.  

Life may present us with difficult circumstances and it may feel like God is far away. Evil may seem to have a hold on our fate or daily lives as in Job, but God doesn’t let go.  God doesn’t go away. God remains and is steadfast in faithfulness to us. God restores us and renews us, wallowing with us in our sorrow and pain and lifting us back up once more, promising us hope for eternity.  

We just have to stop fighting God in action.  We need to receive what is offered. And for the days that recieving is hard, we can always pray, Holy Spirit, make me willing to be made willing.

“Only when we stop avoiding discomfort and allow ourselves to be completely vulnerable and exposed do we experience true freedom.”

When we stop thinking it is something we do, believe, or offer, when we recognize our own pitiable circumstance of soul, when we lean into our inability to save ourselves and own the discomfort of acknowledging our circumstance, we become able to see the answer, the gift, the light.  Christ is the freedom who lifts us up from the pit and mire, who loves us still, saves us still, redeems us still. If we let him.

The young man was offered a chance to follow Christ, to see what it means to let Christ be in his daily life, teaching, leading, and saving him.   Christ offered him the chance to see what radical love, generosity, and hospitality can do to change the world. He walked away because he couldn’t let the control go.  Christ is before you now and offering. What will you say?

I for one hope you will say, Sola Gratia, Sola Fide, Solo Christo.


You don’t have to be the greatest. You just have to be you.

Pentectost 18 B- September 23, 2018

Hope Lutheran Church-Riverside CA


There is a new movie on Netflix, “Nappily Ever After.” It is the story of a woman of color and her struggle with personal identity. Because her hair was typical of her ethnicity, it was full of curl and kink, on it’s own, wild and wonderful. But she grew up in a world where she needed to conform to beauty standards that don’t embrace ethnic hair and she needed to straighten out the glorious curls to straight soft ones. I don’t want to give too much away, but suffice it to say, there was a hair debacle, and she decided she couldn’t spend life trying to be so perfect to the world, that maybe the hair God gave her was what she needed to embrace and that is when the story really begins and she finds her joy.


It got me thinking of today’s gospel message in Mark and how as children we already know who we are. We already know we have the world’s greatest Dad or the kindest mom. We already know we have the best baby brother (or maybe worst, I mean, kids also know when they are pushed out of the limelight). We already know we look fantastic in our lime green shoes and bright orange sweater. We know we love big gentle dinosaurs and loving our babies and not broccoli or baths. We know we are great on the monkey bars and a little afraid of baseballs, but thrilled to try to hit them with a bat. We know our bodies are amazing and that band-aids fix everything. We know we are good at learning and our brains are soaking up the world.


When the world gets to us, we aren’t allowed to wear bright yellow galoshes and golfing hats to church anymore. We get told we can’t wear pig tails at 45 let alone in the pulpit, even though we love how it makes us remember life is too short not to have fun and remember our youth. We get told we can’t skip in the parking lot, to sit up straight, don’t pick, don’t fidget, and eat your Wheaties. We get kudos for conforming and time out for being our weird and wonderful self.


And then comes Jesus. Who already knows that the world has lied to us and taught us to value greatness over authenticity. In our Gospel for today he has told the disciples (for the third time) he is going to die and they just don’t get it . They are part of a world that values greatness, not sacrifice; world that is taken by power, not gentleness. They cannot imagine what he is telling them because they traded imagination for conformity and trust for power.

So Jesus pulls a child into the equation, gently putting the child in the midst of them, setting the trusting one on his knee as a sign of affection and value. And then tells them they have to be like this child to get in line for his kingdom.

Debie Thomas is with the Episcopal Church in Palo Alto and wrote about this passage saying that her years as a children’s minister have helped her understand what it is to be childlike the way Jesus is expressing. Well-meaning people suggest that Jesus likens children to God because children are so purely good, or unselfish, or accepting, or meek. Well, I don’t know children like that; the ones I know are far more interesting. They’re feisty, clever, quick, fierce, generous, selfish, naughty, obedient, curious, bored, quiet, loud, challenging, funny, surprising, solemn, and exhausting. I think Jesus knew as much when he described children as trustworthy representations of God.”

She goes on to share 4 ways children teach us to follow God: imagination, risking hard questions, trust, and what divine power looks like.  I took her themes and ran with them- making them my own in many ways, so really encourage you to read her blog on this topic as well.

Children are able to imagine God in such unlimited ways. They are able to see the world through eyes of imagination and they see God that way too. God is limitless. We cannot imagine God enough. And as adults, we have forgotten to imagine. It is the reason Peter Pan is such a hit. We forget to imagine. And God is so amazingly big and able to do so much that we lose out on understanding God when we forget to imagine. Let your preconceived notions of who God is and how God works in our world go. Because God is not limited our understanding. God is strange and wonderful and bigger than anything. Embrace your imagination again and let God be big enough to be the answer to all the questions, even if it doesn’t add up in your adult reasoning.

They also risk the hard questions. They aren’t afraid to notice when someone looks different or ask why something is blue. They keep on asking until they have an answer that works for them. They ask if they can have something not with greed, but with hope. They ask strangers for help and to be new friends. They ask why loved ones die, why some kitties are boys or girls and why we can’t stay and play instead of going to work. They ask with their hearts open and their trust on display. Just as we should with God.

And wow, do they trust. They trust that there is always enough. They trust that God is enough and that they are enough already in God’s eyes. They have a trust in God that is so much bigger than most adults because they have not held back part of their hearts from the world yet. Children ask for the whole world because they trust the whole world is still open to them. And so is God’s kingdom. God has given us the whole world and we need to love on the gift God has given us; take it everywhere we can, and show it to anyone who will look and see.

Finally, children show us what divine power looks like. It doesn’t look like the strongest or best, the first or the smartest. It looks like someone who gives up all the power to be the lowest. Because God did that for us in coming to be like us. God, in all God’s limitless power, consented to be small and low, vulnerable, and of no notice. So if we want to see God, we need to look at our children who are subject to our adult rules and limitations. Children whose bodies are used or abandoned at borders and alleyways. Who are sold for trafficking, and dying because we want more gun freedom than safety locks that protect them. Children who have no access or legal rights or power and trust us adults implicitly for healthcare, education, and even the meal on their plate.

Children rely on others fully to meet their needs in their vulnerability, and still keep their hearts open, their imaginations on fire and their trust in God boundless. They are not in charge. They are not in control. They cannot make one thing happen. But in them, in their small bodies and wide eyes that see the world as it REALLY is, we can see God.

Jesus is reminding us that we will not come to the kingdom with power and swords, with conformity and reasoning, but by giving up our control and power and leaning fully into our imagination, trust, and knowing who and whose we are. You don’t have to be perfect. You can wear pigtails to preach and imagine you are even wiser and more lovely for it. You can wear your bright yellow galoshes to church with your golfing hat. And you can trust in God . With all your heart. You can let go of what the world taught you, and trust that God gave you just what you needed the moment you were created- a love and knowledge that you are precious, beautiful, beloved and desired by God just as you are. You don’t have to be perfect. You just have to be you and let God do the rest.


