Jesus said, “The truth will set you free.”
For many of us, truth is based on living our lives with integrity. A value that seems in short supply today.
The Reverend Elizabeth Edman is a lesbian Episcopal priest, who once shared a story about what she learned from her mother about being true to oneself.
Elizabeth was born in Fort Smith, Arkansas in 1962. Back then, her world was defined by rigid binaries: white and black, rich and poor, north and south, male and female.
Being a tomboy, the last one didn’t work so well for Elizabeth. But her family had taught her: “Be who you are, even when people give you guff.”
When she was five, Elizabeth went to a shoe store with her mother to shop for sneakers. But the shoes she liked were in the boy’s section. Elizabeth dragged her mother there, saying, “Mama, c’mere! Let me show you the ones I want!”
When they took the shoes to the counter, the store clerk said with a disapproving tone, “Those are boys’ shoes.” But Elizabeth’s mother didn’t hesitate, and firmly told him: “Yes, size four, please.”
I believe Elizabeth’s mother demonstrated the kind of radical acceptance and love that’s central to our Lutheran understanding of grace.
I also believe our Christian faith is about accepting yourself. It’s about being the person God created you to be, fearfully and wonderfully made in the image of God.
As Jesus said, “The truth will make you free.”
Of course, sometimes living out that kind of grace in our lives can be challenging and risky, even scary, especially in our modern world.
During World War II, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German pastor and Lutheran theologian, who grew up in Berlin, where his father worked as a prominent professor. His mother was one of the few gutsy women of her generation to obtain a university degree.
Eventually, seeing what was happening around him, Pastor Bonhoeffer gathered up the courage to speak up against Hitler and his administration. Because of his daring witness, Bonhoeffer was executed by the Nazis in April 1943.
Before his death, Bonhoeffer wrote and preached extensively about the cost of following Jesus. He challenged Christians to consider what it means to truly live out grace in our lives. Bonhoeffer made a distinction between cheap grace and costly grace.
For him, cheap grace was the blind following of Christian doctrine, or Church hierarchy, or a dysfunctional government, without any questions.
In contrast, Bonhoeffer described “costly grace” as:
“The treasure hidden in the field; for the sake of it, someone will gladly… sell all [they have]. Such grace is costly… because it costs [your] life, and it is grace because it gives [you] the only true life.”
As Jesus said, “The truth will make you free.”
500 years ago, Martin Luther, the founder of our Lutheran tradition, demonstrated what costly grace really means. During the Reformation, Luther preached that Christians are saved only by the grace of God, and not the institutional church, which he claimed was corrupt and misleading.
In response to Luther’s 95 Theses and other writings, the Catholic Pope Leo X charged him with heresy. The pope called Luther to defend himself at the Imperial Diet of Worms, an assembly of political leaders of the Holy Roman Empire. Kind of like an impeachment hearing for Luther.
In April 1521, Luther testified and refused to recant his teachings. At the end of his speech, Luther spoke the famous words, “Here I stand; I can do no other. God help me.”
The trial ended with Luther’s excommunication. The emperor also declared Luther an outlaw—making it a crime for anyone to give Luther food or shelter, and actually encouraging people to kill Luther without any legal consequence.
Threatening words that weirdly echo our modern political discourse.
Not many of us Lutherans today face the kind of threats Luther faced. But I believe God still calls us to live our faith with the risk of losing what is precious to us.
The risk of losing our social status because we stand up for the oppressed.
The risk of losing friends or family because we dare speak out for immigrants or children in detention camps. The risk of losing a job or career, because we dare to come out of the closet.
That’s what is meant by costly grace. That’s the kind of freedom Luther discovered by carefully listening to the Gospel of Jesus.
And that’s the kind of freedom we Lutherans can share with one another. The kind of freedom where God calls us to be fully and freely human, despite and even with all our character flaws and past mistakes.
As Jesus said, “The truth will make you free.”
That kind of truth makes it possible for God’s grace to become real here among us. Including those of us who are gay or lesbian or bisexual or transgender. Including those who are often forgotten—the homeless and those struggling with mental illness or chemical dependency. Including those of us in broken relationships or dealing with grief. Including those of us condemned by other Christians.
Here at St. Mark’s Lutheran, I believe we are a community that steadfastly lives out the true meaning of costly grace.
Something that Martin Luther started so long ago. Something that, by doing what we do here, we stay faithful to the word Luther preached.
Something that, as we follow the call of Jesus—both as a community and as individuals—will bring us true freedom.
As Jesus said, “The truth will make you free.” Amen.
1 "Devotional Classics," edited by Richard J. Foster & James B. Smith; "The Cost of Discipleship" by Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
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GOSPEL LESSON: John 8:31-36
Then Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, "If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free." They answered him, "We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone. What do you mean by saying, ‘You will be made free’?” Jesus answered them, “Very truly, I tell you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. The slave does not have a permanent place in the household; the son has a place there forever. So, if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.”
A little over two years ago, there was an article in the Fargo Forum about Allyne Holz, a retired Lutheran pastor from Moorhead, who boldly stood up for what she believed.
I like to think about Pastor Allyne as a pesky prophet.
Even though Pastor Allyne doesn’t fit the profile of most Biblical prophets. She doesn’t utter defiant words to kings. She doesn’t shout in people’s faces. She doesn’t foretell doom and destruction.
But she is persistent. Back in June 2018, Allyne waited in line for four hours under the hot sun to see President Trump here in Fargo. Once inside Scheels Arena, after President Trump had started speaking, this old woman stood up in the aisle. Then she silently turned her back to the president.
But the crowd didn’t like that. Everyone pointed and yelled. A security guard quickly escorted her out.
Back then, Allyne had decided to go against her normally quiet nature. She was having lunch with a friend when their conversation turned to Nazi Germany. They both wondered how a country could go down a path like that, yet have no one speak up.
But Pastor Allyne did not want to be someone who did nothing. She wanted her faith to make a difference. So, that’s what she did. Her silent protest spoke loudly.
Well, guess what? This week, that same pesky prophet was back. This time at the Target Center in Minneapolis. Once again, she stood for hours waiting to enter. This time in the cold rain.
Inside the stadium, Allyne melted into the crowd. After all, who notices an old white woman? Once again, as the president was speaking, Allyne stood up and turned her back to him. This time, however, she was a little more dramatic. This time, she blew a whistle. Sometimes a pesky prophet can be loud.
Once again, a security guard escorted her out through the angry crowd up the stairs. Again, people yelled and pointed.
But at this event, Allyne didn’t feel as safe as before. She asked for a security guard to walk in front of her and a police officer behind. It was all broadcast on the big screen and TV.
Later, the police took her photo. Allyne wondered if her hair looked OK. Then that pesky prophet was taken outside and transported in a golf cart to a city street. So ended Pastor Allyne’s prophetic act.
