Sermon – April 19, 2015 – Easter 3B

Third Sunday of Easter B
Preached at Faith Lutheran Church in Three Lakes, WI.

Acts 3:12-19
Psalm 4
1 John 3:1-7
Luke 24:36b-48

There’s a trend in online articles where the headlines are written in a certain way to try to grab your attention. The authors and editors want to make the headlines exciting so you’ll read them. You end up with articles that sound like this:

“Dog finds man in river: You’ll never guess what happens next!”

“What happens when this baby meets this armadillo? The results will shock you!”

“This woman climbs a mountain, and what she finds is unbelievable!”

The idea, of course, is that by making it sound like the information is unbelievable, making you doubt it’s real, it’s all the more satisfying when you find out that, yes, the baby and the armadillo really do become best friends and share a crib. The more unbelievable it is, the better it ends up being when you finally do believe.

Human beings are skeptical creatures. Especially in the last 200 years, after the Enlightenment, we are increasingly a species that rarely takes anything at face value. We want statements to be corroborated by multiple facts from multiple sources. We don’t believe something just because we’re told, especially if it comes from authority figures, who in our culture are less and less likely to be believed simply because they have authority.

The glaring exception to this, of course, is if we are given information that already agrees with our beliefs, in which case, we readily accept it without criticism or question. But for anything else, we are a species of doubt that must be convinced of something instead of accepting it right away. It’s just who we are.

Doubt and skepticism have been a part of the human psyche throughout all of history. Even our biblical heroes, or maybe especially our biblical heroes, had their doubts. Abraham and Sarah, who we remembered in our Bible study the past few weeks, didn’t at first believe God when they were told that they were going to have a kid. They tried to find other ways to have a kid, or to protect themselves from enemies, just in case God didn’t come through.

Moses doubted that he could live up to God’s expectations of him and tried every argument he could to get out of it. Most of the prophets very seriously doubted they could present God’s word and message to their people.

At times, the psalmists doubted that God was still with the Israelite people, and that they were on their own. When Jerusalem and the temple were destroyed, people doubted whether God still existed, or wondered if God had actually been killed in the destruction of the city.

The disciples had their doubts, too. They doubted whether the man they were following really was the Messiah. They doubted whether the work they were doing really was going to make a difference in the world. But most of all, they doubted that the promise Jesus made to them, that he would die and rise again, would actually come true.

I don’t really blame them. Death is the one absolutely true constant in life. Everyone, everything dies. It is one of the foundations of life as we understand it. Everybody dies, and that’s the end.

So when the women come back from the tomb and tell the disciples, “We have seen the Lord!”, or when the disciples on the road to Emmaus run back and tell everyone that they’ve just met Jesus on the road, well, I can understand how they would hear that news and think, “That’s truly, literally, unbelievable.” It flies in the face of all reason and knowledge. It’s shocking. It cannot be believed.

Even when they see Jesus in the flesh, right before their eyes, they are so happy, so filled with joy and wonder, that they still can’t believe it.

I’m actually a little disturbed and dismayed by that part. They were so filled with joy that they couldn’t believe the facts in front of them.

Tell me if I’m off base here. Is it easier to believe overwhelmingly bad news, or overwhelmingly good news? Which are we more likely to take at face value—that something awful has happened to us, or that something magnificent has happened to us? In my experience, it tends to be the former. We believe bad news more often than we believe good.

Why is that? Do we actually live in a world that is so full of bad news and so lacking in good that we automatically assume the worst is true? Do we expect more bad news than we do good news? Is that why we have all those article headlines, like “Baby meets puppy and you won’t believe what happens next”, because maybe, such amazing things really are more difficult to accept and to believe?

Maybe so. Maybe that is the world we live in.

We are so very tired of bad news. We are so tired of hearing about all the evil and awful things that people do to each other, but we can’t get away from it. Bad news sells, so that’s what we hear about all the time on our news networks. We know and we confess that our world is full of sin, broken and irreparable by human deeds, but… man, it’s one thing to know that, and another to be inundated by it.