Most weeks my sermon is mine, with obvious influence from 2, 000 years of other writers and theologians. But this week, I need to give some serious credit to another theologian and family ministry director, Debie Thomas of St Marks Episcopal Church in Palo Alto. Her essay on the gospel for today was so spot on, I could not avoid sharing it. It was too full of wisdom to deny. Read her essay here: https://www.journeywithjesus.net/essays/1948-welcome-the-child or learn more about her ministry here:


A Responsive God

Pentecost 16B- Hope Lutheran Church- Riverside, CA- Sept 9, 2018

Mark 7: 24-37

I don’t have a moving story this morning. The gospel today IS the story. It has all the elements of the best sermon illustrations- discomfort, joy, hope, emotion and ah-ha moments. I am excited by this passage. It can be hard to imagine Jesus as human at times. We often sanitize the human side of him, opting for the divine aspect of God rather than the one who wore skin and sweat, acne and morning breath. For some, it may even feel blasphemous for us to consider Christ as ever anything other than perfect and yet he was fully human which meant a fully imperfect body.

It isn’t a sin to have acne. It isn’t a sin to have a pockmark left after acne resolves. And yet, we must admit, it is imperfection. It is a sign of tissue that shows when trauma has been done and scars up after the infection subsides. And humanity bears scars.   We bear scars of racism, classism, and even gender exclusion when we diminish each other for the body we are born with, the circumstance we were raised in, or how we were socialized.

Jesus had this body. He wore flesh just like we do and felt the limitations of flesh just like we do. As Lutherans we declare Jesus Christ fully human and fully God. But we cannot claim his full humanity in one breath and deny it in the next. He was a human child who surely was told “no” so that he could learn. He was a teenager who did things that make mother’s frown and give stink eye; all things that are a process of humanity. He was socialized to believe certain things just like we are.  And it is okay if this thought process makes you uncomfortable. It is supposed to be uncomfortable to imagine God experiencing the ugliest parts of humanity up close and personal, not as an observer, but as a participant.   Our God is amazing and flexible beyond our comprehension and trying to comprehend God as perfectly divine and also divinely human is a struggle for even seasoned theologians.

It is important to grasp onto the concept though in order to see a beautiful message of hope and promise found in our scripture today. The deaf man and syrophoenician woman’s daughter also had these imperfect fleshy bodies and the ones around them craved wholeness for them. So they are begging Jesus for hope and healing. And Jesus is still human even as he is healing in a divine capacity.

Jesus’ very humanity is showing in this text. Here we see Jesus be corrected, learn, change, and bless in response. Lessons we desperately need to not only hear but since humans learn in so many ways, we need to see Jesus being fully human and learning from others. And here, he learns from a woman. Not just any woman though. A woman who has absolutely no social, legal, or religious authority to even look at him, let alone speak to him. And yet she does. She takes a chance on hope and promise because she already understands there is something incredibly divine about this man.

And what mother would not do anything to heal their child? What mother would not jump fences, dance on desks, and beg in the face of incredible odds to see their child healed? Not this one. She goes to Jesus even though he asks to be left alone. She goes to him even though she is a gentile. She goes to him and begs for her daughter to be delivered. And he denies her.

Some scholars argue that he is telling her she just has to wait until all the Jews have been healed. Except that Jesus has healed other gentiles at this point. They also argue the diminutive is sweet and kind calling the dogs puppies in the original language. But the fact is, puppies or dogs, neither have value. At meals and with guests, they are chased off with rocks. They are not the sweet companion pets we imagine them as today. They are a necessary nuisance that is barely tolerated and he attempts to chase her off by throwing rocks in a racial slur.   In his socialized human form, he dehumanizes her and all gentiles as well. He came for the children of Israel, not gentiles.  Not for you or me.  She does not have the necessary qualifications to get in, no passport, no id.  She was a necessary nuisance to be barely tolerated and chased away with rocks made of words.

Still other theologians argue he is testing her here. But to be honest, it is inconsistent for Jesus to respond to a pleading person by testing them further.  So when Jesus tells her that he isn’t responsible for her family right now, that his focus of nourishment and healing needs to be for the Jews, he simply sees through the scales of humanly socialized eyes  and to be honest, is fully within the scope and purpose of his incarnate expereience.  He didn’t come to save us all.  He came for the chosen ones, the children of Israel.  So no, he does not see her value. He is prioritizing others over her and her daughter because that is his purpose up to this point.

And this should scare us. It should make us uncomfortable because Jesus is living the darkest side of humanity in this moment. The parts we do not want to acknowledge any more than we want to acknowledge we built a nation on stolen land. It only leads to really hard work and fear of loss for us to consider Jesus really seeing us in our meanest state.

But this woman has nothing to lose and everything to gain by trying. She holds hope and faith tightly in her grip and declares her and her daughter’s value in that moment. And she boldly corrects him. She reminds him that even if consuming only the crumbs, she has a place at the table, a role in the kingdom of God, that she too was created in the womb by the master, the number of hairs on her head were counted before her creation, that she is fearfully and wonderfully made.

And this is the beautiful point. He listens and allows his socialized understanding of the world, his scales of human eyes to fall away and his purpose in it to be fundamentally changed in that moment As though healing a blind man, his scales fall from his eyes and he sees her through divine eyes, acknowledges her, and  recognizes her value in the snap of a moment- something most humans spend a lifetime doing, dismantling our socialized vision.  In that divine moment, he understands the scope of his purpose among us as so much bigger than we can begin to imagine. In the moment he acknowledges her claim to her place at the table, his whole purpose and mission has shifted and expanded to God like proportions and we were gathered in.

In that moment, he sees not just her brokenness and pleading, but even his own human brokenness through incarnate eyes. And this moment is the moment of your freedom. This is the beginning of redemption for us. This is the moment of hope and promise for all humanity because God sees the need of all of creation to be redeemed, not just the chosen ones.

We have a responsive God. One who hears us, who realizes our human limitations and then crafts every way possible for us to be in right relationship with God once more. We have a god who blesses us for claiming the place at the table that God promised to us. Not because we did anything to earn it but because God created us for that.   A God who will not condemn us or leave us wanting when we cry out, but instead a God who loves us and when we are scattered in our own darkness, will gather us in and bless us for  remembering and knowing we belong to God.

This passage is a beautiful broken moment of Jesus. Just like watching him be pierced and crucified, it hurts us. It is a mirror of OUR ugliness, our sin, our darkness. In this moment, Jesus reflects back humanity’s response to a broken woman. And she then reflects back to him that she is created in God’s image and worthy of his consideration. This dance, an engagement and entwining of humanity and divine is exquisite and prickly. And it is good. It is valuable. It is a struggle to witness and consider. We will be blessed in the struggle for naming our place, for claiming our purpose and value laid on us not by our own selves, actions, or faith,  but by our creator and in that very moment, our soon to be redeemer.

We do not need to be afraid to acknowledge the ugliness of this moment. The human limitations of this Gospel lesson are not about Jesus limitations, but about our human condition and a God who responds. My God listens and learns. My God grows to meet my limitations, because I cannot grow enough to reach God’s standard. God came into our darkness, entered into our sinful space and walked our broken world to redeem us. When we own our sin, own our incapacity to reach to God and cry out to the one who made us and promised to love us,  remembering that we were created for this, that Jesus would die on a cross for this, God will bless us.