Which reminds me of another pesky prophet: Elijah. According to the Book of Kings in the Hebrew Bible, Elijah lived in the 9th century BC (over 3,000 years ago!) in the northern kingdom of Israel. Elijah defended the worship of the Jewish God over that of the Canaanite deity Baal.
Some people didn’t like that pesky prophet either. The Israelite King Ahab called him a troublemaker. Ahab’s wife, Queen Jezebel, threatened to kill him. So, Elijah fled to the desert as a refugee.
Poor Elijah was deeply discouraged by that threat. He saw himself as the last of the pesky prophets of Israel. But then God told him to anoint Elisha as his successor. And Elisha served as prophet for 60 years.
Today’s first lesson tells us a story about Elisha. About a leper named Naaman, who was the commander of the army of Aram, a country that shared borders with Israel.
The two kingdoms had previously fought many battles against one another. So, for Israelites, Naaman would have been seen as a foreigner and enemy. In fact, Naaman had a Jewish slave girl, who was taken as a war prisoner from Israel.
Naaman suffered from leprosy, which had no cure. The slave girl told him that Elisha the Jewish prophet could heal him. So, eventually he sends for Elisha.
But that pesky prophet Elisha doesn’t make it easy for Naaman. He tells the mighty leader to go wash himself seven times in the Jordan River.
But Naaman’s bigotry, his anti-Semitism, becomes a barrier. Why (he asks himself) should he wash in their dirty river, when there are plenty of clean rivers in his own great country?
Again, the nameless Jewish girl intervenes. Quietly she convinces him to give it a try. So, Naaman lets go of his angry arrogance, and follows the directions of the pesky prophet.
And Naaman is healed of his leprosy. Naaman the foreigner, the enemy, is healed by a God he does not know. Saved by the words of a poor slave girl.
And Naaman is healed not just in his body. But also his soul. He’s healed of his bigotry, when Naaman comes face to face with a gracious God.
A story that ties in with our Gospel lesson. The grateful leper in this story from Luke is another foreigner healed by another pesky prophet, Jesus.
In the time of Jesus, lepers weren’t allowed to live with their families. They couldn’t worship with their faith community. They were completely excluded from society.
So, it’s not surprising that these ten lepers come to Jesus for help. But when the Samaritan returns, Jesus wonders how it’s possible that only the foreigner comes back to say ‘thanks.’
The Greek word used here for foreigner is allogenes (αλλογενης.) It literally means “other race.” It’s the only place in the New Testament where this word appears. I believe the writer of Luke uses it here to make a point.
Over and over again, Luke presents stories of people that tell us that God’s grace is for everyone. The prophetic theme of the message of Jesus.
That God loves each of us, just as we are. No matter your race or ethnicity. No matter your country of origin. No matter your gender identity or sexual orientation.
For some of us, it can be difficult to take those words to heart. Especially if you are someone struggling with coming out.
This past Friday was National Coming Out Day. I spoke at chapel at Concordia College on Wednesday night about the coming out process and my own coming out story.
And on Thursday morning, I went back to hear a transgender student named Drew from Luther Seminary—the seminary I attended when I was young. When I was there, there were no trans students and no one who was trans was allowed to speak to us.
I was surprised to hear Drew share that when he told his friends about coming to Moorhead to preach, they warned him to be careful. They were worried that it might not be safe for him as a trans individual to come here. The kind of risk trans people face every day.
The same kind of risk, whether actual or perceived, that the pesky prophets of our Church also face—when they preach that Christianity is a faith which welcomes the stranger among us.
A faith revealed in Jesus, who—when he heals a leper, a foreigner—demonstrates in an undeniable act that God’s grace is for everyone.
A grace that can change our inner selves, so that each of us, in this world today, can become God’s pesky prophet. With our own story to share to tell.
A story that needs to be told today more than ever.
The story of God’s unconditional love. The story of God’s commitment to the marginalized among us.
The story of a God who welcomes and embraces the foreigner and migrant. The story of Jesus bringing healing and wholeness to the lepers among us.
The story of grace that sets us free to be ourselves—as beloved children, fearfully and wonderfully made in the image of God. Amen.
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Gospel Lesson: Luke 17:11-19
On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee. As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him. Keeping their distance, they called out, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” When he saw them, he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were made clean. Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan. Then Jesus asked, “Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” Then he said to him, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.”
Luke 17:5-6: The apostles said to [Jesus], “Increase our faith!” The Lord replied, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.”
A long time ago, when my husband Charlie and I owned our first home, I decided that I wanted a birch tree in our yard. I’ve always loved birch trees, with their white bark and bright yellow leaves in the fall.
So, Charlie and I went to a garden store and picked out a lovely birch clump about seven feet tall. The clerk asked if we wanted it delivered. But we said “no.” Back then, we were young and strong, so we decided to move it by ourselves. The first clue that it might be harder than we thought was when one of the employees used a backhoe to lift the tree into my pickup.
When we got home, we managed to transfer the tree to a wheelbarrow. Then together we started pushing it around the house. But the root ball was so big that, halfway there, it fell off the wheelbarrow. And there was no way to lift it back. Because it was so heavy, the two of us had to roll the tree very slowly across the grass to the spot I had picked out in the yard. It didn’t help that we both started laughing hysterically and couldn’t stop.
Eventually, with a lot of pulling and shoving we finally planted the birch tree. Where we thought it would stay forever.
But a few years later after we had moved, a storm with straight-line winds went over our old house, destroyed the garage, and pulled the birch tree out of the ground. It was even on the evening news—with the local TV weatherman standing in the front yard. I was reminded of that story when I read today’s Gospel lesson, where Jesus says, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.”
The metaphor Jesus uses is kind of bizarre. Mulberry trees can grow very tall with deep roots, so you can’t just pull one out of the ground. Plus, I’m a gardener and I know that uprooting a large tree would likely destroy it.
Sometimes life can be like that. When faced with an unexpected crisis or major loss, it can be hard to have faith that somehow you will make it through. To not feel like your heart and soul are being uprooted. Wondering if you will survive.
Faced with the death of a loved one or serious illness, a sudden career change or crippling depression, it’s normal to have doubts. To wonder if God is with you. To feel alone. To be overwhelmed with fear and anxiety. To feel like you are that mulberry tree, pulled up and thrown into the sea. Many of us grew up thinking that faith means the absence of doubt. And that faithful people should never feel afraid. But fear is a normal part of life, especially for those willing to take risks and try something new. A new relationship. A new job. A new place to live.
Jesus knew what it was like to be afraid. Just after the passage we read today, Luke tells us that Jesus turns his path towards Jerusalem. He begins his journey to the cross, to his death. He must have felt fearful about that.
When the disciples asked Jesus how to increase their faith, Jesus knew their future would bring experiences they could never dream of. Together they would face his crucifixion and resurrection—events would change their lives forever.
