The widow’s good news… (Nov 18 Sermon- Pentecost 26 B)

November 18, 2018                        Hope Lutheran Church                       Riverside, CA

The end is coming.  Finally. Oh, not the end from Daniel or the guy on the street corner shouting, I was speaking of the end of the Lectionary year.  Our Lectionary year begins on 1 Advent, and we are nearly to the end of Mark for the year. I also notice, we are on a new “chapter” this Sunday, so let’s take a moment and center our reading with a few “Bible Fun Facts.” First, let’s get rid of all the punctuation; no periods, no comma’s, no exclamation points.  Run it all together and throw out any indicators of beginning of a sentence, such as capital letters, too. Ok, now we are working with something much closer to original Koine Greek.


Next, we need to look at the structure of the book of Mark, which was not in chapters like we have before us now.  Mark is a chiastic structure, which in essence meant to be a circular reading, it loops back on itself. Within that loop, there are 5 narratives that tie  a portrait of Jesus together: The wilderness- (Jesus Suffering and humanity), Galilee (the miracles), The Way (announced as messiah), Jerusalem (the sacrifice), and the tomb (death and resurrection).  The punctuation, paragraphs, and even chapters are all added to the original text to make it easier for us to read. Just one more reason we believe in a living word, that is translated and understood through the Holy Spirit, because humans get in the way of the story sometimes and even our best attempts to share it can muck it up.  

This is important set up this week because in our efforts to break the text of Mark apart to make it easier to manage and read, we did something wrong.   We erased the widow’s story. We cannot separate the story of the widow’s mite from the stones of the temple being decimated. They go together and putting the chapter 8 beginning where it is, we erase the story of the widow as though it has nothing to do with the temple or Jesus declaration of it’s destruction.  

Last week we pointed out the exploitation of the widow and the poor.  It should not have happened and as usual, the disciples don’t hear Jesus the first time.  I wonder if they even took the time to pity the woman, to correct the situation at all. I doubt it.  Because here they are, healthy men with access to money, education, and more, leaving the temple and one of the disciples, comments on the amazing grandeur of the temple.  The temple which Jesus had just pointed out was built through the corruption and exploitation of the poor. Sure, a gorgeous place everyone wants to be- but at what cost? The cost of leaving the poor who have nothing to offer outside? The women who are bleeding, the eunuch, the sick, all unwelcome? What kind of place is this that is built on the backs of the unwelcome and silenced voices?  What kind of place is this that is built to keep the ones who most need help, comfort, and access to hope out? Apparently the temple that awes the ones who have access and are not kept out, who can easily be there, and enjoy its wonder and beauty.

And Jesus has good news for the widow.  This temple is going down. The places and systems built by human greed and selfishness will be decimated.  The work of the wealthy, educated, privileged few will be undone- every single aspect of it; The systems that expected the widow to give all she had, but not the wealthy to do so; the systems that kept out the precious children of God who are in need, who live in fear of being welcomed or even allowed to be seen will be torn apart.  The good news to the widow is that this pain we are in, the pain she suffers of hunger and fear is only the beginning of the process that will give new life and hope to the world.

I spent this past week in El Paso, Juarez, and Anapra.  I saw the systems in place that keep the poor in poverty, the sick in illness, the hopeless despairing.  I heard stories of those seeking entrance to a place of hope and health, but they were too poor to get in.  They had the wrong skin color, were born of the wrong place, were like a carpenter’s son and deemed worthless, because what good can come from Honduras, or Guatemala, or Nazareth. I saw tears over separated families, fleeing violence and starvation, who follow the rules and must wait over 20 years to be “next” in line because their country of origin is “unwanted.” I heard of young people held in cells with no room to lay down for days on end because they applied for asylum as they ran for their life. And I heard from agents who are desperate to make sense of this in their heads as they cage up people whose only crimes are existence and desire to live.

Imagine the widow asking for help of the temple leaders and in response, being jailed to “wait” for their answer.  It is not just our country doing this, not just a caravan now, or a city of people waiting their 20 years- but entire nations of people starving, hoping, and wishing for more- for a chance to just live, let alone thrive.  Entire nations are the systems of oppression- the ones who buy cheap clothes made in sweatshops, drink coffee harvested in slave conditions, shoot because of skin color or who someone loves, and eats out of season fruit grown in deforested areas, all in the name of protecting their “piece of the pie” rather than finding a way to share it.  