Thanks to several theologians out there for a great conversation as I crafted this sermon!  Mandy Achterberg, D Mark Davis, Mark Stenberg, and David R. Henson (http://www.patheos.com/blogs/davidhenson/2015/09/crumbs-jesus-and-the-ethnic-slur-lectionary-reflection-mark-724-37/)


The Little Places- Pentecost 10B

Focus of John 6:1-21

We just finished a week of Vacation Bible School. My very first as a pastor. It was wonderful and we all had a great time. And I am exhausted. I joked on social media that I would take Holy Week anytime over VBS. The level of intensity and energy needed is great in either one, but I think VBS wins because it is in summer, at the end of the day, and I am already worn out by the heat before we even began each evening. It was wonderful and it was exhausting. Some activities give us energy, some take it- and as wonderful and exciting as VBS was, as the days passed, even the children began to flag with energy.

We were all tired. In fact, I would say, my favorite part of each day was the end, when the children would lay here on the floor, sprawled out like puppies and we would talk about the day. We would share our stories of what mattered, what we learned, and hear about how God made a good creation meant to work together for everyone. It was a moment of respite, of stillness and quiet and peace. And then we had to get up and get moving again, to head home and get baths and pjs and bed. But for a moment we stopped. And in that moment we focused again on the one thing that refreshes and nourishes us: Jesus.

Life seems to go like that. Waves of energy and exhaustion. Moments of stopping and going. Sometimes the waves of life feel as though they are lifting us up and floating us along, in others it feels as though they are tormenting us and we cannot seem to catch our breath in between. Horatio Spafford knew this all too well. He was a successful businessman with a wife, Anna, and five children. Before long, the waves of life took their toll. Their young son died of pneumonia and in that same year, much of their business was lost in the great Chicago fire. A short time later Horatio decided to take the family to Europe- a chance to breathe and rest. He placed Anna and their daughters on the Ville du Harve and at last minute, he was delayed to tackle Chicago zoning issues during rebuilding. He planned to join them on a later ship.

Mid-voyage, the Ville du Harve collided with a powerful, iron-hulled Scottish ship, the Loch Earn and within 13 minutes, the Ville du Harve slipped beneath the dark waters of the Atlantic. Anna was spotted clinging to a piece of floating wreckage and was rescued, but her daughters were lost to the cold ocean depths. Once on land again, she wired her husband, “Saved alone, what shall I do?” Horatio booked passage on the next available ship. Midway the captain called to him and explained that they were now about the place the Ville du Harve went down. Wracked with grief, he began to write. Today, his words penned in the moments of great waves of life crashing in on him are some of our favorite hymn lyrics. “When peace like a river attendeth my way. When sorrows like sea billows roll, whatever my lot, thou has taught me to say it is well, it is well with my soul.”

In case you haven’t noticed yet, it is my tendency to pick up on the small pieces, the in between spaces of the lessons each week. To notice the gum under the counter, if you will, as the unattended and often unnoticed areas of our readings. We can all see and hear the big things happening in the gospel this morning. Making 5 loaves and 2 fish enough for 5,000 men and calming waves in the sea. I wonder though if you noticed the waves and the moments of calm, the moments that Jesus fills the gaps and eases the difficult moments? The small spaces where only God can fit and fill a need?

So did you notice that they only counted the men? No women or children? Yet they were present, too and they were hungry as well. They were used to not being noticed or of value. Except Jesus saw them and he valued them. He healed bleeding women and dying daughters as often as he healed men of social value. He taught the disciples to value the hearts and minds of little children because they are pure and worthy of notice. And when they were there on that hillside, hungry and lacking resources, Jesus was there. He fed them, not just with crumbs, but with plenty. He fed their stomachs and he fed their hearts and souls by seeing them as precious and worthy of being fed.

Later, when everyone gets caught up in fear of Rome and desire to be free, Jesus is there. Or rather, he leaves so that he can give them what they need- which is not another king to rule over them with power, but a Messiah who will deliver them from the powers of this world and grant them true life. This scene will play out several times before he finally dies, and is a significant part of our Holy week narrative. And there too, Christ sees what we need most. Even though he is welcomed with waving palms and cloak strewn streets, he understands we need deliverance from our fears, not a ruler over our bodies. And he chooses death on the cross to give us what we need most.

And again, in the boat, surrounded by swells and storms, in fear and crying out, Jesus is there. Once again, he fills a need. He speaks to the waves and calms them. He tells the disciples they are not alone, not to fear, and then delivers them to safety. Jesus is in the small spaces. He is in the moment that the people are tired of standing so he tells the disciples to have them sit. He is in the bread that suddenly becomes enough to feed around what scholars reckon to be about 18,000 people. He was with disciples who were trying to figure out how to feed all these people when Jesus commanded them to do so.

He was with Anna as she sent that horrific telegram and struggled to breath each moment, having lost all 5 of her children, 4 at once and with Horatio as his ship skimmed the surface of his daughter’s watery grave. And he is here with us in the movement of the Holy Spirit still. Christ is in the moments of our lives that are exhausting and good, and also exhausting and hard. He is here in the fun and joy of VBS and he is here in the moments of grief and anguish. He speaks to the waves of life, Peace, be still, and when the waves will not be calmed, but our hearts need soothing, he is balm to our hearts, reminding us that he is with us, in the small places.

I am grateful for a God who will go to the small spaces to fit in among the big things of life. Our God, who will make godself small and will suffer death and humiliation for me and my sin. Our God, Who sees your value and pays the priceless ransom for your soul. Our God, who comes to us in the small spaces in ways we cannot comprehend and fills us with just what we need when we need it.

The Bible never said God will not give you more than you can handle. But it does say that WITH God, we candle accomplish and handle anything. God comes to us, always, coming to us, with love and compassion, with mercy and justice, with hope and salvation to deliver us and nourish us for the exhausting moments of life, both good and bad. God is here. Among us now.

As you come to the table today, whether this is a moment of peace and restoration or a time of expended energy, ponder anew the wonder of our God who will make Godself as small as a baby to meet our needs. Who will bless the bread and make it enough for us. Who will gather us as one to nourish us as community together and who is the God of abundance in big and small ways in all things that truly matter: love, mercy and grace.

Who is this Guy?

Who is this guy???

Listen (below) or read on for my sermon on Mark 6:1-15


Pentecost 6 B- Hope Lutheran Church- July 8, 2018

It was a tragic story. In 2006 a university van carrying nine students collided with a semi truck. Give young people died that day. Among them a young woman with long blonde hair and blue eyes identified as Whitney. Four survived, among them a young woman with long blonde hair and blue eyes, identified as Laura. Whitney’s family went through all the proper responses. The burial of their beloved daughter was well attended with over 1400 mourners present. Their grief and distress was not eased by news of some surviving because for them, Whitney was gone.

Laura’s family on the other hand held vigil at the hospital. They had been warned before seeing her of the injuries which included severe head trauma. Coma was to be expected along with difficulty communicating. They were shocked to realize Laura had gotten a belly button ring, but not angry. How can you be angry with your child when they have barely escaped death? Still, there were inconsistencies- but how do you question if your child is not your child? The nurses and doctors assured them it was the trauma making things confusing for Laura, until one day a nurse brought a whiteboard and asked the young woman in the bed to write down her name. Whitney. Not Laura.