Yet, for many of us, when Jesus says to the disciples, “If you had the faith the size of a mustard seed,” it’s easy to read those words as a criticism. As if Jesus is saying, “It’s too bad your faith is so small. If you really believed, your faith could do miracles.” Almost like magic.
But what if Jesus is actually saying the opposite. What if we read this as an encouraging remark? Or as we Lutherans like to say, to hear it as Gospel instead of Law. What if faith isn’t really about believing the right things? What if faith means belonging to God? What if faith is most present when we see how we belong to one another?
In his book Future Faith, Wesley Granberg-Michaelson (who spoke at our synod's clergy retreat last month) talks about the struggle we Christians face today in terms of keeping our faith alive and relevant.
He tells the story of a young woman named Alyssa, who grew up in a typical Midwestern Lutheran congregation.
Her memories were compelling. For her, as a teenager, church services seemed boring. Alyssa also vividly remembers feeling like her questions were not welcome. When Alyssa raised issues about things she didn’t understand, the pastor and others told her that she should have faith and “just believe.” So, Alyssa stopped going to church.
Later in life, after a number of personal crises, Alyssa decided to give her faith one more chance. She found a Lutheran church in Santa Fee, NM. A congregation that welcomed her questions. That didn’t expect her to have everything figured out. That invited her to be part of a community where people walked side by side in their journey of faith. For Alyssa, that’s where she finally felt connected. That’s where she found a sense of belonging she had not experienced before. That’s where she felt accepted for who she was, with all her questions and doubts.
I like to think St. Mark’s is that kind of community. That for us, faith is more about belonging than believing. A distinction that is significant. Some theologians compare it to two ways of keeping a herd of cattle together within a field. One way is to build a fence to keep them in. Where, like for some Christians, everything and everyone is contained within set boundaries, rules and doctrines. The second option is to dig a well in the middle of a field. Any rancher knows that cattle are always drawn back to water. Even without fences to keep them there. Like us Christians, who are drawn back to the waters of baptism, the center of our belonging.
For on the day you were baptized, the pastor sprinkled a few drops of water on your head—not enough water to even satisfy a small seed—but enough to plant God’s grace in your tiny heart and life.
Those drops of waters came with a spoken promise: “Child of God, you have been sealed with the Holy Spirit, and marked with the cross of Christ forever.” Magical-sounding words that welcomed you to the family of God. Of course, it’s not really magic. But it is God’s grace. Grace that brings us together. Grace that makes our faith grow. Grace that gives us a place to truly belong. Grace that welcome us as people redeemed and righteous in God’s eyes.
The sacraments we receive are reminders that faith is not something we do on our own. God uses the simple elements of water, and wine and bread to create faith within us and among us in community. To show us that we are not alone. That we are surrounded and protected by a great cloud of witnesses—faith-filled people who pull up mulberry trees of fear and plant mustard seeds of belief and courage. That we are joined together in our life journey, in following our faithful God.
That is our witness here at St. Mark’s. And that is the faith we carry with us this week into our lives out in the world. Even when we feel doubt. Even when we feel afraid. Our God leads us forward together. Amen.
Let us pray:
Thy holy wings, O Savior,
spread gently over me,
and let me rest securely
through good and ill in thee.
Oh, be my strength and portion,
my rock and hiding place,
and let my every moment
be lived within thy grace. Amen.
When I was a little boy, my family often visited my Uncle Walter and Aunt Lydia. Uncle Walter was a farmer, who always wore bib overalls that smelled of hay and cows and sweat. Uncle Walter was a simple man, but he knew how to be a great uncle. Even though—and maybe because—he and his wife had no children. I used to enjoy sitting on Uncle Walter’s lap at his kitchen table. Together we would chat, or play cards, or tell knock-knock jokes.
Uncle Walter smoked a pipe, which he kept in a pocket of his overalls. Together, we had a pipe-lighting ritual that I loved. First, he’d take out his pipe and fill it with tobacco. Next, he would pull out a matchbook and hand it to me. My job was to tear off a match, strike it, and carefully light the pipe. Finally, I blew out the flame and put the burnt match into an ashtray—just like Uncle Walter taught me. Sitting on Uncle Walter’s lap made me feel happy and safe and loved.
I believe that’s how the poor man Lazarus must have felt in today’s parable, when he died suddenly, and went to the bosom of Abraham. Our text says that Lazarus was at Abraham’s side, but most translations use the word “bosom.” In Greek, the word for “bosom” was sometimes used for a person’s lap—like a child sitting in her mother’s lap. Like I did with my Uncle Walter.
At the time of Jesus, the “bosom of Abraham” was a Jewish term for the place where people go when they die. A place of comfort and grace. Dwelling with Abraham and Sarah, the founders of their faith, along with all the angels in the perpetual light of God. Some Christians use this parable to make a distinction between heaven and hell. Where heaven is the place righteous believers go. And hell is where evil sinners are punished. But I would prefer to focus on the hope in this story. About a loving God, who welcomes a suffering homeless leper into the realm of peace and healing—a complete reversal for Lazarus.
But this parable is not a Christian morality lesson. For we don’t hear anything about what Lazarus believed or did during his life. We don’t even know if Lazarus was a nice guy. He could easily have been an angry, homeless man. During my previous career in social work, I met a lot of ornery clients, even a few jerks.
Yet, this story is not really about Lazarus. It’s a story about God’s amazing grace. About a God who accepts Lazarus just as he is, offering comfort to the poor of this world. About a God who shelters the weakest among us, even in the face of death and tragedy. About a God who welcomes each of you. No matter what you done or have not done. Despite what we do or don’t believe. Even when I feel doubt or sadness or despair. Even on those days when we are overwhelmed by the challenges of daily life, or the grief of losing a loved one in death.
This week, I have been thinking a lot about life and death. Much of it in response to the sudden passing of our church member and friend, John. Often, it can be hard to know what to say when someone dies. Some Christians are quick to offer consolation, with simplistic words of comfort, like: “They are in a better place,” or “You will see them again in heaven,” or “God has a new angel.” Many of us have heard words like that before. But platitudes don’t really help the grieving. Some people say things like that because we think that’s what people want to hear.
One thing I’ve learned as a pastor, and during my life dealing with death, is that the specific words we say to those experiencing grief and loss aren’t really that important (not including, of course, insensitive comments.)
If you think about it, most of us don’t remember exactly what friends and loved ones said to offer their support after a death or job loss or tragedy.
What we do remember is who came to be with us. Who was present with you or me during that time. Which is really the best thing any of us can do. To be authentically present in moments of pain. To not walk past the gate of a suffering man like Lazarus, but to reach out a hand of compassion. To sit down with them in the dirt of their pain and loneliness and hopelessness, and hold them in our bosom. To make love real for them.