These are the systems that will be torn apart in the end times, that are huge, and seemingly impossible to tear apart.

Nearly every one of us is an immigrant or birthed from one.  Each of us carry a history of fleeing for freedom and hope in our DNA, whether as pilgrims seeking freedom to worship without risk of death, from hunger and starvation from our fjords or potato famines, from slavery to free status, we are the ones who have been welcomed and given new hope and it is time to offer it in return. On my own, I don’t know how to fix our immigration and asylum systems, let alone those of every other nation with similar ones. I don’t know how to fix the deep and disturbing racism and classism of our nation, let alone any other.  I don’t know how to make it safe for people to just live and love in any place without being shot at in worship or while dancing. But Jesus does.  And he gives us good news.

This is the beginning birth pains. It is going to be horrific.  It is going to be a struggle. We will either be the ones feeling ripped in two in the birth, or we will stand by, helpless as another in front of us struggles.  It will be hard and horrible. Birthing pains are. But there is good news. We are invited to be midwives of the birthing. We are invited to be part of the help, the comfort, the assistance, the ones who bring the good news of Jesus Christ into the world. There is joy at the end of this- there is life and hope coming.  It will be work to get there. It will be hard, humanity will cry out in pain and the Holy Spirit will be our comfort, our deepest joy in the midst of pain.

We are invited into this labor, my siblings in Christ. We are invited to comfort the afflicted, to care for the poor, the hungry, the sick.  We are invited to give thanks and rejoice by sharing the comfort we have been granted. In Jesus Christ, we have been granted both the savior who will topple the dividing and life- sucking systems and who will give us breath, light, and joy as we labor with him.  It is our good news, to be the ones who look to the widow and put her coins back in her hand ten-fold, who invite her into the temple to worship, and then home with us to eat as part of our family- born anew in our baptismal promise.

Welcome to labor, the end is coming and we shall know true joy, true comfort, true salvation in our saviour, Jesus Christ.

 

Some Gave All- and they shouldn’t have to…. (Nov 11 sermon Pentecost 25B)

November 11, 2018                   Hope Lutheran Church               Riverside, CA

Mark 12:38-44

Welcome to the time of year in most churches when we talk at the table about impolite things, like  caring for the immigrant, feeding the poor, or welcoming the stranger, also know politely as politics, or money and time commitment, also known as Stewardship. Welcome to a Stewardship Sunday- which is about all of the gifts God gives us and how we manage them- except it often feels a little dirty because for a few weeks a year,  we really mostly mean money and then we use a pretty word like stewardship to dress it up. It is a weird thing and I want to name it. It is our reality, that once a year we need to talk about the things that make our spaces and ministry real and relevant in the world- and money is the currency upon which we are built. While it works in other places which we lift up through ELCA Good Gifts, here in Riverside, we simply cannot pay the electric bill with chickens.  

All around the nation, pastors are deciding whether to climb the ant hill and preach openly and honestly about an area many don’t want us to speak about in church. Our own council is torn on me speaking about this topic.   While it may seem uncomfortable to hear a sermon on money, just as it does about politics, the reality is, as a preacher, I follow Jesus footsteps and preach on what he preached and teaching what he taught, (I hope). Every aspect of our lives matters to God and Jesus gave us lessons on all of them, including and sometimes especially, the dangerously saucy topics of sex, politics, and money. Here is that sermon in one sentence and then I am reclaiming the rest of my time to speak on bigger matters by leaving the money talk to the finance people of our congregation.  Here it is: ready? Shortest sermon on money:
You can’t take it with you- so how will you make a change for better in the world?  Amen.

I want to talk about what we are doing with our stewardship of our lives and the lives of those around us.  We just read of a widowed, resourceless woman who had nothing left to give while the religious leaders who left her in that poverty around her had plenty.    If you want to connect my sermons with money- you do that or don’t. This passage is about human stewardship. Human life is the most precious gift we are given outside of salvation from sin.  This passage is not about Jesus honoring a woman for giving her last item of value for the temple. It is about the religious leaders who left her to be impoverished and hungry. It is about the people of her community who did not surround her after her husband’s death, taking her in and caring for her when she could not care for herself.  It is about a woman who is on the brink of death and starvation and the ones around her asking her to give up the coin which could keep her alive a little longer- it is about their failure to see and steward the most precious gift: life.