She had been in front of them and they had not known her- because she was not who they thought she was.   But they let themselves believe the mistaken identity in order to cling to the life given to them.

For one family the mistaken identity brought death. For the other it delivered life.

The entire Gospel of Mark seems to be a question of identity for Jesus. Even he acknowledges that there is confusion. “who do you say that I am?” is tossed around like a beach ball at a pool party. And of course, Jesus doesn’t help this much by continually telling those who are with him not to go and tell what they saw.

But this is Jesus hometown! Surely they knew him, yeah? How big could Nazareth have been? We know it was considered a backwoods size town, one of no repute. The likely population of about 400 meant that everyone knew everyone.

Yet here they stand, unsure of themselves when Jesus returns to preach and teach.   Something doesn’t match up for them. “Who is this guy?”

He healed a few folks, but in the end, left for other villages where he was welcomed more warmly and along the way, he tells the disciples that they should do the same when they go out. If they are not welcomed, even in their hometowns, they should leave and not even the dust of the town should remain with them.

The people of his hometown knew the snotty little kid, the pimply faced teenager-not this man who has quiet confidence and can heal people. But this guy? This guy has a full on entourage! How can this be the Jesus they knew? In their inability to see Jesus as anything more than just the same old guy he always was cost them.

Isn’t that the way of things though? When we are more willing to talk than to listen, more willing to hold to our frame of thought and not hear another person out, when we are unable to consider a new way of thinking or doing things we lose out. If the people of Nazareth had questioned, that would be normal, but when given the opportunity to see and know Jesus as the Messiah, they ignored the proof before their eyes and it cost them everything.

It does not cost anything but ego and time to listen to a different way of thinking, believing, or even doing things in the world. It may provide exciting new areas of growth, commonality, and even closer community. It could provide life to just listen and consider.

There is a motif that runs through the Gospels called the Messianic Secret. It is a slightly outdated idea that is centered on the idea that Christ could not be known as the Messiah until after his resurrection proved it. It is fascinating to read up on, but when considered differently takes on a powerful impact for us. Initially introduced in the 1920’s, it argued that there were lots of false messiah’s and there was a xenophobic and nationalistic expectation of what a messiah would look and act like at this point. This explains the rapid turn of events during the passion week when one day Jesus is welcomed in with waving palms and cloaks thrown over the road to pad his way, and a short time later has crowds screaming for his death. They thought he was coming to literally take over Roman rulers. But that isn’t who Jesus is. The Messianic Secret also argued that it was a way to protect Jesus from his enemies. But none of this stands up very well in the bright theological lens of scrutiny. However, when we consider another way of thinking, it finds firm ground.

What if Jesus didn’t want people to point at him and identify him and look at him, as much as people to accompany him, to live with and like him in a way that does not allow for pointing him out as different? My colleague D. Mark Davis wonders if it is not a redirection of the reign of God- rather than something we observe, it becomes something we participate in.

He argues, “As long as they had the Messiah to embody the reign, they were missing the participation part. To ‘follow’ is not to point to, observe, marvel, coronate, or even profess. It is more about joining along, taking up the message, indeed taking up the cross that is central to the message, and “believing” by living in the present reign of God. It is healing the sick, delivering those who are oppressed, etc…Mark saw Jesus trying to re-direct his message away from himself and toward following-as-participating.”

And that is where his hometown just could not get in on the action. For whatever their reasons, they couldn’t participate with Jesus. For them, the idea of changing they way they lived and participated in the world was not an option. It was too scary and hard. So they denied him and his offer to live a new commandment of loving one another in radical hospitality.

And he told the disciples, that is ok. When that happens, and it will happen, just walk away. Don’t force the issue. Don’t argue and stay until communication is completely broken down. Don’t push and try to force someone to hear you. He said, “If any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you, as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet.”

In a world of heated sharing, it can be hard to consider another’s point of view, let alone listen to it at all. It can be even harder when listening and considering may reveal truth and may mean that we can change who we identify ourselves as and how we do things.

Maybe, we, like the people of Nazareth, and Laura and Whitney’s parents, need to consider that the person in front of us is not who we think they are either. What if we stopped seeing them as “ours” our enemy, our friend, etc. and instead as God’s; a precious child of God who is trying to participate in the reign of God and radical hospitality of Christ here and now in their own way.

Jesus Christ is not just some guy. He was the Messiah, he is our risen savior, who calls us not to point and say, “Hey, that is my Jesus.” He offers to teach and show us, to let us listen and learn by walking with him, doing the work, preaching and living the gospel here and now in our daily lives. It begins with listening, but it continues with being.

Confusing Jesus as some great person to read about and talk about but not to actively follow is a deadly case of mistaken identity not for Christ, but for us. If you are a Christian, then be one. Live into your true identity as a child of God and heir to the kingdom and reign that begins here and now. Go out and proclaim the gospel. Heal the sick, comfort the poor and lonely, feed the hungry, and wherever you are welcomed, share the promise of eternal life in Christ with hospitality and love that knows no measure.










Rise Up, Daughter, and Live


A sermon for Hope Lutheran Church in Riverside, CA on July 1, 2018

Mark 5:21-43

The woman was on the brink of death.  Her cancer was winning. She said goodbye to her students and within weeks was bed-ridden.  Conversations turned to her last wishes. Life was miserable and clouded with pain and narcotics to ease it.  She had nothing left to lose but the pain so her doctor gave her an experimental drug. Within weeks she was pain free and her tumors began melting away.  Before she knew it, she was declared a medical miracle because in a matter of a few months time she was completely cancer free. Yet the trauma, the memories of being at death’s door and the lost time, the fear of death,  all remained. While her body was healed, her heart and mind were not. The cancer was gone but now she had to live again and she sat unable to ignore the pain and anger over the process of it all and the emotional pain of living when she had been as good as dead.

It’s not an easy thing to be told you will not recover, only to do so.  It is not easier to be on the brink of death only to find new life.

The life and ministry of Jesus is about overcoming these deaths. On the surface, it may appear there is not a common thread in the acts of Jesus ministry, but if we pay close attention, story after story are about Christ casting out or denying death of a permanent grasp on us.  Today, it appears that he casts out death only from the 12 year old girl, but the honest truth is that he also cast out death from the bleeding woman, too.

The woman had suffered for as long as the girl had been alive.  For 12 years, every penny had gone into attempts to heal. Every doctor had been called and here she was, still bleeding.  While she lived in a mixed community and many did not hold to the same religious standards and laws as she did, she knew that her religion deemed her unclean.  To the men of her circles, touching her or even the cushion she sat upon meant they were unclean. After 12 years, the news gets around though, and people surely knew her story, even if it was whispered behind backs in the manner of all juicy gossip. Yet here she is.  She is close enough to Jesus to touch his clothes and in all honesty, she has nothing left to lose. Her life is an empty shell. She cannot marry or have sex, thus she cannot bear children. She cannot participate in cooking and cleaning because anything she touches is ritually unclean.  She has no value anymore. She is worthless. A ghost walking among the living. She may as well be dead. So she does the only thing left that she can do.  She reaches out in faith.

