During a church trip to Israel eight years ago, my husband Charlie and I visited Herodium—a site named for and built by King Herod the Great about 20 years before Jesus was born. The Jewish King Herod was a master architect. His projects included renovating the Jerusalem Temple, the fortress of Masada, and the harbor city at Caesarea. At Herodium, Herod forced thousands of slaves, to move millions of tons of soil and rocks from a nearby hill, forming a human-made summit. Herod was known as a king who moved mountains. Seven stories up, Herod built a grand palace, the third largest in the Roman world. With an amphitheater, Olympic-size pool, and a fancy tomb for himself. A desert castle for an evil king.
During our Herodium tour, we climbed a steep path to the top. After exploring the site, our Palestinian guide led us down through the middle of the structure by a long, dark, rickety staircase. A dizzying descent made even worse by my fear of heights. I went last, thinking that if I slipped, there’d be plenty of people to break my fall! Herod built his palace on the site of a military victory, eight miles south of Jerusalem. You can see it from Bethlehem, where according to Matthew’s Gospel, King Herod ordered the genocide of innocent Jewish children in his scheme to kill the baby Jesus.
In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus is talking about Herodium, when he says to the crowds, “What did you go out into the wilderness to see?.... Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces.” Which sounds a lot like a critique of King Herod and his descendants, and their conspiracy with the Roman Empire. A royal family so decadent and conniving, they’d be perfect characters for HBO’s Game of Thrones. Jesus contrasts these rich tyrants to John the Baptist. In our Gospel lesson, John sends his disciples to ask Jesus a question. For John was not in one of Herod’s palaces, but in his prison. Before this, John had an exciting ministry—baptizing thousands of people. Then King Herod Agrippa, son of Herod the Great, arrests him. It’s clear that this King Herod wants John dead. And sitting alone in a dark prison cell, John the Baptist is deeply discouraged. For John believed God had sent him to proclaim redemption—a new dawn rising for the people of God. John believed what the prophet Isaiah says in our first lesson: “Say to those who are of a fearful heart, ‘Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God. [Who] will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense. [God] will come and save you." (Isaiah 35:3-4) John believed that Jesus was going to set his people free from the Romans. That God would impeach Herod and install a just ruler over Israel.
Then Jesus started his ministry. But the apocalyptic coup predicted by John never happens. And John has serious doubts. John doubts whether Jesus is the “coming one.” John doubts the path he has gone down. John doubts his own voice. With all these doubts, John sends his disciples to ask Jesus a crass question: “Are you the one who is to come, or should we wait for another?” But Jesus doesn’t give a simple reply. Jesus doesn’t say that he’s the Messiah. Jesus doesn’t campaign against King Herod. Instead, Jesus tells John’s disciples to look around and see what’s happening. Jesus offers glimpses of the Kingdom of God and the best summary of his ministry found in the Gospels. A list of promises fulfilled. Like a mission statement, Jesus lists his goals and accomplishments: “The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.” But those words confused John. John expected Jesus to usher in a new divine government. A complete turnaround of the political situation. However, not long after this, John is executed by King Herod. John never saw what he hoped for.
Today, I think, many of us have similar expectations. We hope someone or something will change what’s happening in our nation. A lot of us are overwhelmed with apprehension and fear about what the future holds. Like John the Baptist, we want to see an end to oppressive empires and evil rulers. But Jesus doesn’t promise that kind of kingdom. Instead, Jesus promises that if we follow him, we will catch glimpses of the Kingdom of God here on earth. Jesus says that even the least of those in the Kingdom are greater than a prophet like John. Greater than any ruler like a Jewish King Herod or the Roman Caesar or any American president. For Jesus sees something John couldn’t see. Jesus knows that the rulers of this world are not the ones who make a nation great. Jesus says that the weakest in this world are those who are great in the eyes of God. That’s not the way the world sees things. But that’s where we as followers of Jesus find hope. Hope when we feel disheartened. Hope when we’ve lost our way in this world. Hope that even in the darkest night, the light of Christ will shine. Hope that Jesus will keep his promises.