This passage riles up a lot of people who work with the hungry and poor.  We get angry because there was a treasury box, likely overflowing, and wealthy people around her in rich clothes with full stomachs.  They should have told her to keep her money. They should have opened up the box, taken out coins, bought her food, and given her credits among the sellers so that she would not be without.  They should have taken her into their own homes, adopting her to be one of their family and providing for her. This passage is not about how being faithful is about giving your last coin and dying a hungry, purposeless death. This passage is about the inherent value she brings that no one but Jesus saw.  It is about realizing every one of us have something of great value to offer to the world in who we are and our natural gifts.

Joanne had just gotten a divorce, was on government aid, and could barely afford to feed her baby in 1994.  She thought she had nothing to offer the world. But she had a typewriter and a story to tell. She was so poor that after typing out the draft, she couldn’t afford to copy it, so she typed out each 90,000 word copy she sent to publishers. It was rejected dozens of times.  The pharisees of the publishing world denied her offering. Finally Bloomsbury, a small London publisher, gave it a second chance after the CEO’s eight year-old daughter fell in love with it as would millions of children and adults around the world. That manuscript became a best seller, and a whole generation of young people do not know the world without Harry Potter  by J.K. Rowling.
She had a gift.  She had an offering that did not cost her to share- but made the world a better place. When our guest chefs craft a meal, they do it with ease and joy just as she wrote with ease and joy.  It is not hard for them to cook, they love it. It is their gift- it comes naturally and without leaving them empty at the end.  Our stained glass, a gift from members of the congregation is of great value because most of us could not produce such a gift. It is not ours to give.  And neither was that talent the widow put in the basket. That coin was hers to keep and use to sustain her life. She had something else of value to give- her life, her presence, her experience, her smile.  Stewardship is not as much about giving what we have no way of replenishing, but about giving from the endless well of who and whose we are. If you have money, yeah, give that. But if you have time, if you have talent, if you have patience, or a smile, give those.  Because in all honesty, a smile goes a long way in the aching world.

Yesterday I spent the whole day in Los Angeles, caring for evacuees.  We don’t ask them for more when so much has already been taken from them.

We.

Give.

To.

Them.

A smile goes a really long way.  A bottle of water donated goes a long way.  Caring for others in a moment of crisis is priceless, but so is just seeing them in the first place.  God gave us each other first. God said it is not good for a human to be alone- and made a mate. We are meant to see each other first. To care for each other- to minister to the poor, the lonely, the hurting, and hungry; looking in their eyes and seeing them as we wrap them in love, in blankets, in warm food, and sharing a moment of time to express wordlessly that they matter.  That is what we do as followers of Christ. We steward the gifts that God has given us- to care for the world- not asking or expecting the ones without to give up their last chance at life, but instead to offer faith, love, and hope.

Sometimes that means we do it here at our Hope Campus and office. Sometimes it is done at Pathways, or the riverbed, or a hospital room, or your own living room.  The point is, our ministry is more than what we do on Sunday mornings, because this is time to worship God, give thanks, and be nourished to go out and care for the world with our gifts. What is it that you find you can replenish easily? That is your gift.  How do you manage it? That is stewardship. What do the ones around you offer you? Does it cost them their last ounce of strength, life, or finance? How can you help them to keep that which they cannot replenish and support them? That is stewardship. How can we give back the widow’s mite and offer her more, a family, a meal, a home, a promise of life?  That is stewardship of human life and that is the point of this lesson today.

Jesus isn’t telling us to give up what we have no way to replenish- even in giving up our life for Christ, we gain a new one. He isn’t lifting up the widow’s poverty as admirable.  He is admonishing those who let it happen and reminding us that seeing each other in this world matters. Today is the 100th remembrance of Armistice Day- the end of the War to End All Wars.  Millions died in service. millions more served and came home wounded mentally or physically. They didn’t have to give like that if we had valued life and each other in the world first. Some gave all, but they didn’t give their lives up to die, they game them up to live- to live in peace, to live in joy, to live for every life, for every precious human created by God.  We honor their lives, the life of every Veteran the world over, because every life, every smile, every tear, every one of us matters. And some shouldn’t have to give all when we can prevent it. That is ministry. That is stewardship That is following Jesus Christ, our saviour, our teacher, our redeemer, our gift who keeps on giving and renewing us day in and out.