The Jewish theologian Harold Kushner once wrote the following: “The facts of life and death are neutral. We, by our responses, give suffering either a positive or negative meaning…. If suffering and death in someone close to us bring us to explore the limits of our capacity for strength and love and cheerfulness, if it leads us to consider sources of consolation we never knew before, then we make the person into a witness for the affirmation of life rather than its rejection.”
This past Tuesday morning, I received a phone call from one of the staff at Churches United for the Homeless. A resident named Robert had died the night before at their Bright Sky apartment building in Moorhead. She asked if I could come and talk with those who were having a hard time dealing with his death. So that afternoon, I went to Bright Sky. I sat down with a man (whom I will call Jeff). Jeff was upset by what had happened.
Jeff had met Robert in treatment a couple years before. Both of them had been homeless. Both had lived on the streets here, through many cold winter nights. Both had struggled for years with chemical dependency. Both had recently moved into Bright Sky. Jeff told me that Robert was his friend. Last Sunday, Robert had invited him and others to an afternoon party to watch a football game in his apartment, his new home. Something most homeless people could never do for their friends.
So, Jeff was shocked to hear about Robert’s death two days later. Early in our conversation, Jeff asked me: “Do you know what happened, why he died?” “The staff told me,” I offered, “that he had some kind of seizure, maybe a stroke.”
“I wish I could have done something to help him.” Jeff replied. “I think we all feel that way,” I said, when a friend or loved one dies so suddenly.”
Jeff and I chatted for about an hour. He seemed grateful for our conversation. Jeff gave me a hand bump and hug before he left.
I believe the true comfort we people of faith can offer at moments like that is to sit with people in their grief. To offer not simplistic answers, but the promise of our presence, and God’s protective bosom and abiding love among us during difficult times.To pray with them the prayer I read earlier, for God to protect us like a mothering hen in the shelter of her bosom, beneath her strong, holy wings. That prayer is the opening verse of our hymn of the day. I’d like to close by praying it again:
“Thy holy wings, O Savior,
spread gently over me,
and let me rest securely
through good and ill in thee.
Oh, be my strength and portion,
my rock and hiding place,
and let my every moment
be lived within thy grace.” Amen.
1 Kushner, Harold S; When Bad Things Happen to Good People (Avon Books, New York, NY), p. 138.
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GOSPEL LESSON: Luke 16:19-31
Jesus said: “There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. He called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.’
“But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.’ He said, ‘Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house—for I have five brothers—that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.’ Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.’ He said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’”
When I was about 10 years old, the president of our hometown bank knocked on our door and asked to talk with my dad.
Up until that day, my parents, who were quite poor, had rented the home where we lived. Mr. Johnson told my dad that the previous owner had defaulted on his loan, and our house had reverted to Dassel State Bank. But the bank didn’t want it. So, Mr. Johnson had come to offer my dad a great deal. The bank was willing to sell the house to him for just $1. An incredible charitable act. Something a bank today would never do. My dad signed the paperwork that evening.
A couple years later, there was another knock on the door. This time it was a salesman. With a special offer on aluminum siding for our house. Siding that needed no painting. That would last forever. That would add enormous value to the home. Plus, if my dad signed up today, the salesman could offer a loan with no money down. The salesman was loud and persuasive and pushy. I didn’t like him. Of course, I was just a kid. So, I didn’t say anything. Yet, I was smart enough to know that my family didn’t have the money for a loan payment. But the salesman was very convincing. So, my dad signed the contract for brand-new, olive-green siding. Another great deal!
Today’s Gospel lesson is all about money and loans. It ends with a famous quote by Jesus. “No one can serve two masters,” Jesus says. “You cannot serve God and wealth.” Most translations of the Bible use the word “mammon” instead of “wealth.” Mammon derives from Aramaic—the language spoken by Jewish people at the time of Jesus. Mammon referred to money, wealth or possessions.
Most pastors preaching on this Gospel text focus on this last verse, completely avoiding the parable. A unique opportunity to talk about how we Christians deal with money and possessions. It would be easy for me to preach a stewardship sermon today. Our church council has had recent discussions about the financial needs of St. Mark’s. But you might be happy to hear, that I’m more interested in the story Jesus tells in this passage. Which is one of the most difficult of all of the 46 parables recorded in the Gospels.
In college, I wrote my senior thesis on the parables. With a focus on the surprising and sometimes funny twists that happen in some of them. Parables like the lost sheep and the lost coin and the prodigal son are well-known favorites. And easy to understand. But not this one. This parable about the dishonest manager is much more challenging. Though, it seems like stories of trusted employees embezzling funds regularly pop up in the news.
About six years ago, that’s exactly what happened at the Minneapolis Area Synod of the ELCA. While overseeing the Synods’ finances, their bookkeeper wrote $318,000 worth of checks to herself. Eventually, she confessed to five felony counts of theft by swindle. Which sounds a lot like the story Jesus tells. Except this manager doesn’t just direct money to himself. He also reduces the debt owed by others. The parable talks about jugs of olive oil and containers of wheat, but the amount written off in both cases might have been worth 500 denarii. About $30,000 today. A great deal for anyone!
Back then, interest rates could be 25 or 50%, which sounds extreme. But modern check-cashing businesses (that mostly serve the poor) have very high fees. And those of us with home mortgages, don’t think much about that fact that with a 30-year mortgage, you end up paying nearly 20% of the total in interest—about $70,000 for a typical home. In various places, the Hebrew Bible prohibits a Jewish person from lending money or engaging in any financial transaction that involves charging interest to another Jewish individual or family. In the time of Jesus, you could get around that rule by hiring someone who was not Jewish to manage the loan and charge the interest. Maybe that was the role of the servant in today’s parable. If so, he was writing off his own profits to benefit another person.
Like this parable, throughout the Gospel of Luke, Jesus and others invoke the concept of debt forgiveness, both in terms of money and as a symbol of God’s grace. In the first chapter of Luke, Mary (the mother of Jesus) echoes today’s Psalm 113, when she sings for joy about economic restitution—of the mighty being cast down from their thrones, and the poor being raised up. Later in Luke, after speaking with Jesus, Zacchaeus the tax collector promises to restore four-fold those he had defrauded. In response, Jesus tells Zacchaeus, “Today salvation has come to this house” (Luke 19:8). In the Jewish community, it’s always been considered a “mitzvah”—the Hebrew word for a righteous, good deed—to offer an interest-free loan to someone in need.
We Christians like to separate spirituality from economics. But if you read the teachings of Jesus carefully, that’s not how he saw it. The Gospel was good news for the poor not just for eternal salvation, but for the promise of charity and undeserved love received from God and other believers in this world, here and now.
On Friday morning I woke up with a quote in my head that fits surprisingly well with this reflection. By the way, that’s not a common thing for me. Otherwise, I’d write my sermons in my dreams. Though, my husband Charlie tells me that sometimes I actually preach—out loud—in my sleep. He finds it very annoying. Anyway, here’s the quote: “It's not based on what we owe or own—It's the epiphany of being owned by God alone.”
