Sunday, August 31, 2008

Sermon for the Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 17, Year A , August 31, 2008

Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Proper 17

Year A

August 31, 2008

Resurrection Lutheran Church

Jeremiah 15:15-21 Psalm 26:1-8

Romans 12:9-21 St. Matthew 16:21-28

I have often been accused of having selective hearing. I keep on trying to explain to people that this is not the case, it is simply a case of old age! But people just don't seem to buy that excuse unfortunately, true though it may be. But have you ever told someone something only to have them completely forget about it or completely mis-understand you? It is almost like they were ignoring you on purpose. It can be very frustrating! But of course, I'm sure none of you wives or husbands have experienced this before. But just bear with me and pretend that you know what I'm talking about.

In the Gospel According to Matthew Jesus lays it on the line. Or I supposed it might be more accurate to say that Jesus tries to lay it on the line with his disciples. But instead of merely ignoring or not hearing (traits that seem to grow stronger as the crucifixion comes closer) Peter goes so far as to rebuke him. This is the same Peter who had already realized that Jesus was the messiah and had proclaimed him as such.

Now from Peter's perspective I can see why he would respond “God forbid” even to his teacher. Peter and the rest of the Jewish nation for that matter, has some very specific ideas about what it is to be a messiah. And even thought it is true that Jesus had his un-messianic acting moments, such as associating with questionable women, hanging out with sinners and tax collectors, that can be excused as minor aberrations.

But there are limits to Peter's tolerance. There are a few hard and fast rules about being a messiah after all! Probably one of the most important of these includes not dieing at the hands of the enemy, the Roman authorities. A dead messiah is not good for anyone or anything.

But even if we were to lay aside the messiah angle for a moment, who wants to hear the terrible news that a leader you love, respect and have followed for the past few years will be killed. I suspected hearing the killed part drowned out everything that followed. It is hard to follow a conversation after hearing something like that.

And how human is that. We hear one part of a message and then totally forget anything that follows as we are struck by the impact of that first news. Even I have been accused of that a time or two in my life!

One thing I have to admire about Peter though. That is he is not afraid to speak his mind. I'm reminded of some of the Psalms. How often do we really want to say something to God but we censor ourselves and not say it. As if God doesn't know what we are thinking already and that we somehow protect God or ourselves by not saying it. I think this passage calls us to the bravery of honesty in our interactions with God. Self-censorship is a futile attempt at dishonest with God.

Peter was all too willing to be himself before God. I think too often we feel that we must be someone else before God. I like the honesty we find in the psalmist who in one psalm is praising God like crazy and the next one is shaking his fist at God in anger. I don't know, perhaps it is that sometimes we worry about being a disappointment to God.

I think that the Christian church needs to work on the entire concept of disappointing God.

One of the best ways to work on this concept is to look at the lesson from the Book of Romans today, particularly in light of the fact that we will be performing two baptisms. I know, some of you were wondering if I was ever going to talk about Baptism today. And I am. But I’m not going to talk about it with respect to these two beautiful children. Instead I’m going to talk about it with respect to us. I say we, because while I get the wonderful privilege of actually saying the words, it is a community event in a very important way. And the most powerful and important words are those in which you as a faith community agree to support these new children in their lives in Jesus.

Now if we thought that being honest with God about our feelings in our lives was hard, be ready to be really challenged! Look at some of the phrases in this lesson from the Letter to the Romans: “let love be genuine,” “out do one another in showing honor,” “bless those who persecute you,” “associate with the lowly,” “live peaceably with all.” These are the lessons we are called upon to follow in the church and are promising to teach our children.

These are the lessons we need to learn to live in our own lives so we can model them successful for Emily and Eva and all the children around us. So we celebrate this powerful sacrament once again and are called on to remember our responsibilities to God and those around us.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Sermon for the Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 15, Year A , August 17, 2008

Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Proper 15

Year A

August 17, 2008

Seward Memorial United Methodist Church

Genesis 45:1-15 Psalm 133

Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32 St. Matthew 15:10-28

I do not like them in a box.

I do not like them with a fox.

I do not like them in a house.

I do not like them with a mouse.

I do not like them here or there.

I do not like them anywhere.

I'm sure that everyone knows exactly what the next lines are.

I do not like green eggs and ham.