The more we hear it, the more we internalize the belief that the world is irredeemable, un-fixable, un-saveable. And when we do that, our lives reflect it. We stop caring about what happens to other people, because life is a struggle anyway. We stop trying to serve our neighbors because it won’t make all that much a difference. We stop working to make the world a better place for everyone because there’s only so much we can do anyway.

With such overwhelmingly bad news around us all the time, it makes the good news harder to accept. “What do you mean there’s love in the world; have you seen the way we treat each other? How can you believe that there are good people in this world with all of the violence and hate we have surrounding us.”

No matter where that good news comes from, even from the most reputable sources, even from God Almighty, it is harder to accept that good news than it is to accept the bad.

“God came incarnate in Jesus Christ? Too shocking. Jesus died on the cross to redeem the entire world from the power of sin and death, freeing us from slavery to anything other than God? Unbelievable. Jesus rose from the dead, not as a ghost or a zombie, but as a living, breathing, albeit greater human being? Laughable.”

We don’t believe. We doubt. And you know what? That’s not a bad thing.

Abraham doubted. The prophets doubted. The psalmists doubted. The disciples doubted. Heck, Jesus Christ himself doubted in the garden, calling into question God’s plan and intentions. We serve a God that has never made sense, that has always been, spoken, and acted in unbelievable ways; we would be wrong to expect there to be no doubt in the face of the overwhelmingly good news that Jesus brings.

What I love about the stories of Jesus’s appearances to the disciples after he is raised from the dead is that he never berates them for their doubt. When he walks with the disciples on the road to Emmaus, and they don’t even recognize him, he doesn’t get in their faces and say, “How could you not know it was me?” When he meets the disciples in Jerusalem, with the wounds of his death still in his flesh, and eating fish, when they are so happy that they still don’t believe it’s happening, he doesn’t call them out for their inability to believe.

Instead, he walks with them, he talks with them, he opens their minds to this ludicrous idea that, yes, he could rise from the dead. He doesn’t get mad, he doesn’t accuse them of being bad disciples, and he doesn’t give up on them.

All of this is to say that, contrary to what a lot of Christians believe, doubt is not a sign of being a bad disciple or a bad Christian. It’s not a weakness, and it’s not something to judge others on—anyone who claims to have never doubted God’s promises is a liar to themselves.

Doubt is an essential part of faith. It is the natural reaction when we are confronted with something we desperately wish to be true, but which flies in the face of our expectations and defies the ways in which we think things should work. It is a faithful response to the unbelievable in our midst that, by all other measures, cannot possibly be true. It is the process through which we come to accept and believe.

Accepting that God is a gracious God has always been and always will be a struggle. We know the kind of world we live in. We know the kinds of people that live in it. And worst of all, we know the kind of people we are. We know ourselves better than anyone else—we know all the dark places, all the hidden secrets, all the horrible truths about ourselves.

“There’s no way God could love us as much as God claims. It’s too shocking. It’s too unbelievable.”

And yet, as we struggle with our own doubts, our own insecurities, God walks right beside us, waiting for the moment when the recognition dawns that, yes, God came incarnate in Jesus Christ; that Christ went to the cross to redeem the world from the power of sin and death; and that through the resurrection, Christ gave new life to the world and all the people in it—even the people like us.

It’s too shocking. It’s too unbelievable. But not matter how hard it is for us to believe, it isn’t too hard for God to believe. It isn’t too difficult for God to believe that we are worth dying for. It isn’t too hard for God to believe that the entire world is worthy of redemption and forgiveness and love. God is absolutely certain of it.

So don’t worry about your doubts. Don’t worry if you don’t trust God’s words at face value. Don’t worry if things are simply too unbelievable. You are not alone. There is nothing wrong with you. And God meets you where you are, walking alongside you on your journey through faith, a journey that takes a lifetime to start and eternity to finish.