That, friends, is the meaning of today’s Gospel.
That because we are beloved children, owned by and blessed by God in so many extravagant ways—from the day of our birth until now, and in the promise of future years, so Jesus calls us to do the same for others who are less fortunate. Those who are poor. Those who are oppressed by this world’s structures. Those who just need an unexpected act of kindness. A chance for redemption. A surprising word of grace.
Which truly is a great deal. Amen.
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GOSPEL LESSON: Luke 16:1-13
Then Jesus said to the disciples, “There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property. So, he summoned him and said to him, ‘What is this that I hear about you? Give me an accounting of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer.’ Then the manager said to himself, ‘What will I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.’ So, summoning his master's debtors one by one, he asked the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ He answered, ‘A hundred jugs of olive oil.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.’ Then he asked another, ‘And how much do you owe?’ He replied, ‘A hundred containers of wheat.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill and make it eighty.’ And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.
And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes. Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much. If then, you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own? No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.”
Jesus said, “There is joy in the presence of the angels over one sinner who repents.” When I read this verse, I’m reminded of a time in my life when I was trying to repent.
Years ago, during my first year in seminary, a friend invited me to attend a service at North Heights Lutheran Church, a Twin Cities congregation known for its charismatic ministry. Charismatics are similar to Pentecostal Christians. They believe in manifestations of the Spirit, like speaking in tongues, prophecy and miracles. Today one out four Christians worldwide are Charismatic or Pentecostal. Towards the end of that service, the pastor invited people to come up to the altar rail for prayer. And I went forward because at that time I was filled with depression and self-doubt related to my sexual orientation. I was hoping God would change me.
So, I shared all that with the lay minister who was praying for me. After hearing my disclosure, he leaned over and whispered in my ear that he had faced similar struggles. Then he laid his hands on my head and prayed that the Holy Spirit would heal me of the devil’s power and lead me to a new path of life. He gave thanks that God rejoiced over my repentance.
Now, obviously, that prayer didn’t work. Because here I am today, an openly gay pastor. Yet, reflecting back, I wonder if God eventually found a way to answer that prayer. Just not the way originally intended. That same kind of prayer is still spoken by “ex-gay” ministers to LGBTQ Christians. However, today many of us see the spiritual and emotional harm caused by conversion therapy (which is still legal in 32 states, including North Dakota)—especially to our queer youth—affecting thousands of them each year.
The word “repent” is a loaded term for many of us. Repentance has been interpreted to mean that you must feel extreme remorse or regret. For centuries, this meaning governed Christian theology. Christians were taught that they had repent from their sins and do penance to be saved. Some us grew up feeling exaggerated guilt or shame because our pastors or priests told us we were condemned, because of what we had done or who we were. Because of personal failures and divorces. Because of struggles with chemical dependency.
But I don’t believe that’s what God intends for us. I believe there’s a better way to think about repentance.
The Greek word for repent is “metanoia,” which comes from two Greek words. “Meta” means to change, and “noia” means “mind.” So, metanoia means “to change your mind.” It’s similar to our word “metamorphosis,” which means to change one’s form. Like a caterpillar changing into a butterfly. Or a transgender person becoming in their bodies what they feel in their hearts and souls.
Unlike the word repentance, metanoia is not restricted to a narrow interpretation. It’s a change of mind in how we view God’s love and one another and ourselves. Today, I believe that kind change of mind is a central to understanding and living out the Gospel. Normally, repentance is something we humans do. But it can also apply to God. Just look at our first lesson from Exodus. This passage is part of the story of the golden calf.
After being freed from slavery in Egypt, the people of Israel arrive at Mt. Sinai. Their leader Moses goes up the mountain and stays there for 40 days, talking with God, and receiving the Ten Commandments and other guidelines for their community.
When Moses comes down, he discovers the people have created a statue of a golden calf to worship. Which makes God angry. So angry, that God is ready to punish them. But Moses intervenes. Moses argues with God. And, as the story goes, Moses changes God’s mind. Now that’s a pretty amazing conversation! Most Christians think of God as all-powerful and almighty and all-knowing. We assume God has it all figured out.
But what if that just isn’t true? What if God, like us, doesn’t know how a specific individual’s story will turn out? What if God can’t look into a cosmic crystal ball that foretells each person’s choices and mistakes and faith journey? What if life is as much a surprise to God as it often is to us? What if God is willing even to appear foolish for the sake of love?
When I was in seminary, I first studied the writings of Alfred North Whitehead, who’s known for developing “process theology,” based on the concept that God changes and is responsive to what happens to us as humans.
As Whitehead puts it: “[God] saves the world as it passes into the immediacy of [God’s] own life. It is the judgment of a tenderness which loses nothing that can be saved.”
That’s the kind of God that Jesus depicts in parables like those in today’s Gospel reading from Luke. Where God is like an impulsive shepherd who leaves behind a flock of 99 sheep to look for that single missing lamb.
Where God is like a poor woman who has nine coins, but still desperately searches for the one that’s lost. And when she finds it, celebrates by spending the money on an extravagant party with her friends.
A foolhardy, impetuous God. Guided not by condemnation, but by forgiveness and kindness and undeserved grace. A God who became one with us in Jesus, who was criticized for dining with sinners and outcasts.
A God who even changes her mind for our sake. A persistent God who still calls us to change our minds—and sometimes see others with new eyes.
A God who is filled with joy when we choose love over hate, acceptance over racism, peace over violence, mercy over judgment.
That’s the kind of metanoia that marks true repentance. And that’s the path Jesus calls us to follow every day of our lives. Amen.
1 Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality (New York: The Free Press, 1978), p. 346.
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GOSPEL LESSON: Luke 15:1-10
Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to [Jesus.] And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” So, he told them this parable: “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance. “Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”
FIRST LESSON: Exodus 32:7-14
The LORD said to Moses, “Go down at once! Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely; they have been quick to turn aside from the way that I commanded them; they have cast for themselves an image of a calf, and have worshiped it and sacrificed to it, and said, ‘These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!’ ” The LORD said to Moses, “I have seen this people, how stiff-necked they are. Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them; and of you I will make a great nation.” But Moses implored the LORD his God, and said, “O Lord, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? Why should the Egyptians say, ‘It was with evil intent that he brought them out to kill them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth’? Turn from your fierce wrath; change your mind and do not bring disaster on your people. Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, how you swore to them by your own self, saying to them, ‘I will multiply your descendants like the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your descendants, and they shall inherit it forever.’ ” And the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.
"Tree of Life," based on Genesis 2:4b-9, Revelation 22:1-5, and Luke 13:6-9 (readings follow the sermon)
During the summer of my senior year at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, I worked on the grounds crew. One hot summer day that June, a tornado passed right over our campus.The next day, I had to help with cleaning up a number of downed trees. Two students and I were working on one large trunk that was a couple feet thick. After cutting it up, we faced the task of carrying it to a dump truck. Now you would think that three seminary students could figure out how to safely move a tree trunk a few hundred feet. But sometimes graduate-school education doesn’t equal common sense.