I do not like them, Sam-I-am.

A few weeks ago when Pastor Peter started the Seuss series he mentioned one of my personal favorites: “Green Eggs and Ham”. I think the moral of the story in Green Eggs and Ham also speaks to the truth of the Gospel According to Matthew as well as what we hear from the story in Genesis today. Things are not always what they seem.

In the Seuss story, Sam I Am's friend is absolutely, positively convinced he does not like green eggs and ham even though he has never, ever tasted them. It sort of reminds me of when I was growing up. I was convinced that I hated liver even though I had never eaten it. I had an aunt who was always trying to get us kids to try it. But we always refused. Of course when she finally tricked us into eating liver we really did hate it, so that doesn't help make my point very well.

But in Green Eggs and Ham the persistence of Sam I Am pays off. After the many very imaginative and repeated efforts by Sam I Am he finally convinces his friend to eat green eggs and ham. After his friend's repeated refusals, eventually the friend ends up tasting the green eggs and ham. And guess what. Of course he discovers he loves them!

In the end we discover in Green Eggs and Ham that things are not always as they seem or as we believe them to be. What Sam I Am's friend believed he hated he discovered he actually loved. He learns to appreciate the unexpected.

And in the Gospel According to Matthew and in the passage from Genesis today things were also not as they seemed.

Imagine the response you or I would have expected if we had treated one of our brothers or sisters the way Joseph’s brothers treated him. How would you have reacted when you had power over them? I’m not so sure I could have pulled a Joseph off. Joseph's brothers discover that the most powerful man in the world is the brother they abused and abandoned. I am sure his brother's expected terrible retribution for their sins as I would have. If would only seem right to you, to me, and to them. But instead they experience the unexpected. Joseph welcomes them with open arms.

In the same way, Jesus was trying to tell the people that things are not as they always appear or as we may assume them to be. The Jewish people were very concerned about what was going in their mouths for fear it would defile them. And yet Jesus tells them it is exactly the other way. This would be a rather shocking and unexpected statement to an observant Jew. Everything they know about their faith tradition said that it was what went into their mouths that did indeed matter, and matter a lot.

But Jesus is clearly turning things upside down by saying that it is what comes out, not what goes in that defiles a person. It is the heart that matters. What Jesus was saying to so unexpected, so wrong from what they knew and practiced. However this is not that unexpected to us. We are not steeped in Jewish dietary law. While we can acknowledge sagely the words of Jesus, about the heart, we just don't have the background of a Jewish audience and so this little interplay does not hit us with the strength and impact that it would have hit Jesus’ Jewish audience.

But what is so absolutely strange and completely unexpected, probably to all of us, is that immediately after saying that it is what comes out of the mouth, and not in it, that defiles a person, something comes out of Jesus mouth that most of us would never expect a Christian, let alone Jesus, say. And so I think this final part of the Gospel hits us as the most unexpected. None of us would have anticipated this from Jesus. How in the world could Jesus call anyone a dog? That seems to be rather un-Christian to say the least. None of us would do something like that.

All right children, cover your ears now, I don’t want you to hear what I’m about to say. I'm sure most of you are familiar with a lie we are taught by our parents from childhood. It is a lie taught with the best of intentions, but a lie nevertheless. “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.” What a lie. Guess what, we all know or at least we figure out fairly quick that names do indeed hurt! In fact they very often hurt much more that sticks and stones. I remember growing up and the first time that my mother apparently decided that I was too old for spanking. She told me she was disappointed in me. Wow, that really hurt me. Much more than any spanking I remembered.

While I'm generally not a fan of those preachers who take some of the harder sayings of Jesus and try to dress them up to make them more palatable to our tastes in our present day and age, I don't think this is one of those passages. But lets face it, Jesus used some pretty inappropriate language.

I think that Jesus was trying to acknowledge the reality of his time and place. The Jewish people of that time did indeed as a general rule think of non-Jewish people as no better than dogs. I think Jesus affirmation of this common attitude drives the point home even better when he finally agrees to the woman's request and heals her daughter.

The lesson from both passages is that when we think we know something we might just be wrong. Unexpected blessings can and do come from God. The Canaanite woman was very persistent but I wonder in her heart how she felt when it seemed that Jesus buys into what everyone says.