Recently, I’ve caught some glimpses of that light. Even among the least of those in our world. One day this week, I had lunch with a gay man who shared with me that a few years ago he had a stroke and lost his sight. But the miracles of modern medicine—and a lot of prayers—saved him from blindness. So, he can still see the light of love in the eyes of caring people. On Tuesday, I saw more light with the start of our new mosaic project at Churches United for the Homeless. Of course, it was a bitterly cold day. The kind of day when you don’t want to get out of bed. I wondered if anyone would come. But we had 12 volunteers, who one after another, walked in and started working together. Kind of like the quilting bees that church ladies at St. Mark’s used to do—where you sit and talk and laugh. Where today we share good news in a place where the poor and homeless live.
On Wednesday morning, I glimpsed another shining light, when Greta Thunberg was named Time Magazine's “Person of the Year.” Which is really amazing—amazing that they chose a16-year-old teen—the youngest person to ever receive the award. Instead of more famous nominees like Russian President Vladimir Putin, or Speaker Nancy Pelosi, or Taylor Swift, or Rudy Giuliani. Time describes Greta as the “biggest voice on the biggest issue facing the planet.” Last December, the Lutheran Church of Sweden lovingly called Greta the “successor of Jesus.” Despite living with Asperger Syndrome, obsessive–compulsive disorder and selective mutism, last year Greta founded a grassroots climate movement. Greta calls Asperger her “superpower.” A gift that she says makes her different. It also means that she speaks “only when it's necessary.” And “now,” she says, “is one of those moments.” *
Greta has also demonstrated that she is a clever prophet. One who knows how to respond to this world’s most powerful critic. This week, she changed her Twitter account (with 3.5 million followers) to describe herself as:
“A teenager working on her anger management problem. Currently chilling and watching a good old-fashioned movie with a friend.” Like John the Baptist of long ago, Greta’s prophetic voice cries out to those who today are deaf to environmental issues. I believe that Greta is a one of the “least among us” that Jesus describes as truly great in the Kingdom of God. And like Greta, today Jesus is calling each of us to bring glimpses of the light of God into the dark night of this world. Until (as the old Advent hymn says) we see the day of earth’s redemption. That sets our people free. Amen.
*Brady, Jeff (28 August 2019). "Teen Climate Activist Greta Thunberg Arrives in New York After Sailing The Atlantic". NPR.org. Archived from the original on 2 October 2019.
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GOSPEL LESSON: Matthew 11:2-11
When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.” As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written, ‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.’ Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.”
The Green Mile is a 1999 film, based on a Stephen King novel that takes place during the Great Depression. Tom Hanks stars as a Louisiana prison officer named Paul Edgecomb. Paul is in charge of death row, also referred to as the “Green Mile.” Early in the movie, while suffering from a severe bladder infection, Paul meets a black prisoner named John Coffey. John is a gentle giant, sentenced to death after being wrongly convicted of raping and murdering two white girls. John also demonstrates strange supernatural powers. First, by curing Paul's bladder infection. Then by resurrecting Mr. Jingles, a pet mouse crushed by a cruel guard.
Eventually, Paul convinces John to help the prison warden's wife, who’s terminally ill with a brain tumor. Later at their house, John heals her. Back at prison, Paul talks with John about the possibility of saving him from death row. And although John is upset over being executed for a crime he didn’t commit, John says that he’s had enough dealings with humanity's cruelty. That he’s ready to die. So, Paul himself oversees the execution. And he shakes hands with John just before he is killed.
The film received numerous awards. But Hollywood producer Spike Lee angrily criticized The Green Mile. He viewed the portrayal of John Coffey as what’s been called the “magical Negro.” A term used by African Americans for a black character who exists in a story solely to better the fortunes of white people, echoing the long history of slavery. “Magical Negro” characters like John often possess special insight or mystical abilities. But they also subtly promote racial and cultural stereotypes, especially in the movie industry. Like Latinos cast as drug dealers. Like Muslims cast as terrorists. Like gays cast as effeminate men with tragic endings. Like Native Americans cast as warriors. Like Jews cast as a miserly Scrooge. Like women cast as submissive wives. Which all feed into our shared racism and sexism, homophobia and classism, antisemitism and xenophobia. Which cause us to see people through prejudice and distorted lenses. People like Spike Lee are calling for the film industry to move beyond roles like John Coffey. To present more positive, authentic portrayals of people of color and other disenfranchised groups.