Jesus knew that someone had been healed.  He felt it in his own body to every cell so of course he turns around and seeks who he has healed.  He seeks not to punish but, I believe, to finish the healing and to declare it true and complete! Seeking the person who needed such healing, he turned and asked to no avail until

“the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came in fear and trembling, fell down before him, and told him the whole truth.” V 33

She told him her entire story.  She told him of her burden, her ghostly life, and admitted her status as invaluable right there in front of everyone because in the end they all knew anyway. Jesus heard her story and more importantly, he calls her “daughter.”

Jesus gave her permission to speak her truth and “something beautiful happens when we give each other permission to tell the truth.  Something dies when that essential permission is stripped away.”  She has already had enough death for a lifetime, and Christ is all about giving life, so he gives her life in hearing her story.

When her faith heals her of her bleeding she is given corporeal life again.  Christ continues the healing and hears her, she is given fullness of being again.  Not only has she regained her life, she has regained her status by his simple words of declaration.

“Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.” Daughter! She is claimed as worthy!

“Your faith as made you well!”  Her body was already made well by her faith.

And finally, “go in peace and be healed of your disease.” Christ encourages her to speak her truth and the dis- ease of her mind and all that goes with this horrific life she has led for 12 years is healed. “Daughter, you have been healed, now go and live this life!” Christ understood there is more to healing than a body.  There is more to death than loss of breathe. There is more to life than having breathe too.

And Jairus daughter has neither breathe, nor life.  Twelve years old. A daughter on the cusp of womanhood and motherhood herself.  She had the fruition of life in her grasp at that age and yet she died. We should notice the sandwiching of the story of the value of a woman of no consequence in the middle of the story of a powerful man’s daughter.

Christ acknowledged both daughters.  He comes to heal this daughter too when he speaks to her.  He reaches out and at his words he brings her back into life.

“ Talitha Cum.  Little girl, get up!”

He speaks these words calling her into life, calling her not just into bodily life, but life eternal.  “Little Girl, get up!!!Rise UP daughter!”

Christ cast out death for both of these women by giving them a chance at full life.  Both had value not because of who the men around them were, but because they were both daughters of the most high. They deserved to rise up in Christ.   Christ did not give preference. He healed them both from death or life like death.

For those who go to Christ in prayer for a loved one’s life and the loved one died, this is a hard story to hear. It feels like a promise for everyone but those who didn’t get that physical healing.  We wonder why God didn’t say yes to us. Why our loved one died. This story reminds us that there is more to healing than a body. Not everyone will be healed in a physical way, but Christ heals in a fuller way, a way that casts out death, eternally.  A way that speaks to every one of us and says, Talitha Cum, child, stand up, get up, LIVE.

Beth Moore has a study on Daniel and in it she speaks of the story of the fiery furnace as she teaches about the ways we are delivered from death by Christ.

From the flames- we never actually feel the flames we are literally delivered unscathed.

Through the flames- they may lick at us, burning us and leaving marks and pain, but we are delivered alive to the other side.

By the flames- The flames consume our body, but in them, we are delivered by God to the other side of eternal life.

In each way, death is cast out.

Christ, who sees our value, whether we are the daughter of a wealthy and powerful man or a woman of no accord, has conquered death.  Christ delivers us all from the hand of death in a new way, a way that shuns eternal death and delivers true life, encouraging us to Talitha cum, child, GET UP!

Your deliverance may begin here.  It may begin with a medical miracle or awareness to care for your body better so that you live this life longer.  It may begin with recovery or victory over depression with medication or therapy. Or it may not. It may be awareness that these things will win here, but that God always wins in the long run.

Either way, your eternal healing that can begin now and it will see you through every ill in this place.  It doesn’t guarantee we won’t see hard times and face consequences of years of bodily burden. But it does guarantee that this will not last, that God is always with us in our darkest moments, and that we are truly delivered in our eternal life.

The greater question now is if we are healed from true Death,  into eternal life, what shall we do with this life? What will we do with this healing?  We are freed from death in all ways through Christ.

We will never know if the girl goes on to marry and have children and teaches others the value of precious and few days on this earth.  We will never know if the woman overcomes the stigma that has been attached to her like a different kind of scarlet letter. Maybe she moves to a new city where she can start over. Maybe people welcome her in.  Maybe she herself marries and has children. No matter the road ahead, they are both, we are all, claimed as children of themost high God and delivered in Christ, the redeemer who cast out death once and for all on the cross and daily grants us new life, eternal .

Talitha Cum.  Little Girl, Rise up.



Turning Points

Trinity Sunday Sermontrinity-painting.jpg

Isaiah 6:1-8 Focal Point

Today we hear the call story of Isaiah- and of Nicodemus. In fact, the call story of every person who hears the word of Christ. But not every one answers, “here I am Lord.”

Woe the Unclean lips

We have all had some variety of the dream- showing up to school work or the pulpit in pajamas or our “glory.” The dream that starts with us needing to do something like give a report or lead in some way and becoming suddenly aware of our lack of preparation- or at least proper clothing. The very self feels unprepared and really wasn’t about the report or task ahead, but about our need to feel like we are ready to face it. Imagine then being Isaiah, standing in God’s throne room. Cherubs, winged lions are flying about along with Seraphs- 6 winged flying snakes and they are hollering back and forth to each other about God’s Holiness as though it wasn’t already fully apparent. The room is full of the smoke of incense and the ground shakes with the awe of God whose robes are so full that the hem fills the room of the space. And then here is Isaiah. He is most certainly not holy, most certainly not good, and most certainly aware of it. He is far out of his depth and in good Wizard of Oz style, he speaks out loud that he is not in Kansas anymore. Talk about a preaching/teaching/leading naked moment!

Nicodemus is in much the same place. He is a political guy and the political waters have gotten very deep. The people are not happy- there is serious class division and the recent leadership is divisive for the people. If you will, they are all blowing up their facebook and twitter about how much they love or hate them. Nicodemus knows these are dangerous tides- get on the wrong side and eventually you will be the loser in the eyes of history. He is so afraid he goes out in the dark of night to seek answers from Jesus. If he is seen, well,… naked moment. It will be all over the tabloids in the morning.

Spirit of Slavery

Our passage from Romans (8:12-17) speaks to the fear that both Nicodemus and Isaiah faced. Both were in troubled waters and they were out of their depth. Neither felt prepared to handle what was in front of them.   They were immersed in the spirit of slavery- a place where one has not tasted freedom and does not know what it entails so rather than reach for it, they remain in place, chained to the mastery of the world. This spirit of slavery is far reaching. It lies to us, convincing us that we do not have the ability to be free or to change our circumstance-that even if freed, we will not only not succeed, but may miserably fail without our captor. It keeps us from going back to get an education because we are too old, from applying to a competition because we are not as skilled as others, from asking out the person we have crush on because we don’t have enough to offer, or sharing the promise of Christ because we haven’t read enough of the Bible or aren’t gifted in “that way.” Isaiah has filthy lips- in other words, he is just a guy like everyone else- not clean enough to see God, let alone serve. And Nicodemus? He has a whole career ahead of him- how could he possibly walk away and become reliant on a world that is God centered rather than politics and world centered? They both stand naked and now aware of the chains of the spirit of slavery.