Sometimes we may feel that God has disappeared from us or perhaps not acting in the way we want or desire. But I think sometimes that is because God is doing the unexpected in our lives and we just don’t or can’t see God in it.

I confessed to the people at St. Peter’s a while back that I’m a fan of the show Big Brother. A few seasons ago the theme was expect the unexpected. And in ever episode there was some new twist changing things around. The participants expected is all the time and were always on the alert for the unexpected. Now I don’t think God is working in our lives like a game show, but I really think it would be spiritually healthy for all of us to develop the attitude of expecting the unexpected in our lives from God.

I know that if we look for the unexpected for God in our lives it will open our eyes to seeing God working in new and exciting ways.

I read a lot of blogs, probably way too many, truth be told. But a few days ago I read this powerful story in a blog of a person who ministers to the homeless. Here is the story:

Yesterday my boys and I were about to enter a Mexican restaurant when I heard the faint sound. It was a very hoarse female voice calling out my name. It sounded like a painful whisper. Martha was so drunk that she could barely walk. She nearly fell over trying to run up to me. She was wearing one of those cloth things that women often wear over their bathing suits, but she did not appear to be wearing anything else. The drunken fellow with her glared at me with curiosity. He clutched his grocery bag full of spirits. He seemed threatened by her coming up to me, but too jealous of the liquor to let down his guard on that bag and do anything about it. I reached out to offer a handshake and she grabbed my hand and started kissing it like I was some sort of medieval prince. “Pray for me, I am going to a church conference soon.” She kept nodding her head and giving me the thumbs up sign to let me know she was okay. She was not. My heart sank because she has lost probably sixty pounds since I last saw her. The people seated in the window booths could not refrain from staring. Years ago I would have been so embarrassed to have a drunken lady, with her boobs falling out of her outfit, kiss my hand over and over in public. Now, I am used to it. My extremely patient family is now used to strange things like that also.

The thing that made it very painful for me was the fact that several years ago this lady was one of our “success stories.” She came to our annual banquet and stood up and told her very moving story about going through rehab and then coming to the shelter for six months. She had secured a job, savings and a nice house in the country to rent. Everyone was so proud of her. She now looked closer to death than she did before going off to rehab all those years ago. That is the problem I have with ‘testimonials’. They are, at best, snapshots in time. The real world keeps on spinning and our lives continue to unfold. Life is not like a television drama or a novel with tidy resolutions that pull everything together at the end. We do not have the luxury of living happily ever after or being damned for good at the final page. Each day is another page in the story. There is failure, relapse, redemption and hope lurking on the horizon. That is bad news. That is good news. It means I cannot tidy up a person’s story and give it the permanent, Christian fairy tale ending. It also means I cannot write anyone off as beyond hope. Once I do either of those things, it will be time to turn the page and be surprised again. It is both a blessing and a curse to have the longevity in this business that I have. Most people do not get to stick around long enough to see redemption take place. Most people do not stick around long enough to see the sure thing unravel. Real people live real lives of not so real permanence. That probably did not come out right, but I trust you know exactly what I am talking about.

A couple of months ago I wrote a post about my friend Ben’s search for peace. I am glad that sad post was not the end of the story. He came by the other day just to stop in and see me. He was back in town picking up his truck from storage. He finished his treatment program and is now in another city in a program for veterans about seven hours from here. He was sporting a massive smile that cannot be faked. He wanted to come by and say thanks for helping him get into that program. He seems to have found some of that peace he so desperately craved when I wrote that post. Like Martha, he asked me to pray for him and then he gave me the biggest bear hug ever. ( You have to know that I am not a ‘touchy-feely’ person at all, so it is bit ironic that I am in a role where I am constantly being touched---sort of a divine practical joke.)

I am normally hesitant to tell someone I will pray for them because I hate to absent-mindedly lie about something like that. I know how prone I am to forget to follow through on that if I say it to everyone. However, I will pray for both Martha and Ben because I know the final chapter has yet to be written in their stories. Martha is not beyond hope. Ben is not beyond failure. Neither are we.[1]

This is an individual who has mastered the art of expecting the unexpected and has eyes to see what God is doing.

My prayer is that all of us will learn to appreciate and expect the unexpected in our lives. We will see God in new and exciting ways if we do.