Anyway, the three of us decided that it would be a lot easier to just roll the log down the hill. So that’s what we did. But, of course, the log got away from us. Kind of like a scene from an old Laurel and Hardy movie…. It took off quickly, gaining speed, heading right towards a parked car. And all we could do was stand there wide-eyed and watch it happen. I guess you could say it was proof that God really does answer prayers—or maybe just plain old dumb luck—but, about ten feet before reaching the car, the log hit a bump, suddenly veered to the right, and stopped—preventing what could been a very embarrassing accident. Instead, it was an unexpected happy ending. So, that’s my seminary tree story. There are a lot of stories about trees in Scripture. Many with happy endings, others not so much.
Our first reading from Genesis is the introduction to the story of the Garden of Eden, which has two famous trees: the Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge—the latter most of us Christians and Jews remember as the tree with forbidden fruit. Fruit that Eve and Adam ate, which led to their expulsion from the garden. (Not a happy ending.) In another story, the prophet Elijah seeks refuge under a broom tree when Queen Jezebel tries to kill him. But God saves Elijah. A life-saving ending.
Again, in our second reading from Revelation, there’s a tree in the passage from the very last chapter of our Christian Bible. The tree of life grows along a river that flows grows by the throne of God, the ultimate home for the faithful. Quite literally, a happy ending. And in our reading from the Gospel of Luke, Jesus tells his story about the fig tree. You don't have to be a genius to understand what this parable is about. The vineyard owner is fed up. It’s been three years, and tree hasn’t produced any fruit. So, why not just cut it down? Give up? However, the grace-filled gardener wants to give it just one more chance. Just a little more cultivation. Just a bit more manure. Just one more year of growing and developing.
But the fig tree story doesn’t have an ending. Jesus finishes his parable with a question mark. We don’t hear what happens. Some of you know I’m a gardener. So, I get this tree story. For we gardeners can be terribly stubborn optimists who believe that growth can happen, no matter what. Even when we don’t know if the seed will actually sprout. Even when planting bushes in our hard, clay soil. Even when facing long brutal North Dakota winters. Even when seeing a dying tree, we still dare to hope for a happy ending.
The late comedian Gracie Allen, the wife of George Burns, once famously stated, “Never put a period where God has put a comma.” And so, it is for all of us. God, the holy Gardener, offers each of us opportunities for new growth. The grace of unexpected endings. The grace of just one more chance. One more time. To begin to view our fellow humans—despite the evil around us—not from the perspective of despair and hopelessness, but faith and possibility—one more time. To choose to treat others not with hatred and judgment, but with compassion—one more time. To see the world not with pessimism, but through the eyes of the One who created it and us—one more time.
Nadia Bolz-Weber, a Lutheran pastor and theologian, commented on this when she wrote, “What if faith is about recognizing that when something is not expected… and 100% surprising—perhaps it’s the work of God. Because honestly, we can manage the expected… all on our own. When it’s weird and seemingly impossible and somewhat out of nowhere—now that feels like a God thing.” I believe St. Mark’s is an example of that. Six years ago, our congregation could have let the story of St. Mark’s end with the sale of our old building. We could have decided to fold and allow others to carry God’s light into our dark world. But this community heard a different voice calling. A voice that uttered strange things. A voice told us that the tree of St. Mark’s is not dead. A voice that spoke a reviving word to us, about God doing something totally unexpected. And St. Mark’s heard God’s voice. And we said, “Here I am, Lord, send me. Send us.”
And now, look where we are today! Thanks to members of Temple Beth El, we have a new home. And instead of a period, God put a comma at the end of our story. A comma that speaks grace for this community. Grace for people here. Grace for someone like me—a gay man who never thought I could be a pastor in a congregation like this. Grace for Temple Beth El, to see life reborn and an exciting partnership unfolding in this place. Grace planted like a seed in our hearts, which will grow into a tree of life. Here. Among us. God’s story for us today—a happy story that has not ended. Amen.
1 Nadia Bolz-Weber, “Sermon on Empty Tombs and the Suddenness of Dawn”, April 9, 2014; http://www.patheos.com/…/sermon-on-empty-tombs-and-the-sud…/
FIRST READING: Genesis 2:4b-9
This is the account of the heavens and the earth when they were created, when the LORD God made the earth and the heavens. Now no shrub had yet appeared on the earth and no plant had yet sprung up, for the LORD God had not sent rain on the earth and there was no one to work the ground, but streams came up from the earth and watered the whole surface of the ground. Then the LORD God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being. Now the LORD God had planted a garden in the east, in Eden; and there he put the man he had formed. The LORD God made all kinds of trees grow out of the ground—trees that were pleasing to the eye and good for food. In the middle of the garden were the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
GOSPEL LESSON: Luke 13:6-9
Then [Jesus] told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So, he said to the gardener, ‘See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?’ [The gardener] replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’”
When I was young, my family ate our meals around an old wooden table. We lived in a small house, so there was no dining room. The table was in the kitchen. It wasn’t a fancy table. In fact, it had a lot of scratches and dings. One of the legs had been chewed up by a puppy years before—you could still see the tooth marks That table held a lot of memories. On special occasions—like birthday parties or Thanksgiving or Christmas, my mom would have us pull apart both ends of the table to insert an extra leaf in the middle. Which turned it into a table with plenty of room for extra food and dishes and people. A table that seemed much bigger.
In today’s Gospel lesson Jesus talks about another way to make a bigger table. Jesus is having dinner at a Pharisee’s house. And Jesus tells his host that when he gives a banquet, not to just invite the typical guests like relatives or friends. Instead, Jesus suggests a radical party. He tells him to invite “the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind.” The disenfranchised of that time. People who can never repay the favor. This, Jesus says, is what the Kingdom of God looks like.
It’s like that old kitchen table that seems way too small for your own church family. But just insert some of God’s grace in the middle, and suddenly there’s more than enough room. Room for those people who have nowhere else to go. Room for food. For acceptance. For love. Jesus knew that. For that’s where much of the ministry of Jesus took place. Around the tables of friends and strangers, even enemies. We clergy people like to talk about Jesus with fancy words of theology—like salvation and incarnation and forgiveness. But Jesus was more relational than theological.
Those who lived and ate with Jesus didn’t gather around tables to hear scholarly lectures. They came to hear stories about God’s love. They came for healing of their bodies. They came for comfort for their souls. They came for relief from their oppressors. That was the kind of bread they longed for. That was the kind of hospitality they dreamt of.