 

The Honeymoon is Over… Happy Anniversary. Reformation Sunday 2018

Reformation 2018  ~    Hope Lutheran Church  ~  Riverside, CA

Well, the honeymoon is over.  A year ago we made a promise. A year ago I stood before Bishop Andy Taylor and spoke words of commitment and hope, of service and accountability.  I waited 13 years of school and finding a call to speak those words. I was able to speak them because you, people of Hope, saw my call from God and affirmed it by asking me to be your pastor.  You were part of that promise.

We made promises like a marital couple: to uphold and support, to serve and honor, to see one another as people, as valuable, as part of God’s kingdom, to never to diminish or to erase each other, but to name the value of our individual gifts in the whole body together.

In the past year we have learned about each other.  You learned I can talk up a storm when I am nervous.  I learned you aren’t used to a pastor having you over to their house.  I learned about your passion for doing things well. You learned I like to paint, walls, canvas, nails, anything.  We learned to communicate with each other, to speak our hurt and our truth. I cried. You cried. And we still didn’t remember to get more tissues for the pews.  

And we need the tissues.  Because life has been as full of joy as sorrow this past year.  We have lost amazing people, and God gained them at the eternal table.  And we gained new people and even a baby. Precious new faces and stories who also bring tears of joy to our eyes in laughter and joy.  And even more will make promises today- reminding us of the joy of commitment and community.

We made promises and sometimes we broke them.  We are human and we make mistakes. But we made promises to each other so we stayed and we prayed and we kept working on it because it is rare that good happens instantly, it takes time, and as our master gardeners will attest to, sometimes many seasons to produce.  

As we have grown close and more confident with each other, learning each other’s moves and language, we have been strengthened.  We have been made new, reformed for work together, partnered to bring our passion and love to the community as a team, rather than individuals because God called us into relationship.  A congregation and pastor being made new for God’s good purpose. It has been beautiful and hard and oh so good. New relationships are like that though.

It is time to open the doors of the honeymoon suite and the doors of the church and to pour out into the community to share the glorious generosity of love and hope that we have found among each other.  Our neighbors need us. They are homeless and hungry. Our neighbors are afraid- they face racism and sexism and fear of being erased because they don’t match a binary construct. Our neighbors are hurting- their fellow congregations are being gunned down in cold blood as they celebrate a new baby!  Our neighbors are lonely-Sitting in houses without a soul to talk to.


Our promises to each other did not end at the edge of our property or the end of worship each Sunday.  They began that day. Like God’s love, a strength and refuge, our promises are the strength and refuge that our neighbors need us to share.  They need our love, our commitment, our passion, and our fellowship. They need to know we see them- that they don’t have to look like us or even believe like us.  God made them, too and they are not meant to be alone.

Our Gospel today leads the way to our new reformation- an act of always being made new, of always leaning into our imperfection and owning it, naming it, and learning to do better.  We have these gorgeous baptismal waters that remind us of our daily baptism, that we are always being made new in Christ and it eases our discomfort as we face change together.

We don’t have to do this alone, in fact, we are equipped to do it with Christ.  Every healing is a community job. In today’s gospel, the community was Bartimaeus, jesus, and the crowd following Jesus.   Jesus and Bartimaeus participated and they did so against the popular opinion of the crowd- no one wanted them together.  The crowd didn’t want to share Jesus and they didn’t want to let Bartimaeus in. The crowd didn’t want Bartimaeus healed, and they didn’t want Jesus to take the time with him. They chose to push a neighbor out because he was hard to reconcile with their needs and wants.  He didn’t fit the standard they set. Jesus saw him and knew the standard was being human. So he called Bartimaeus into relationship- healing him and becoming part of his story.  

Our neighbors are called into relationship. The ones who don’t believe like us, look like us, identify like us, even speak like us.  It is our turn to issue a call to them, to call them into love and healing, to hope and renewal and to the comfort of being reminded we are all precious and worthy of life.  Our relationship is off to a great start- and like any good partnership- we have to keep being made new to keep things healthy and fresh.