Turning Points

So, here they stand, Nicodemus in front of Jesus and Isaiah in front of God. It’s interesting to note that Isaiah’s call doesn’t come in the first chapter of Isaiah- but in the 6th. In fact, this is believed to be literary device, because it is placed firmly on the cusp of King Uzziah’s death and King Ahaz’ ascension. A turning point for the people of Judah and Jerusalem. Just so, Nicodemus stands at the other side of the cusp as well. Pontius Pilate is now in charge and he, Caiphas, and Herod will shift the way things are done- and not necessarily with the greatest effect or love of the people. Each has a choice – they stand at a turning point- a chance to start anew- to be free of the spirit of slavery. So too, do we.

Rebirth Reliant

The only way to freedom is rebirth. To be born means relianceupon something or someone bigger than us. Someone to nourish and protect us as we are taught to live fully. Rebirth is a reliance on a new way of living. Isaiah has been living as the people lived and he owns it- but with the touch of a coal to his lips, his spirit is cleansed and his lips are on fire for the Lord. There is no room for him to speak softly and carefully, but only with passion and truth. Nicodemus must also be reborn- to let go of the worldly ways as he knows it, the political game playing and alliances to instead cling to a world where God is the center. “God so loved the WHOLE world that he gave his son…in order that the world might be saved by him.” This God, who is so big, is on the side not just of Jews or Christians, but of humanity and we risk losing sight and being reliant on the spirit of slavery if we imagine God is reliant on our interests in a partisan way.

We are not removed from our circumstance by rebirth. We are still aware of the politics and wars of our world, the loss all people sustain in them and we are not called to forget or ignore the pain and loss of the world. In fact, we are called to honor that loss, as we do this Memorial Day weekend. But we are called to shift our reliance because God is not reliant upon our interests or imperfections. Rather, we are reliant upon God’s interests and perfect and all encompassing love for the entire world- for Jerusalem and Assyria. It is a new and scary reliance- one that decimates the way the world tells us to find our value and purpose. But it is the rebirth in the Holy Spirit that will nourish us come what may. The Spirit will nourish us at God’s breast (Isa 49:15, 1The 2:7) as a hen covers her chicks (Luke 13:34)- until the day we are able to stand with burning lips and answer God’s question, “whom shall I send? Who will go?”

Spirit Powered Call

Turning points are scary- I don’t know of any call stories for pastors that were an easy yes answer, and in all honesty, I don’t know of any call story at all that was an easy yes. Every one of us stands there in a naked or underwear moment afraid of what is ahead. But when you wake up and stand in the dark of night, wondering, “can I do this?” No matter what the turning point is, whether it looms with fear and sorrow or joy and potential for life, you do not stand alone. Isaiah did not stand alone in that throne room, God was with him. Nicodemus did not stand in the dark alone, Jesus was with him. And you do not stand alone now at whatever turning  point you stand at, for through the Holy Spirit, the triune God is with you now, and forever. This is what it is to have a Spirit powered call- to know we are not alone. We can stand, with burning lips and say, “here I am Lord, send me.”

Love that is Life

It has been growing- this message I am writing today. And this week, I have been bombarded by the Holy Spirit to finally preach it. Please pray for the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart as well as the hearts and spirits of those in addiction crisis.

In John 15:9-17, Jesus tells us to love our neighbor. Then he tells us there is no greater love than to lay down one’s life. A commandment to love and sacrifice for one another. 1st John tells us these (God’s) commandments are not burdensome. And this all makes me sad, guilty, and then angry. Sad because I do love my neighbor. But some of them cannot recieve that love. Guilty because I refuse to lay my life down to some neighbors. It would not help them. And then angry, because I am tired of the way addiction takes every good thing and leaves it in ruins. And Jesus is tired too.

Can you hear the exasperated “I LOVE you” in these passages? (Credit Rev Katy Stenta, link below)It’s like a parent who repeats 20 times before leaving, “no parties, no friends over, no going out.” These are words of love and guidance to live by while the guardian is out. Jesus understands he will not be with them, with us, in the corporeal sense much longer. But he does leave them with his Spirit in both commandment and presence.

These are important scriptures and I need you to read and hear them for their value. Then I need you to understand that there are new rules when addiction enters the picture. There are new boundaries and definitions that are life-giving even in the face of death and destruction that addiction leaves in it’s wake.

So hear me now. This sermon is about love in the face of addiction. Do not twist my words- because addiction has already twisted the promise and word of God and we must break free of that malicious lie. Addiction affects nearly every home in some way- it can take the form of gambling, food, sex, drugs, technology, cruelty, alcohol and more. Addiction cuts us off from life and relationship with each other and God. Most importantly, I need you to hear that addicts are God’s children. But addiction is NOT. Addiction is evil and life consuming. It does not give life- it takes it, by hook or by crook, it steals in pennies and pounds. Even so, we are called to love indiscriminately- to love our neighbor with tenacity, patience, generosity, and joy. The trick is learning what Love is and looks like in the face of addiction.

Love is LifE

Last week I preached and begged you to just hear and receive that you are loved and created in love to be loved, to give love, to BE love in the world. But that first you must receive it. Pure and perfect, Love gives hope and help. It lifts us up in the dark places so that we can keep dancing- even in the dark. Yet as a person who has a loved one in the grip of addiction, I feel sad, guilty, and angry when I hear the love passages. Because the things I do don’t feel like love according to the world. But they are love according to God. And that is what I want you to hear today.

Our congregation is in crisis. Nearly half of the people of our regular worship attendance are living with or loving someone in active addiction crisis. We are called into community in our baptism and part of being community is bearing one another’s burdens. That is love. But it is also love to be transparent and real. It is love to throw off the ugly mantle and shackles of shame and share the burden of addiction with others so that we can be community together. But we have to start somewhere, so: I have a son who suffers from drug addiction. He is in VERY recent recovery. Every day I wonder if he is ok. Every day I wonder if addiction will take back over because this recovery is so new. Every time my phone rings from him I am afraid. Every day it doesn’t ring I am afraid. Every time. Addiction is part of my family life now and even though he is now in recovery, we are still in crisis and we covet your prayers.

The mysteries of scripture are profound and deep. The moment we think we understand them, they well up new ideas and applications. Love in scripture is one such topic that continues to garner new thought and application. Love is not just a feeling. It is not just an action. It is what flows from the Spirit, it is what life is created in and is nurtured by. And I feel sad because addiction steals and twists our feelings and actions of love. It turns the love of a parent or child that is not a burden according to 1st John, into guilt and mind games.

When we are told to give love freely, it means to love without expectation of anything in return. We can love our neighbor by bringing them meals and spending time with them, but when it comes to addiction, it is often given with the expectation, or at least hope, that they will get clean and sober. That isn’t the love we are called to give. We have to indiscriminately love our addicts with no expecation of healing or hope for the future. That is where it becomes commandment- because let me tell you, it is not easy to love someone who has stolen trust from you.