Our Gospel lesson presents the image of another John character, who calls us to see our world and other people in new ways. This John is telling people they need to change. Change their preconceptions. Change their previous behaviors. Change their perspective of God’s Kingdom. This Jewish John mysteriously appears at the Jordan River—looking a lot like a modern homeless man. This John announces that the Kingdom of God is coming in unexpected ways. This John calls people to a baptism of repentance.
The Greek word for repentance in this passage is “metanoia.” Metanoia is filled with remarkable meaning in the Gospels. But it’s also misunderstood. Most translations of the Bible use the English word “repentance” for metanoia. But “repentance” is a loaded term for many Christians. Repentance has been interpreted to mean that you must feel extreme remorse or regret for your sins. For centuries, Christians were taught they had to repent from their sins and do penance to be saved. Some us grew up with exaggerated guilt or shame because pastors or priests condemned us because of what we had done or who we were.
But in the original Greek, metanoia has a different meaning. Metanoia comes from two Greek words. The first is “meta,” meaning “to change”—like in the word “metamorphosis.” A change in one’s body. Like a caterpillar changing into a butterfly. The second Greek word “noia” translates as “mind,” referring to one’s mindset or worldview. Together they mean “change of mind.” Unlike the word “repentance,” metanoia isn’t restricted to a narrow interpretation. It’s a change of mind in how we view God’s love and one another and the world.
In our lesson, John the Baptist preaches, “Bear fruit worthy of repentance.” Another way to read this would be: “Bear fruit that shows your change of mind.” I like how the Amplified Bible translates it: “Let your lives prove your change of heart.” But in our Gospel story, some people respond to what John preaches with anger and excuses. As members of John’s own Jewish community, they complain, “But we are children of Abraham and Sarah. We have nothing to repent of!”
Today, I think those excuses would sound a bit different. Today, those of us who are white Lutherans or Christians might say things like: “But I’m not racist—I have African American friends.” Or, “I don’t hate the gays! I love the sinner.” Or, “I don’t mind having some immigrants here, but I wish they would just speak English.” Most of us don’t have such extreme viewpoints, nevertheless, we still see the world through our own culture. In our heads, we make silent judgments about those who are different than you and me. Looking honestly into our own hearts and minds, John’s words about metanoia prepare us for the radical Gospel preached by Jesus.
From our Lutheran perspective, I have to admit that there’s a lot of Law in this story and my sermon. That was the main point of John’s prophetic ministry. The Gospel message for us today is found, I think, in our Hebrew reading from Isaiah, which presents a new vision of the coming messiah: “A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse…. He shall not judge by what his eyes see… but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth.” (Isaiah 11:1-10)
Many of you know that I’m a gardener. This past June, a giant cottonwood tree in our backyard was knocked down by a storm. It landed on our neighbor’s garage. So, we hired someone to cut it down right away. Which they did. And for which they also charged us a lot. Before they left, they ground up the stump. We gardeners know the chances of a tree growing back from a stump are pretty low. The stump has to still be alive without any decay. It also needs the energy to send up shoots, called “suckers,” to absorb sunlight for photosynthesis to be able to start a new tree. In our case, I really had no desire for that tree to come back. But guess what? It did. By the end of summer, several branches grew from the stump. New growth from destruction. New life from death.
In our lesson from Isaiah, even though the tree also has been cut down—symbolizing the people’s failed covenant with God, there is still hope. Because God is going to do the unexpected. God is going to make a new tree sprout. A new tree of justice for the poor and oppressed. Not just an empty promise, but something that will happen in the holy today of God’s vision. The promise of metanoia: change on a grand scale. Brought to us not by a famous movie producer, but by the creator of the universe. A God who shows us that metanoia isn’t just a change within yourself. Metanoia also includes a change in how we deal with those who are different. Different in race. Different in economic status. Different in gender. Different in sexual orientation.