We made promises.  We have gained this new relationship.  Now it is time to turn away from the honeymoon suite and go out with joy into our community to invite others into our promise, to share the good news, to share the promise of always being made new, and to share the promise of Christ.  

Happy Anniversary, People of Hope.  

 

Third Time’s a Charm Pentecost 22B

Pentecost 22B     October 21, 2018

Hope Lutheran Church~~~~Riverside CA

Mark 10:35-45

They say “third time’s a charm.”  And yet, here we are with James and John and they don’t get it again.  Our Gospel today begins with two of the church’s future saints treating the Son of Humanity like he was a holy ticket scalper.

Am I the only one who reads this with different voices or attitudes to see how it plays out?  Do you hear the patient 2nd grade teacher voice from Jesus or do you hear the exasperated parent of a teenager? What about the curious professor eager to dismantle the eager student’s ironic optimism?

In the Princess Bride movie, now considered a cult classic, the disciples remind me of the character Vizzini, who keeps shouting, “Inconceivable!”  Yet, the idea isn’t inconceivable, they just don’t get it. Their minds don’t think that way at all. And I keep waiting for Jesus to say, “You keep using that word, I do not think it means what you think it means.”  The disciples keep asking for glory, for power, for position, for recognition and they completely miss that the only glory will be in the glorious deaths they will die in service. They miss that this is not about lifting a single person up to glory, but about lifting humanity out of the mud.

The idea of serving is just not what they think it is, and neither is the idea of afterlife.  In fact, this trying to secure the right or left chair is the complete opposite of their purpose.  They don’t see it and they have no clue the cost for what they ask. Many scholars explore whom the two will be- many argue that one will be the sinner on the cross who died next to Jesus, seeking forgiveness in his last hours of torture.  I don’t think the disciples meant that for themselves. It is just inconceivable to them.

There is a new sitcom, “The Good Place” and it is filled with fantastic fun making of religion while also discussing the idea of eternal life.  In the sitcom, the characters are in the bad place, but they are told they are in the good place. They figure out that they aren’t because they realize they are miserable and are being tortured by the mundane things of life that irritated them most.

The show goes on to explore philosophical girding’s in the stead of religion and plays out the classic philosophers fundamentals for being a good or bad person.  It boils down to one issue though: there is no formula for being good and there is no way to intentionally earn getting into the good place. You just have to be a good person- not for the sake of getting in, but because we are supposed to be good to one another.

We aren’t supposed to idealize the suffering servant of Job 38 or Isaiah 53.  That is like choosing to live a Christian life because we want to cover all our bases. It doesn’t work to choose to be a martyr in order to secure a space.  We can’t earn this because it isn’t a test where we get graded on the other side. We don’t get more points for being kinder or doing the right thing because God is up in the sky checking off a list. And there is no guarantee that what eternity looks like will be golden streets and angel wings.  What if eternity looks like eternal service? Then what? What are we signing on for? What cup are we drinking with Jesus?

A character in the Good Place named Chidi makes the point clear: “If this isn’t a test then it’s something way worse: A choice!  That we have to MAKE!”

When we choose to follow Christ it is regardless of what the outcome will look like. It isn’t about power or prestige or earning an eternal day off.  Chidi posits the best response to this quandary we face: “So why do it then? Why choose to be good everyday, if there is no guaranteed reward we can count on now or in the afterlife? I argue that we choose to be good because of our bonds with other people and our innate desire to treat them with dignity. Simply put, we are not in this alone. “

Christ is asking the disciples to give up the idea of glory and power forever; to be servants to humanity and God forever.  He is asking them to be crushed and wounded and afflicted with him when he offers them a chance to follow him. He never promises them glory and power only that he will be with them til the end of days. 

Maybe that is all we can ask for and maybe that is all we really need.  Maybe we spend our days trying to create things and relationships around us so we don’t feel so alone.  Maybe we are James and John and the other 10, vying for security and a place at the table because no one wants to be left out.  No one wants to be alone.