Giving without boundaries or consideration for the damage living without boundaries can cause is not love, it is enabling. Love is not enabling. Love is not guilt. It is not bruises or poverty. It is not trust in the face of truth that demands distrust. It is not spiritually decimating. Love is life giving. Anything else is a fake. Don’t fall for it. Love is Christ and life, not death and guilt. We can and should love our addicted people indiscriminately. Which means we cannot enable them. Stopping enabling is LOVE according to Jesus. He loved indiscriminately and he also told sinners to stop their ways and go forward into life and health.

I feel guilty. I said I will not lay my life down for some of my neighbors. I refer to the addicts in my life who are in active addiction crisis. Scripture tells us that love is to give freely of oneself. Addiction says that too. But addiction doesn’t value the sanctity of life. It consumes to death and then moves on. The Bible reminds us that life is precious, crafted by God and worthy of redemption and healing. It tells us to honor life, to nurture it and to protect it. It tells us to celebrate it and not to squander it. God gave the us boundaries to live within which honor life and guide us away from that which brings death, either here or eternally. To lay down your life is sacrifice. But sacrifice that does not bring life is worthless sacrifice. That is why Christ came to die for us. He understood meaningless sacrifice and gave us a way to stop it.

Addiction will take life and it does not feel guilt. That is how addiction works. It is an endless pit of lies to the addict’s spirit and body. Giving of ourselves freely to one in addiction is to literally give them death, not life. It is not life-giving and it is most certainly not love. It is called enabling. Enabling is giving in and being held hostage to the evil that is addiction. So no. I will not lay my life down for my addict. I love them too much. I will trust in the scripture that gives me healthy boundaries to live by- to nurture and care for that which is life-giving, not life-taking.

And I feel angry. Addiction has shitty boundaries. It doesn’t give a moment’s thought for ruining the joy of an ordination that was 13 years in the making. It doesn’t care for the heart of children who miss their mother and wonder why she won’t call. It doesn’t replace the stolen items in a grandparents house. And it sure doesn’t feel apologetic when a life is harmed or taken from drunk driving. I am angry that it is here among us and we must face it. I am angry that we cannot love freely and have to play mind games to figure out if our love is healthy or enabling. I am angry that one in the grip of addiction cannot see how they are perfectly beloved in Christ.

Wherever you are in the battle with addiction, Love is life. And it begins with Christ. Christ loved us indiscriminately. From women at the well on their 5th “husband” to adulterers, to the outcasts of society, he loved. He loved so much that he gave his life for us and gifted us the reminder and promise in communion and baptism. Through the Holy Spirit which he spilled out among us we are called to the renewing waters of baptism where we are born anew in his great love. Through the sacrament of bread and wine broken together we are nourished to love and live in community. Even community that faces addiction. Despite addiction. The key is doing it together, with each other, with Christ. Because in Christ, with Christ, through Christ, we are saved and given new life.

Given new life in Christ, we are called to share that life with others. We are called to sacrifice in ways that are life giving. We are called to love freely and in ways that always give LIFE. This is the love to which we are commanded. This is the love which we are given. Love that is life.

I am eternally grateful fur the enduring wisdom of many pastors out in the webs…today, I referenced Rev Katy Stenta’s blog in my sermon. Check out her post about exasperated and Easter love.

It’s not my power- Thank GOD!

Easter 4 B-April 22, 2018-Hope Lutheran Church, Riverside, CA

I am the Door, the Gate, the Way
Shepherds are a fertile image for the people who live close to the land, which of course, we rarely do in places like the greater Los Angeles Basin. They understood the metaphorical implications in ways we do not. Each year, you hear this passage in church and I am sure that over time you will learn many of the metaphors of this passage. Today though, I want you to hear the metaphor for a shepherd and what that means. At night the shepherd would craft a make-do pen of rocks and branches. Rather than crafting a
door, the shepherd would lay himself down in the opening, becoming the actual door to the dangers of the world. When Christ declares himself a shepherd, he proclaims what we see over and over again, that he is the door, the gate, the way. But for more reasons than can be covered in one sermon, instead of the way into death and danger, he is the way of truth and life.

My own know my voice
Sheep knew their shepherds voices. From a distance a yodel or call from just the right voice would bring just the right sheep coming in for protection, leaving the others behind. Like the response of a newborn babe to voices that they were exposed to in the womb, there is an autonomic response. It is as though they did not need to think, they just knew. This is a voice in whom I am loved and cared for. Christ is clear that when we are his, we know him, we respond to him and we trust in him.

There are other sheep
But he also talks about other sheep. The John text on the good shepherd this morning is Jesus interpretation of John 9, where a blind man is healed. It is important to realize this man is not Jewish, to him, Jesus should be a nobody- not even on his radar, let alone a teacher and prophet of any sort. The miracle here is not only that the man was healed. Rather, that his life was transformed and he found new being, not just new sight. His life went from sitting in mud to being able to be a productive participant in community. He could earn a living, could marry, could be considered “one of the rest of us.” He was no
longer a random guy who did not belong because he was different. But he was not a follower of Jesus and he was not a Jew and he did not follow the rules in any way. His
very blindness made him and outcast as though he chose to be blind. Yet he knew Jesus voice; he was one of the other sheep that followed and knew Jesus in another way.

And Jesus claimed him.

Jesus healed him and led him into life and newness of being.

Unauthorized and dangerous.
In the Acts reading, the disciples are on trial. They stand declaring through whom they have healed a man, just as Jesus instructed and equipped them to do. But to those they were gathered in front of, this was unauthorized healing- it was dangerous and unknown as the proper way of doing things. It was inexplicable and thus, not acceptable.
Sometimes, in the church, we respond the same way.

The idea of giving a small child communion can create controversy because it is not the way it has been done. The idea that a child can understand the implications of the bread and wine just as an experienced adult goes against our “knowledge” and tradition. And yet, I am often more impressed with a child’s simple and solid knowledge that this is absolutely given “for you” because “Jesus loves you” than by an educated adult’s expression of what communion means. It is controversial because we cannot explain the work of the Holy Spirit let alone how it works in a small child. It is controversial because it is not what we believe to be true or explainable.

So, too,  is the idea that there may be other ways to follow Christ. It is unauthorized and dangerous to consider that maybe we don’t have the only way to Christ. It is a theological earthquake of epic proportions to consider that being a Lutheran/Christian is way to Christ, but in the end, we are not Christ and thus not THE way. Because the only gate, the only door, the only WAY is THROUGH Christ. And even though we may not like it, even though we cannot explain it, the sheep of Jesus Christ know his voice and follow him. Which means we cannot argue that we know the only way to follow Christ, only he can know and only he can judge. What matters is that we do not have the power and he does.


The Power of Laying Down his Life
It boils down to the fact that Jesus has the power.

All of it.

Not us; not humanity. We are truly powerless. In our corporate confession we state that we understand we cannot free ourselves from sin and the truth is not in us. But God who is faithful and just still forgives our sin. The power is, was and always remains God’s. And as part of the Triune God, Jesus holds the power over who is his. Not us.
On the night he is betrayed, he chooses to come out of the Garden, leaving the sheep protected in the garden. He chooses to come away. He chooses to be arrested and tried. Christ never loses his agency in this- his power and control remains his even in the moment of giving up his last breath. Every last second he is in control and his power is fully his- even when it looks like humanity had it.

