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.
+ + +
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."