The inconceivable part of this is that we aren’t alone. We never were alone.  But we just couldn’t conceive of that. So God sent the son, Jesus to show us, to tell us, to be with us to prove we are not alone.  To redeem us and remind us that we are not relegated to the bad place. So why choose to do good, to be good? Not to earn it, because it is freely given, but in response.  Because God is that good and we are not alone. God is with us and we can celebrate this gift of life and accompaniment by living in a way that lets others know they are not alone either.

You don’t have to choose to feed the poor or clothe the naked for Jesus sake.  But when you choose to live a life responsive to God’s gift by seeing others and letting them know they are not alone either, you will inevitably find yourself feeding a hungry and dirty soul.  This is the high priest’s calling which we all can answer.

The choice is not to live a good life or be good.  It is to offer ourselves up and simply thank God for being so generous and gracious and never leaving us alone.

 

From the Pastor’s Pen November ’18

Happy 502nd Anniversary, reforming church.  What a good and blessed thing it is to be given a chance to be made new.  I for one am grateful every day that I am not stuck as the same person I was the day before.  The old me has a chance to die every evening, a new me arises like Lazarus and lives with new intention, awareness, and purpose.
This gladness is a healthy balance when I consider and often become burdened with awareness of my mistakes.  Each day I am able to name my failures and weaknesses and then in my baptismal promise, wash them away with promises of life in Christ.
This is especially important this month.  I feel like there is a growing awareness of worldly social needs, a fear in our nation of sharing our generous resources and freedom, and grief over that which was taken away in greed or anger.  Lives lost to gunmen in Kentucky and Pennsylvania remind me that we have a lot of work to do to lessen hatred and violence in this world.  A speaker last night at the Interfaith Service of Healing at Congregation Emanu-El in Redlands reminded me though, “bullets can’t pierce love.  Love wins.”

Our nation grew because people were afraid and seeking safety.  They were leaving their lands in droves because their very lives were in danger.  They were starving, persecuted for faith, or even for whom they loved.  They sought refuge and found it here.  Finally, a safe place to worship and live.  Only now, we see even the most sacred places violated by anger and in fear we close our doors to the refugee whose shoes we wore only a generation or two ago. Martin Luther himself fueled hatred of many, but most especially our Jewish siblings.  I have to acknowledge that fear and hatred do not come from God.   I don’t know how to help love win, but I will keep loving my neighbor because Christ made it easier for me by showing me how. I will name the wrong among even the most faithful leaders, and I will keep welcoming the stranger in the name of Christ and trust the Holy Spirit will bring love’s win to fruition.
When I look ahead to Thanksgiving I am aware again of that which was stolen in greed generations before.  Almost a mirror of our current tragedies, a dehumanization of the other lead to death.  Native American lives were cut short to gain land and resources by European colonizers who had the audacity to claim they “discovered land” which was already inhabited.  It is hard to acknowledge that the sweet puritan pilgrim stories were not as I was taught and that I should not give thanks for stolen prosperity. My so called “pure” blood lines are not a thing of beauty, but a reminder of shameful acts. I could wallow in despair or deny this, but  I am reminded by another wise voice, that we are in a time of moral crisis and naming our history and corporate Eurocentric sin is vital to healing and moving forward.  My native siblings do not want me gone.  They do want me to acknowledge they do and did exist, that a trespass was made, and to seek forgiveness.  I don’t like it, but the reality is, I benefit from their loss, and they still pay for my ancestors trespass.  I owe them at least acknowledging the truth.  On truth, the foundation of Christian faith, we can build new relationships and go forward in love and honesty.

Each of these ideas is rooted in two concepts: community and forgiveness.  We are called into community, to be and see one another.  To love and be loved.  To mess up, ask forgiveness, and give it in return.  These require being made new, being RE- formed into a better person in Christ:  being more kind, more loving, more honest each day.  They are hard, we cannot do them alone, and Christ is with us renewing and reforming us every moment in his promises.

Thank God we are a reforming people.  Thank God we have a new chance all the time to begin again.  I cannot give thanks for the pain, but I can give thanks for the new chances and the community that forms in the healing.  May your Thanksgiving be an honest one. May it be one of reforming into a new person in Christ.  May it be full of thanks for love of God who rescues and redeems us, reforming us into a new eternal kingdom.

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:

https://saint-marks.com/staff/debie-thomas/