The Gospel vision we see in Isaiah is not that God takes away all those things that make us different. But that finally, we can live together in harmony, even with those who disagree with us. Like a lamb with a wolf. A calf with a lion. A vision spoken by John in the wilderness. A vision fulfilled in the birth of Jesus. A vision coming to reality among us today. A vision that calls all people to metanoia. A change in mind. A change in our community. A change that leads us to cry out for people of color and the elderly, for queer individuals and the poor, for the hungry and the powerless who have no voice. And to challenge our Church and world to prepare a way for God’s Kingdom to come among us today.
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GOSPEL LESSON Matthew 3:1-12
In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near. This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said, ‘The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’” Now John wore clothing of camel's hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now. the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire."
Many years ago, when I was working at Catholic Charities in the Twin Cities, we had an annual summer event for all the employees—about 300 people. That year, we were invited to the Como Park Zoo in St. Paul. It was a beautiful June day. We had lots of time to wander through the trails and see dozens of animals in special habitats. Plus, a conservatory with exotic flowers and plants. And amusement park with lots of rides. We also had a free picnic lunch. A lovely, relaxing afternoon.
After a few hours, people started to leave, so I walked back to the parking lot with a couple friends. When I got to my pickup, I discovered the door was unlocked. Inside, it was obvious that someone had rummaged through the glove compartment. My gym bag was open, with my clothes pulled out and left behind. Then I remembered that I’d put my checkbook in my bag. Back then, everyone carried one wherever you went, just in case you had to pay for something. Of course, my checkbook was gone.
As it turned out, the cars of several coworkers were also hit. We called the police, who sent a squad car. When the officer arrived, he told us that kind of theft happens frequently there. Thieves often sit and watch groups like ours arrive in the morning—knowing that most people spend a few hours at the zoo. Then they break into their cars when no one is watching. Clever thieves, right? But what the policeman said made me angry. I thought, shouldn’t you put up signs, or station a guard in the parking lot, or tell zoo staff to warn everyone that they could become victims of theft?
Our Gospel lesson seems to provide that kind of warning. In today’s reading from Matthew, Jesus says, “If the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and… let his house be broken into. Therefore, you must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.” Many Christians interpret this passage as referring to “the Rapture.” Based on prophecies from the books of Revelation, Isaiah and Ezekiel, the Rapture is an event some believe will happen before the second coming of Christ. A lot of people are interested in the Rapture. I Googled those words and got 39 million results.
You may have heard of Left Behind, a series of 16 novels by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins, which has sold more than 90 million copies. The novels tell the story of how hundreds of thousands of Christians are suddenly raptured and disappear from the face of the earth.
I remember being part of a conservative Christian youth group in high school. Where we used to sing a song by Larry Norman about the Rapture, which went like this:
“A man and wife asleep in bed,
she hears a noise and turns her head, he's gone--
I wish we'd all been ready.
Two men walking up a hill,
one disappears and one's left standing still--
I wish we'd all been ready.
There's no time to change your mind,
the Son has come,
and you've been left behind.”
The point of this song is to make sure that you’re not one of those left behind. Yet, I would guess most of us in this congregation, aren’t overly concerned about the Rapture. Though some of us grew up with those beliefs. Maybe even scared silly into believing with the threat of God’s future punishment. However, I believe that if you read this Gospel lesson more carefully, there’s another way to look at these words. Jesus refers to the story of Noah and the ark. When the floods came, everyone was swept away. Only Noah’s family was saved. But that order is a complete reversal from Rapture theology, which says that true believers will be taken, while nonbelievers stay to suffer the final tribulation. In the story of the Flood, it’s the other way around. The bad people drown and Noah—who’s called righteous—is left behind.