The Act of Love
When Christ lays down his life, it sounds like an act of imperialistic violence, degradation, and shame (thanks and credit Workingpreacher.org!)And while it is all of these things, it is most fully an act of Love. It is an act of selfless giving that we can
only hope to copy but never achieve on our own. It is an act of welcome- to offer up his life even for those who do not yet know him, but will recognize his voice when they hear it. It isn’t our power or our choice to love that decides who is saved and right about how to get to heaven. It is always about God’s sovereignty- Jesus agency and power.

And our choice is in this: that we can love. We can try to love like Jesus did- with open and forgiving hearts. We can love abundantly and trust that even if we get it all wrong, even if we are like sheep and dumb as rocks and can’t find our way, Christ is still watching over us and will call us into the fold at the end of the day. We can love EVERY single person in front of, beside, and around us without reserve because it doesn’t
matter if we are right or not. Jesus has the power, Jesus chose to love us first and his love, his forgiveness, and his power are the way to everlasting life.

I am Witness.

Easter III Year B, Sermon

I am witness.  

While living in Florida, we were dirt poor.  Lance was a reservist and was working on his degree, but we had nearly no income.  We lived in government subsidized housing, or as some will know it, Housing Authority.  We were so grateful for a roof over our heads. It was a difficult time and we were surrounded by folks who had little hope.  The evidence of it was all around us- broken homes, broken bodies, and drug use were of the pain and attempts to ease or escape it..  

So it was no surprise that a drug deal went badly.  And the fall out happened in our front yard, where my 4 small children had been playing only 2 minutes before.  Our neighbor was shot multiple times. Immediately after, he was pulled into another car, bleeding and crying out.  And we witnessed it. We were not alone in the witness. When I called my children in to wash up for dinner, I had seen porches full of people.  Yet when the detective came around, it turned out that Lance and I were the only “witnesses” to be found. Our lives became a living hell from the moment we went on record and witnessed to the detective.  

We are witness

What does it mean to be witness? It is a two part verb.  It is to see and know, but to witness also has a follow up action- it is to declare what we see and know.  For example, “she witnessed the accident” and “she witnessed in court.” For the sake of this sermon and simplicity, I will call the second part “bearing witness.”  I do so because I believe it is a burden we carry- and we do not have choice in it when we put on the name of Christ.

What does witness require of us? In many ways, the first part of witnessing we have no choice in.  We cannot choose to be a witness to something- it simply is or is not an event or circumstance that we are a part of in some way.  We cannot make up that we saw something we did not. However, in the second part of witness, we are given a small bit of agency (will to act for ourselves.)  We are able to bear witness to the circumstances that lead us to believe that something has or has not occurred. There is a birthday cake in the Gathering Place this morning.  If we go in and there is a finger of icing missing, we do not need to have been there to bear witness to the fact that indeed, someone enjoyed a bit of icing early. We could all see the evidence that icing is missing and in the shape of a finger swipe.  No need for DNA analysis or first hand accounts of it happening. It is obvious. Yet, we have a choice in bearing this sort of witness.

We are witness to the Crucifixion.  

While we are not first hand witnesses of Christ, we do actually bear witness to the effects and history as well as the current work of Christ in our lives.  One did not need to be there to see the difference in how a person of faith can live their final days with cancer.. I am not saying faith and the hope of the future automatically gives us grace and patience.  But without it- there is none to be had.

Peter was witness.  He had seen and lived following Christ.  He knew his power and yet, when he denied to those around the fire, he denied only to himself- the folks who accused him already knew.  He could not escape his witness of Christ and neither can I.

Witness of the evils today

I need not be direct witness to an exact evil, but only be aware of it and see the signs of it, even if in the negative  in order to bear witness to the evil among us. This week the news has been heavy and it has been doubled down by statistics that anger and frighten me. The Syrian conflict has been ongoing.  Nearly countless lives have been lost. 5 million Syrians seek refuge. That is approximately the entire population of both Orange and Riverside Counties. Yet, I do not see and hear of Syrians flooding our nation.  Rather, I hear of congregation after congregation prepared to receive them and none come. These congregations have done the work to partner with the state department and are certified refugee resettlement partners. And yet they wait with no word of families in need.  Because in our fear, only 11 Syrians have been let to resettle here in the United States this year. 11.

I do not need to see the Syrians to know they are out there in need- the world has born witness.  I also do not need to see them personally to have the refugee partners bear witness that they are not engaged with new refugees.  And I do not need to see the eyes of those who suffered the chemical attacks or the subsequent NATO approved bombings to try to take out chemical facilities this past week to bear witness to the fact that we as a nation are complicit in the death of innocent lives.  Because they are not here being saved and protected. That means by simple math, they are out there, desperate for safety.

What Shall I do?

If you recall my opening story of witness you may wonder what the difference was between my family and many of the others whom we knew also bore witness.  We had hope for the future. Lance and I had seen and experienced a wide world already and knew that things can change. We knew he was working toward his degree and that we could find financial security once more.  We knew the future had good and different things prepared for us. But many of the families there did not. Of course they all had heard of college- but few of them had any clue how to get there, let alone a real belief they could.  They had lived generationally poor in education, finances and hope of achieving either. For them, to witness would be a dead end road- a promise of being followed and likely shot, if nothing else, they would be ostracized in their community forever.  For me, it was not. I knew we would not be there forever. I knew there was hope.

Beloved, in our world of hopeless news stories, we are the ones who hold the different witness.  We are the ones who hold hope for the future. We have seen the evidence of Christ in our lives. We have seen the dance of the Holy Spirit moving among us and changing hearts and spirits.  We have glimpsed the promise of what is to come. And we are called to bear witness to it. We do bear witness to it- with our very bodies- even if not our voices.

Every time you reach out a hand and help you bear witness.  Every time you smile you bear witness. Every time you cut someone off, curse them out, or are dismissive or judging, you bear witness.  And every time you love beyond reason you bear witness.

I do not have an answer to the Syrian crisis or any other crisis of life in our world.  I wish I did. I have cried out like the Psalmists, in desperate plea and do not have an answer.  This past week was International Holocaust Rememberance Day. It was meant to be a day to bear witness- to remember the trauma and cost of humanity in the days before, during and following Nazi rule.  It was to remember innocent lives left because others would not bear witness by first choosing not to see. Then, not to speak, and finally not to act. Our nation and other countries not directly impacted,  were complicit in letting it get to atrocity and we then paid the cost of our sin by holding ourselves accountable and paying with precious lives to correct the sin we allowed to run rampant in our world.

This is the sin our first reading calls us to repent from.  We ARE witness to our world and what happens in it. We cannot avoid it.  But how we choose to bear witness matters too. And we are called in our baptismal waters to bear witness with integrity.  We are called to bear witness to Christ’s suffering and to his risen presence among the disciples as proof that we are forgiven and there is more than life lived in fear and defensiveness.  There is promise and hope for more- for grace and mercy to flow like Niagara Falls- bountiful presence in every Eucharistic meal. Peace to be found in locked rooms and a Christ who comes to us just where we are- always with us, never forsaking us and bearing witness to God’s infinite and forgiving love for us.  

This week- go out and live like this.  Live like we have hope- Live as witness to the promise and presence of Christ among us now.  For this, we are called. For this we are bound. For this, we are born again.

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