The same is true for us today. For despite the hatred and evil we see all around us in our world, Jesus still teaches us about a Gospel of welcome. The Gospel of a bigger table. This morning’s second lesson from Hebrews begins with the words, “Let mutual love continue.” The word for “mutual love” in the original Greek is “philadelphia”—which most of us have heard means “brotherly love.” Or to use a more inclusive translation, “sibling love.” Which, of course, is metaphorical. It doesn’t just refer to family members who sit around a dinner table. But also to the kind of love that should be the core value of any church. The kind of love people today so desperately need.
A couple years ago, I attended a training in New Jersey for people like me working with new ministries in the ELCA. I was excited to meet LGBTQ pastors like myself, and others working to welcome those who have felt rejected by Christians. Following the words of Jesus, congregations like St. Mark’s are trying new approaches to reach those in need. Strategies and experiments that sometimes mean you might make mistakes along the way.
We heard a story about St. John’s Lutheran Church in Passaic, New Jersey. A few years ago, their church decided they wanted to do something to help the homeless in their neighborhood. So, they decided to offer a free meal after their Sunday service. The members spent lots of time making plans for this new ministry.
The church advertised. They recruited volunteers. And on the Sunday after Easter that year, they prepared the first meal. Then they waited and waited and waited. But no one came. Nobody! The planners couldn’t believe it. They just couldn’t figure out what they’d done wrong. So, the members turned to their pastor and asked her what they should do. Then one of the volunteers said, “Hey, there’s usually a line of men standing outside the Walmart store, looking for day work. Why don’t we take the food to them?” And that’s what they did. So, began their new ministry in a parking lot, serving hot meals to the hungry, along with songs and prayers.
Like St. John’s Lutheran, I believe Jesus is calling our congregation to find new ways to bring the Gospel to those who stand outside the doors of many churches. Here in our new space at Temple Beth El Synagogue, I envision God will reveal new opportunities for us and our ministry in the coming months and years.
Today, Jesus is inviting us to build a bigger table. Today God is calling us to create a community of welcome. A church that accepts each person who comes to us no matter what. And you and I are part of that welcome.
And perhaps you are someone who needs to feel that kind of welcome. And if you are struggling with a difficult period in your life, even if you feel lost or forsaken, please know that there are people in this community who can meet you wherever you are in your journey of faith, doubt, or uncertainty. Just know that you are not alone.
Even if religious leaders or other Christians have condemned and shamed you in the past, even if someone has told you that you don’t belong to their faith group, Jesus is here to greet you with open arms.
And we are here, too. We have set a special place for you at our banquet table. A table where Jesus gathers us all in together. A table where there’s plenty of room for everyone. Come, for all are welcome. Amen.
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GOSPEL LESSON: Luke 14:1, 7-14
On one occasion when Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the sabbath, they were watching him closely. When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, he told them a parable. “When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, ‘Give this person your place,’ and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher’; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
He said also to the one who had invited him, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”
When was a freshman in college, I thought I had the Christian faith all figured out. Even though I had grown up Lutheran, as a teenager I was influenced by conservative Christians. And by a theology that said all people are sinners, and the only way to be saved was to have a conversion experience.
So, in college I got involved with a group that encouraged me to share my faith. And to make sure that others were saved. Especially members of our family. My parents, however, were not very religious. My mom went to church once in a while. My dad hardly ever. Not even Christmas Eve or Easter. Just funerals and weddings. Usually the only time I heard Dad mention God was when he was swearing. And sometimes he swore like a sailor!
So, listening to the other Christians I knew at the time, I believed my parents were going to hell. And it was my responsibility to make sure that didn’t happen. Of course, back then we didn’t have things like computers or social media or cell phones. So, I decided to write a letter to my mom from college. Which I did, in old fashioned cursive script.
I wish I had that letter today. I don’t remember exactly what I said, but I know I told her that I was worried about her and dad because they had not accepted Jesus as their personal savior. So, in my letter, I asked them to “make a decision for Christ.”
Today, I feel completely embarrassed about that letter. But I wonder what my mom thought. Because I don’t know. She never said anything about it. Like a lot of Midwestern families, we didn’t talk about conflicts or difficult topics. Because if you ignored a disagreement, it might just go away. Right? And I assume my mother didn’t tell my father about the letter either. Yet, from my perspective at that time, I felt like I had done what God expected me to do. And by not responding, my parents made their decision—something I then believed forever separated me as their son from my mother and my father. Which sounds a lot like what Jesus says in today’s Gospel reading.
There are many Christians today who would agree that what I did is exactly what every believer should be doing to save their family members from the judgment fires of hell. Some of you probably have siblings or parents or relatives who have condemned you for not fitting into their belief system. Because of how you read the Bible. Or what kind of church you belong to. Or how you welcome LGBTQ individuals.
For you, like me, it might have taken a lot of reflection and conversations along your faith journey to come to a place like St. Mark’s, where we don’t focus on condemnation and judgment as our central message. Instead, we see the Gospel of Jesus as about grace—God’s acceptance of each one of us just as we are, as beloved children. Fearfully and wonderfully made in the image of God. Theologians use the term, “imago dei.” Which means our focus as believers should not be on who is outside our community, but whom we invite in—especially if they have been excluded or excommunicated by other church groups.
The Rabbi Jonathan Sacks once wrote: “The supreme religious challenge is to see God’s image in the one who is not our image.” My prayer for Christians today—especially for us Lutherans—is that we look past our traditions and Northern European ethnicity to see God’s face in people who look very different than us. People of color. Queer individuals. The homeless. Migrant families.
If we dare to look close enough, the Bible is full of surprising examples of exactly that. In today’s second lesson, we read of people in Hebrew Scripture who were faithful. Faithful individuals with sometimes strange stories.
Like Rahab the prostitute. According to the book of Joshua, after 40 years of wandering in Sinai, the Israelites arrive in Canaan. From the Jordan valley, Joshua their leader sends two spies to investigate the military strength of the city of Jericho. The spies stay in Rahab's house, which might have been a brothel. But when the king of Jericho learns about the spies, he demands that Rahab bring them out. Instead, she hides them under bundles of grain on the roof of her house. After escaping, the spies promise to save Rahab and her family.
In beginning of the Gospel of Matthew, Rahab is also listed in the genealogy of Jesus. An ancestor who led to the birth of God incarnate. A story that doesn’t fit most people’s stereotype of a sex worker. Yet, I believe God uses flawed humans like her, like us, to tell the story of God’s love for all people. People like you and me with imperfect lives, divided families, and wounded hearts. Brought together at this table to share bread, broken for us.
And the table that we now use for this meal is a remarkable symbol of healed divisions. This altar comes from the old Catholic convent where we worshiped before coming here. It sat unused in the basement at Prairie St. John’s for many years. Our members Jeff and Brad (who work there) found it and offered it to us, because we needed a new communion table for this space. Who could have dreamed that a Catholic altar could end up in a Jewish synagogue, to be used by a Lutheran congregation? Three religious groups often separated by years of hatred and misunderstandings, whose histories are now brought together in this table of grace.