The same is true in other stories from Hebrew Scriptures. For example, in the story of Moses and the 10 plagues of Egypt, when the angel of death passes over the land, the first-born of the Egyptians die. But the Israelite children are left alive. Or like when the Babylonians conquer Jerusalem in 586 B.C., the city’s wealthiest families and political leaders are carried away as refugees. So, it was up to the remnant of Jewish people left in their homeland to continue their faith. The prophet Isaiah in our first reading is speaking to those people—offering the hope of regaining freedom from oppression and rebuilding the Temple to those left behind.
Similarly, three weeks ago during our intergenerational event, we discussed the story of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis. Where the unwelcoming citizens of Sodom are destroyed by fire and brimstone. But Abraham’s nephew is deemed righteous—Lot and a few of his family members are left behind. During our time together, Rabbi Janeen from Temple Beth El Synagogue talked about the Jewish definition of a righteous person. She told us that in their faith tradition, a righteous individual was usually not much better than the bad people. What’s set them apart is that the righteous are the ones chosen by God to carry on the covenant.
In our Gospel reading, I believe that Jesus is telling us the same thing. Just like the Great Flood left behind the faithful Noah and his family, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. One will be taken. And the remaining person has a righteous calling. Life can be like that. When someone we love dies, those who have been left behind have to find the faith and courage to live through our grief. And figure out what it means to live without them.
Today is World AIDS Day. A day to remember those who have died of AIDS and those living with HIV. I lost my boyfriend Steve 31 years ago to AIDS. Since then, I’ve known many, many others like him. Gay men and straight women. Young hemophiliacs and older drug users. African Americans and Latinos and Native Americans. Countless intelligent, gifted and righteous ones. At times, like anyone who has lost a loved one in an accident or from cancer or by suicide, I wonder why I was left behind.
Some people like to say, “There, but for the grace of God, go I.” And while I agree that I am still here because of God’s lovingkindness, I don’t like the implication that those other people might be less righteous than me. Reflecting on that, I also see a deeper meaning in today’s Gospel. I believe Jesus is calling us to work and pray for the Kingdom of God to come among us. And to make that happen, we have a holy calling in this world. A calling to be the living Body of Christ with-and-to others who just need a moment of grace in their lives right now. I believe that’s the meaning of these words of Jesus.
For today, on this first Sunday of Advent, Christ is quietly entering our hearts and minds—like a thief in the night (or at a zoo)—waiting for a time when we least expect. And suddenly, BAM! We come face to face with unanticipated righteousness and undeserved grace. Grace that’s greater than the love of a mother. More persistent than the cleverest criminal. More surprising than the best Christmas present you ever received. Which is exactly what we need on those dark nights when we feel lost and lonely and hopeless. As we long for redemption. For a brighter day. A better world with less hatred and more love.
When together, we will walk hand in hand in the light of God. For Christ is coming soon. Amen.
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GOSPEL LESSON: Matthew 24:36-44
Jesus said to the disciples, “About that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man. Then two will be in the field; one will be taken, and one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken, and one will be left. Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore, you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”
Maybe it’s because I just saw a Celine Dion concert last month here in Fargo, but when I read this Gospel lesson earlier this week, I was reminded of a scene from the 1997 film, Titanic. The scene takes place shortly after Jack Dawson, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, and his friend Fabrizio win third-class tickets to America in a poker game with two Swedes named Sven and Olaf (which I love!) Jack is an optimistic artist. His companion Fabrizio, an Italian emigrant. With their tickets, they get on board with no IDs—using the names of the original Swedish ticketholders. Something that would never happen now. Today, we’d call them illegal immigrants.
Eventually, the two friends take a walk around the ship. They end up on the prow of the Titanic. Looking out to sea, Fabrizio jokes, “I can see the Statue of Liberty already! Very small, of course.” Then Jack experiences one of the best moments of his life (at least until he gets to kiss Kate Winslet.) Standing on the rail at the front of the ship, Jack shoots up his fists and spreads his arms wide. Then he shouts in ecstasy, “I'm the king of the world!” Which is the movie’s catchphrase. Since then, almost anytime you’re feeling really good about yourself—especially if you’re standing at the bow of a ship—you might yell those words. Right? How many of you have ever done that? What’s ironic, of course, is that Jack was no king. He was a poor, unemployed drifter with big dreams. Who ends up dying unknown. And unnamed on the Titanic’s list of dead passengers. Jack doesn’t fit what we expect a king to be.