Sunday, August 3, 2008

Sermon for the Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 13, Year A , August 3, 2008

Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost

Proper 13

Year A

August 3, 2008

Isaiah 55:1-5 Psalm 145:8-9, 14-21

Romans 9:1-5 St. Matthew 14:13-21

I think most of the times I have preached on this particular text, I have tended to focus on the miracle of the feeding of the people. It is a powerful moment in the life of Jesus. The combination of lessons today almost cry out to talk about the multiplication of the loaves of bread and the fish.

But this miraculous story starts out with Jesus seeking a little alone time. Some time away from the pressure and the crowds to recharge his batteries as it were. That is all that Jesus was asking for. He has been surrounded by people wanting his attention, seeking his healing touch, wanting to be near him. And after a while all he wanted to do was find a deserted place to be alone. I’m sure many of us have felt this way from time to time in our busy lives.

And so Jesus tries to get away. But Jesus has quite a persistent following. I have never lived the life of a rock star or famous person, but I would imagine this is sort of what Jesus’ life must have been like. Jesus probably rarely had a moment of peace and quiet. People were probably popping up all the time.

I think too often we see Jesus too much as the son of God and not nearly often enough as the son of man, a person who could get dirty and tired, just like you and me. I would imagine that Jesus is completely drained.

And yet, when Jesus sees the crowd following him around the author of the Gospel According to Matthew tells us is that “he had compassion for them.”

Now I see what it is that so often separates me from Jesus! Jesus was always concerned about others, and I am usually far too concerned about myself. Had I been in Jesus sandals at that moment in time, I imagine that I would have kept on working to duck away from the crowds and to get a little “me” time. But not Jesus. He saw them and had compassion for them. Jesus placed his own tiredness to the side to minister to these people.

Jesus had compassion because he saw people who were starving, starving spiritually and not knowing how to satisfy their hunger. And so Jesus placed his own tiredness, his own needs, aside to minister once again to the people around him. Jesus offered to satisfy their spiritual hunger.

The words from the Prophet Isaiah today are words of this same kind of satisfaction. God invites everyone who thirsts to come to the waters. God invites those who have no money to come and buy and eat. There is no price on the gift Good offers each and every one of us and there is no amount of money that can purchase it. God’s abundance is sufficient for everyone’s needs, as Jesus so clearly demonstrated.

God offers a caring and personal relationship. And that is what Jesus offered the people who were chasing after him.

I think it would be a mistake, however, to only spiritualize this passage and try in some way to bury the physical miracle that also took place. I believe Jesus offered two miracles on this day. The spiritual miracle of tending to people and relationships and the physical miracle of feeding the hungry crowds.

Time flies when you are healing people and before you know it Jesus' ever practical disciples are tugging at his cloak whispering for him to send them away so they can go get dinner. And Jesus, that crazy guy, says you feed them. I can just imagine the disciples looking at one another and each of them thinking the exact same thing. Jesus is crazy. Does he think we carry a kitchen around with us? Does he think we have a pantry nearby?

I know for myself I tend to be a pretty practical guy, just like I see the disciples at this moment. But I think this Gospel lesson warns me not to be too practical. Not to count too much on what I think I can do. The lesson for all of us is that we need to count on Jesus. We need to be open to God doing amazing things that perhaps our wildest imaginations cannot even dream up. Our practicality can be limited on what God can do for and through us.

You see Jesus calls the ever practical disciples to do the impossible. Jesus is trying to teach them that very important lesson that with God, nothing is impossible. This is the one miracle recorded by all four Gospel writers, so this feeding had a significant impact on those who witnessed and participated in it.

There is always the possibility that this miracle of Jesus reminded everyone of the wanderings of Israel in the desert when God provided manna and quails for a hungry people. It is a reminder of the eternal promise of God to watch over and provide for the people of God.

Jesus provided bread, fish, and wine to people. And Jesus also offered living water. The lessons today remind us that Jesus provides for us as well.

What is your hunger today? What do you think God may be calling you to do today? Whatever that is, no matter how large a challenge it may seem and no matter how lacking your resources may seem to be, God will be with you. God will provide that which you lack.

The Gospel lesson today calls us to great acts of faith and trust in our Christian walk and witness. Are you willing to follow Jesus in this call?