Thanks be to God for those who doubt, for theirs is a journey with God.

Featured Image: “Doubt” by Beshef is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Sermon – April 12, 2015 – Easter 2B

Second Sunday of Easter B
Preached at Faith Lutheran Church, Three Lakes, WI.

Acts 4:32-35
Psalm 133
1 John 1:1—2:2
John 20:19-31

As part of our Lenten discipline this year, I led a study titled Claimed, Gathered, Sent: A Guide for Conversation. It was a discussion guide produced by the Presiding Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Reverend Elizabeth Eaton. On each Wednesday night during the season of Lent, we met and discussed five facets of our identity as the ELCA:

We are church.
We are Lutheran.
We are church together.
We are church for the sake of the world.
We are church along with our ecumenical partners.

The entire conversation revolved around the nature and purpose of the church: who are we? Why are we here? What is the church and what does it do?

It’s a question that has been a part of the church’s existence since, well, forever, but there are times when the church really calls its identity into question and has to figure out who and what it is.

According to writer and scholar Phyllis Tickle, this actually happens in the church about every 500 years. There are controversies and conflicts in the church all the time, but it seems that the major ones happen every half century.

It was about 500 years ago that the Protestant Reformation occurred, the start of which is traditionally dated to 1517. The Western church was no longer homogeneous, made up of just the Roman Catholic church. This was a huge shift in the way Christians understood themselves. No longer were states all united by their common Christian heritage and allegiance. A major identity crisis followed.

500 years before that, in 1054, the Eastern and Western church began its split. With delegates from each excommunicating and anathematizing each other, the unified Christian church was torn in two. No longer could one church hold the Eastern and Western Roman cultures together. The church lost its identity as one, and had to figure out how to adapt to this grave schism.

500 years before that, in 476, the Roman Empire collapsed. The political entity that 80 years earlier embraced Christianity and established it as the state religion for the first time ever disintegrated and crumbled.  There was no longer a huge, dominant political power supporting Christianity, and the church had to adapt to this collapse, and find an identity apart from being the official religion of an empire.

Even 500 years before that, in the early church described by the Acts of the Apostles and the Gospels, there was an identity crisis going on. The resurrection has occurred, the Lord has been raised from the dead! By all rights, this should be a message that gives the disciples a new identity and sends them out into the world, but it doesn’t. We’re told that they’re hiding in a room on the very same day that Mary Magdalene tells them that she has seen the Lord. The very same day. Not always the brightest people, these disciples—the message seemed to have no effect on them.

Thankfully, we know that, eventually, they did go out into the world with their message. On the day of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit invigorated and transformed the disciples from bumbling buffoons into amazing apostles, the disciples found their identity and the identity of the Christian community.

The message of Jesus Christ having been raised from the dead, the good news that death has no hold or claim any more, the teachings of the wandering rabbi and the new relationship established with God compelled the early Christians to band together in a common identity for a common purpose. And the writer of Luke and Acts gives us an idea, looking back, on what that community looked like:

“Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.”¹

That’s quite a community. That’s quite a way to live. And it warrants some serious examination. The tendency is to simply avoid this description of the early church because, Lord have mercy, it’s about wealth redistribution. Have there ever been two words that were more anathema to the American way of life than wealth redistribution?

And yet, that is exactly, exactly what he hear the church doing in its early days. It wasn’t any more popular then than it is now. But the church in those days understood that it didn’t need to fall in line behind the society and systems in which it existed. In fact, it sought to heal the wounds caused by those systems, and it didn’t care what people thought of it. The early church redistributed wealth from the rich in their midst to the poor in their midst so that all would be taken care of.

The church had found it’s identity. It was a group of people that proclaimed the suffering, grace, and victory of the creator of the universe, who was not the Romans. The apostles fearlessly proclaimed this good news, which flew in the face of Roman politics. Jesus Christ had brought salvation to a broken world, and that salvation was for all people in all times and places.