Today is Christ the King Sunday. The last Sunday in our liturgical year. Personally, I don’t really like this Sunday. For me it seems like an old-fashioned, empire-based way of looking at Jesus. Christ as a European king. Which doesn’t fit how today some of us are talking about “decolonizing” Lutheranism. Meaning that as a denomination we need to move beyond seeing our faith only through the lens of a Northern European heritage and history. A culture brought here by immigrants on ships like the Titanic over a century ago. Decolonizing Lutheranism means we acknowledge many people in our church are part of a dominant group that still sets up and maintains our cultural norms. Norms that for many still define what it means to be Lutheran. A European-American culture with strong ties to Germany and Scandinavia. Not that there’s anything wrong with those traditions, in and of themselves.
However, when we talk about decolonizing Lutheranism, we are seeking to ask some hard questions. Questions like: Who holds the power in our Church? Who controls the norms of Lutheranism today? Who really has a voice—especially those from other communities or cultures? And if someone like me—with a last name like “Larson”—doesn’t feel the need to address this issue, maybe it’s because (even as a gay man) I’m part of that dominant culture. For I’m a white, cisgender male. Where it’s easy to view everything our Church does and says as normal and fair. That experience is called “privilege.”
I believe that privileged perspective also affects how we see Jesus, especially if Christ is a king. Historically, it’s interesting that this day was added to our liturgical calendar only about 100 years ago, largely in response to what was happening in Europe. Emphasizing the royal attributes of Jesus was a predictable choice for the decade after World War I. When better to reflect on a heavenly kingdom that will stand forever, than in the aftermath of a war that toppled four royal dynasties and killed 10 million soldiers and eight million civilians? By the same token, placing theological emphasis on the kingship of Jesus also reflects the nervousness of our past religious hierarchy that long relied on earthly kings to empower the worldwide Church.
Today I know there are still many Christians who prefer seeing Jesus as their glorious and victorious, reigning King. Whom they can praise with uplifted hands. Many of us, deep in our hearts, want a mighty savior will protect you and me from disappointments, disease, and death. We want to believe that being a Christian is some kind of protection against tragedy and loss. But that’s a theology of glory. A Christ without a cross.
Yet we know—if we are truly honest with ourselves and with one another—that life isn’t always a picnic. That sometimes we have to face serious illness, separation and divorce, and loss of loved ones. We Lutherans call that the theology of the cross. A theology that allows us to believe God is with us in the midst of our pain and suffering. That during difficult times, we like Jesus can honestly cry, “My God, why have you forsaken me?”
For me, the one thing that does make Christ the King Sunday meaningful is to be able to see Jesus as one who reigns not from a powerful throne, but from a cross. That Jesus chose not to be an indestructible ruler, but a human who suffers and dies like us. Jesus was not the king people expected him to be. On the cross, Jesus revealed the love of God. With arms wide open to the sky. But without a victory shout, like in a movie. Instead the people yell at him. They laugh at him. They dare him to save himself. First, it’s the religious leaders. Then the Roman soldiers. Finally, one of the criminals on another cross.
We see Jesus at the lowest point of his ministry. He appears to be beaten down by everyone. Suffering a humiliating defeat and death. A cruel punishment reserved for slaves, rebels and enemies of the Empire. Today we’d call them terrorists. One of those criminals stands out in the story in Luke. To me, it’s amazing that Jesus doesn’t respond to any of those who mock him. Instead, he speaks only to the condemned rebel, who admits he is guilty of his crimes. The one who requests, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” The one to whom Jesus promises, “Today you will be with me in paradise.” It’s truly ironic that Christ the King chooses a nameless criminal—a stranger most people would ignore or condemn—as the first person to join Jesus in heaven. Yet, if you read the Gospels, that’s exactly how Jesus describes the Kingdom of God.