No longer divided, but united as faithful siblings. Loving parents and beloved children.
Sharing the peace of God in Christ. Living out the shalom of the Jewish covenant. Surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses. Amen.
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SECOND READING: Hebrews 11:29-12:2
By faith the people passed through the Red Sea as if it were dry land, but when the Egyptians attempted to do so they were drowned. By faith the walls of Jericho fell after they had been encircled for seven days. By faith Rahab the prostitute did not perish with those who were disobedient, because she had received the spies in peace. And what more should I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets—who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. Women received their dead by resurrection. Others were tortured, refusing to accept release, in order to obtain a better resurrection. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned to death, they were sawn in two, they were killed by the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted, tormented—of whom the world was not worthy. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground. Yet all these, though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better so that they would not, apart from us, be made perfect.
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.
GOSPEL LESSON: Luke 12:46-53
Jesus said: "I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed! Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided: father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law."
In the summer of 1990, my husband Charlie and I went on a trip to Spain. Though, of course, back then we weren’t married. No gay couples were. We’d only been together about 10 months.
Earlier that year, Charlie had signed up for a summer course for Spanish teachers in Madrid. So, I decided to join him. I’d never been to Europe before.
I’d minored in Spanish in college and looked forward to visiting a country with so much history. With beautiful castles and museums and churches.
Once there, we traveled to various cities. In Salamanca, we went to visit the cathedral. At the entrance, I saw graffiti painted on the ancient door—large white letters that said in Spanish: “Soy lesbiana, porque me da la gana!” A poem that’s really a gay rights chant, meaning: “I’m lesbian, because I feel like it!”
Shameless words of pride. Shocking words for any Spaniard. Symbolic words on a church door. Words of courageous opposition to closed-door policies of Catholics and Protestants regarding LGBTQ individuals three decades ago. A stance still held by many Christians.
Words that echo a meaning of the words of Jesus in today’s Gospel reading. Where Jesus says, “Knock, and the door will be opened for you.”
This is a familiar verse for most of us. But after two millennia of Christianity, it’s easy to miss the bold promise Jesus makes. For Jesus doesn’t say, “Knock, and maybe someone might answer.” Or, “knock, and we might open the door a crack.” Which is the kind of answer many hear today.
Like queer people, who have been so bullied by the Church that we are happy when Christians grant us a qualified welcome. Like people of color, who face racism on a daily basis, but are told not to complain about microaggressions, or past misdeeds, or inaction by politicians. Or like immigrants, who are told how lucky they are to be in this country, and that if they don’t like it, they should just go back.
Recently, President Trump took to Twitter, criticizing “The Squad,” the four women of color in Congress who represent his worst nightmare: they aren’t white, and they’re women who aren’t afraid to say what they think.
Many suggest people like that should just accept what they’ve received with “gratitude.” To stop knocking on the door, asking for more. More acceptance, more understanding, more protections, more power.
Recently I read an article by John Paul Brammer, a US citizen whose mother is Mexican American. Brammer addresses the issue of white privileged people expecting gratitude from immigrants. He wrote:
“But [from my perspective, that] kind of gratitude is the enemy of self-assertion…. [For] if we are made to feel like perpetual foreigners in our own homes, we will be less likely to advocate for ourselves and to ask for better treatment. I’ve seen this sentiment… among Mexican Americans as well as LGBTQ people. For some, there is stigma and shame in asking for too much, for being loud, for the audacity of voicing our discontent. 1
I believe that the words of Jesus we heard this morning speak in stark contrast to the voices of today’s world.
The parable Jesus tells about the pesky neighbor repeats that message. The man wants to show hospitality to his visitors but needs to borrow some bread. So, at midnight he goes to his neighbor’s house, and knocks and knocks and knocks. Until his groggy and grumpy friend finally opens the door and gives him what he wants.
The author of Luke puts these words in the context of prayer. But some Biblical scholars believe Jesus originally taught these sayings to the first disciples he sent out in pairs to share the Good News. Itinerant preachers. Instructed by Jesus to carry nothing. With no home base.
As a result, they had to learn to ask for what they needed. They were completely dependent on the hospitality of others for food and shelter.
A ministry of collaborative hospitality that reflects the gracious welcome we find with God. The same kind of hospitality our congregation has received from Temple Beth El Synagogue.
For like the people of Israel in our first reading from the very last verses of the book of Exodus, St. Mark’s is a wandering community. And just like the people of Israel, the cloud of God’s holy presence has followed us along each stage of our journey. Providing everything needed both by them and by us.
During the past 6 years, we have been dependent on the grace of God and the hospitality of others as our ministry has moved from place to place. Along the way, God opened many doors. And today, God has led us to a new door.
At the time we moved here 28 months ago, Prairie St. John’s told us about their plans to build a new hospital but didn’t know when—until this year.
When we started looking for a new worship space back in January, I really didn’t think it would be that hard. However, our search took nearly six months! We had to do a lot of door-knocking both literally and figuratively, with about 45 different options.
So, here we are today—ready to begin a new path in our pilgrim journey.
This is our last day of worship here. A day to remember the good things experienced in this space. A day to grieve the loss of this lovely home. A day to celebrate God’s abiding presence among us in this sacred sanctuary.
On Tuesday, everything here will be moved. And we will close these chapel doors one last time. Next Sunday, we will joyfully gather before God, as we pass through the doors of a new sanctuary. And God’s presence will follow us there.
Together, our faith has allowed us to see amazing possibilities for our congregation. And I believe our new sanctuary will be a place people come looking for unqualified acceptance.
A place to find God’s undeserved grace. A place to feel God’s loving embrace. A place to lean on God’s arms during the darkest days and most difficult steps of our journey.
A place with a door that opened to us even before we stopped knocking. With words of hospitality boldly emblazoned on the hearts of everyone inside.
A place where, no matter who you are, or where you come from, or whomever you love, you are truly welcome both here and there. Amen.
1 Brammar, John Paul, “Stop Demanding People of Color to Show ‘Gratitude’”, Out Magazine, July 19, 2019; https://www.out.com/…/stop-demanding-people-color-show-grat…
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FIRST READING: Exodus 40:34-38
Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle. Moses was not able to enter the tent of meeting because the cloud settled upon it, and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle. Whenever the cloud was taken up from the tabernacle, the Israelites would set out on each stage of their journey; but if the cloud was not taken up, then they did not set out until the day that it was taken up. For the cloud of the LORD was on the tabernacle by day, and fire was in the cloud by night, before the eyes of all the house of Israel at each stage of their journey.
GOSPEL LESSON: Luke 11:5-13
And [Jesus] said to them, “Suppose one of you has a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say to him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; for a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him.’ And he answers from within, ‘Do not bother me; the door has already been locked, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.’ I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs. “So, I say to you, Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”