For Jesus, the Kingdom of God is not a place with castles or armies or wealth or power. For Jesus, the Kingdom of God isn’t about Hollywood fame, or the many things our culture values.
For Jesus, the Kingdom of God is not like a Caesar or President who oppresses the weak. It’s not a kingdom that guards its borders, or arms its citizens, or puts children in detention camps.
For Jesus, the Kingdom of God is about grace. Something that happens among flawed people like us. A Kingdom that we followers of Christ can make real by doing the same things Jesus did. Like feeding hungry people. Like bringing healing to the sick in body and mind. Like overcoming the hatred of this world with kindness and hospitality. Like making holy what seems to others mundane and ugly.
In his death on the cross, Jesus reveals what love and mercy and hope are all about. For even in dying, we find grace. And meet a lowly king. Who wears a crown of thorns. Who sits on the throne of a cross. Who suffers among us, fully human. Who draws all people to the love of God. Who bestows on each of us life that never ends. Amen.
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GOSPEL LESSON: Luke 23:33-43
When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” And they cast lots to divide his clothing. And the people stood by, watching; but the leaders scoffed at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!” The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.” One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Jesus replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”
When I read today’s lesson from Luke with its list of dire predictions, it reminds me of a daily email I receive from CNN, called “5 Things.” Every morning, the email lays out the five worst news items from around the world. A great way to start out each day—right?
On Friday morning, the email included these 5 updates:
Number 1: The California shooting on Thursday at Santa Clarita’s High School—with two students killed and five others shot by a 16-year-old classmate. Such tragic news.
Number 2: The impeachment investigation…. Need I say more?
Number 3: The ceasefire of the cross-border fighting in Gaza that started on Tuesday—which launched 450 rockets.
Number 4: The violent political protests in Chile.
Number 5: A return of the “Plague” or “Black Death,” which killed 50 million Europeans during the Middle Ages. The World Health Organization reported that during a recent five-year period nearly 3,200 new cases and 600 deaths—with 50,000 total cases in the past two decades. Today, the ancient plague is back.
While there weren’t any earthquakes or famines mentioned, this email list sounds a lot like the apocalyptic events and other signs described by Jesus in our Gospel reading. Jesus also predicts the destruction of the Jewish Temple.
Eight years ago, my husband Charlie and I visited the Temple Mount in Jerusalem with a group from our Minneapolis church. There, we saw a street with filled with Temple stones pushed down by Roman soldiers 2,000 years ago. Some of these blocks were massive. Just one of them could fill this sanctuary.
Today, the remaining foundation stones form the Western Wall, also called the “Wailing Wall.” A place where we prayed side by side with Jews and Christians and Muslims from all over the world. At the Wall, they hand you a piece of paper and pencil, and you write a prayer or hope or message. Then you insert your note between the giant stones.
This tradition is linked to an old Jewish teaching that the Divine Presence of God which dwelt in the Sanctuary never moved from that holy spot. Standing at the Wall praying, I was amazed at how something so gigantic could be destroyed.
I also sensed the immense sacredness of that space. Over a million hand-written prayers are placed on the wall each year. Prayers for healing. Prayers of fear and sadness. Prayers for comfort and guidance and wisdom. Prayers for God’s presence in the midst of anxiety and tragedy and loss.
By the time Luke wrote his Gospel around 85 AD, the Temple had already been destroyed. In effect, for Luke’s original readers what Jesus says here is not a disaster prediction. Instead, it’s a news report of something that happened 15 years before.
For us, it would be like predicting the 9/11 terrorist attacks today, 18 years after they took place. And thinking about the long-term effects of that fateful day.
Many of us (who are old enough) can remember exactly where we were when we first heard the news. I was driving to work at United Way in downtown Minneapolis, when I heard a report on MPR about a plane flying into the World Trade Center.
For the Jewish community to which Jesus belonged, the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple was their 9/11. It changed their history forever. I’m sure many wondered if their faith would survive. Eventually, the synagogue became the center of Jewish life.
Most early Christians were part of that community. But that event pushed them to new places, too. They had to create ways of worshiping without a Temple. Many gathered in believers’ homes.
In Rome, some Christians worshiped in catacombs—underground tunnels where the dead were buried. Even without a physical temple, they believed the presence of God went with them out into the community.
The history of our congregation parallels that story. Six years ago, St. Mark’s had to sell its original building. The boiler stopped working. The roof leaked. And even though the building wasn’t destroyed, St. Mark’s left the place where we had worshiped for over 100 years. Since then, the building has been renovated and now it’s the Sanctuary Event Center. But our true sanctuary is no longer there.
For three years, St. Mark’s worshiped at Elim Lutheran. Then in April 2017, we moved to the convent chapel at Prairie St. John’s. Eventually the hospital decided to tear down that building to make way for a new facility. And in August we moved here to the synagogue.
So many people have told me how much they admire what we are doing here at Temple Beth El. And members of the synagogue are delighted. Ironically (maybe prophetically), we are a Christian community worshipping in a Jewish Temple—just like Jesus did.
Every week, when I’m preparing my sermon, I’m aware of how, in big and small ways, this new home informs my theology and what it means to me to be Christian in our modern world.
I wish more Lutherans could have this experience. Of dwelling in a space that is not our own. Where another totally different faith community has welcomed us with open arms.
In its original meaning, a “sanctuary” is a sacred place, like a church or mosque or temple. A secondary meaning for the word is “a place of refuge.” During the Middle Ages, churches became legal sanctuaries for fugitives fleeing enemies and authorities.
This summer the ELCA (our national organization) voted to become a “sanctuary Church.’ And while what exactly that means was not clearly defined, the sanctuary movement goes back to the 1980s. Where American Christians began providing sanctuary to refugees fleeing civil wars in Central America.
Today, some Christians are seeking to help migrants imprisoned in detention centers and camping in tents along the Mexican border. Men and women and children, seeking a safe place to live and work and worship. People of faith without a home, facing tremendous hardships as a result of our government’s new restrictions.
Eighty-six years ago, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a Lutheran pastor in Germany who dared to defy an oppressive government. Who, ultimately, was killed by the Nazis for those efforts. As Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party seduced the German people, conquered a continent, and brought genocide on the Jews, Bonhoeffer and a small group of Christian dissidents sought to dismantle the Third Reich from within.
In April 1933, shortly after Hitler was appointed chancellor, Bonhoeffer wrote an essay called, “The Church and the Jewish Question,” which he presented to a meeting of Lutheran pastors.
His first point was that—especially during difficult and oppressive movements in human history—God calls the Church to be a prophetic voice. To be willing to question the actions, even the legitimacy of the ruling State or government.
And if, as Bonhoeffer goes on to say, certain individuals become victims of the negative effects of the State’s actions, then the Church has an “unconditional obligation” to step in and to help those victims. To become a living sanctuary for them.
Of course, the victims of that time were the Jews and others attacked by the Nazis. What’s disturbing today is that anti-Semitism is once again on the rise.
But Bonhoeffer doesn’t stop there. He argues that the Church is obligated not to just bandage the victims crushed by the oppressive wheels of government, but to become a stick pushed into the spokes of the wheel to stop the vehicle itself.
At Bonhoeffer’s presentation, most of the Lutheran ministers walked out before he could finish. They were so fully enmeshed in the anti-Semitism of their country, they could not see why the Church should do anything to stop it. Which made Bonhoeffer realize that God’s call to be a prophetic voice is a long and lonely road.
Today, I believe God is calling us as the Church to be that kind of prophetic voice. Here. In this temple. In this community. In this country.
A voice for refugees and people of color. A voice for trans and queer individuals. A voice for Muslims and Jews. A voice for all those who are the targets of contemporary racism and bigotry.
That we may bring healing to those who suffer. Kindness to those who are oppressed. Love to those who are hated.
And God’s holy sanctuary to those without a place to call home. Amen.
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GOSPEL LESSON – Luke 21:5-11
When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, [Jesus] said, “As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.” They asked him, “Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?” And he said, “Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and, ‘The time is near!’ Do not go after them. When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately.” Then he said to them, “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven.”
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.”