And the church was not afraid to live out that message. It’s no coincidence at all that the proclamation made by the apostles is accompanied by this description of the church’s activities—that everyone sold all that they had, pooled their resources together under common ownership, and gave to everyone as they had need. This, also, was part of the church’s identity: it absolutely, without question, provided for those in need. This was expected of everyone involved with the faith. If you had the means, you were expected to give up those means for those who had nothing.

I’m sad to say that the church has lost part of this identity. When it comes to how the needy among us should be cared for, the church too often comes out sounding like Ebenezer Scrooge when the problem is brought to his attention at Christmastime.

“‘At this festive season of the year, Mr. Scrooge,’ said the gentleman, taking up a pen, ‘it is more than usually desirable that we should make some slight provision for the Poor and Destitute, who suffer greatly at the present time.  Many thousands are in want of common necessaries; hundreds of thousands are in want of common comforts, sir.’
‘Are there no prisons?’ asked Scrooge.
‘Plenty of prisons,’ said the gentleman, laying down the pen again.
‘And the Union workhouses?’  demanded Scrooge.  ‘Are they still in operation?’
‘They are.  Still,’ returned the gentleman, ‘I wish I could say they were not.’
‘The Treadmill and the Poor Law are in full vigour, then?’  said Scrooge.
‘Both very busy, sir.’
‘Oh!  I was afraid, from what you said at first, that something had occurred to stop them in their useful course,’ said Scrooge.  ‘I’m very glad to hear it.’
‘Under the impression that they scarcely furnish Christian cheer of mind or body to the multitude,’ returned the gentleman, ‘a few of us are endeavouring to raise a fund to buy the Poor some meat and drink and means of warmth.  We choose this time, because it is a time, of all others, when Want is keenly felt, and Abundance rejoices.  What shall I put you down for?’
‘Nothing!’ Scrooge replied.
‘You wish to be anonymous?’
‘I wish to be left alone,’ said Scrooge.  ‘Since you ask me what I wish, gentlemen, that is my answer.  I don’t make merry myself at Christmas and I can’t afford to make idle people merry.  I help to support the establishments I have mentioned — they cost enough; and those who are badly off must go there.'”²

Very often, the church treats the poor and needy as “not our problem”, content to let others take care of that burden, as if the pathetically meager help institutions and governments offer is somehow enough—especially when we insist on defunding and crippling them. And we treat the poor as if they are less than us, somehow different, as if we are better people because we have more money; even if they are right in our midst.

Roughly 40% of families in Oneida and Vilas counties live on income that qualifies their children to receive free or reduced price lunches at school. In Eagle River alone, more than half of all children in the district qualify. Poverty is much,  much closer than you think.

But the poor are not different from the church. They are part of the church’s, our, identity, too.

Throughout all of history, Christianity has been particularly appealing to the poor. It’s not hard to figure out why. Jesus did most of his ministry in poor rural areas. In the same way as the Israelite prophets, he spoke out against the oppression of the poor by the rich. He said that anyone who wished to be perfect should sell all that they own, give it to the poor, and THEN, follow him. In the story of the sheep and the goats, the identity of the followers of Christ is determined by how they treated the poor.

And then you have stories like this, where the early church is defined by their absolute commitment to helping the poor and the needy in their midst. It is central to their identity. They willingly give up their own personal wealth so that no one among them goes hungry, or without shelter, or without clothing, because it is that important to them. When they see suffering, and they can do something about it, they do. This is who the church was.

I said earlier that there have been major identity shifts in church history about every 500 years. And if you were paying attention, you might notice that it’s been about 500 years since the last one.

A lot has changed recently that challenged what we thought we knew about the church. No longer is the church a privileged member of society. No longer is it simply assumed that people are Christian, or that they go to church. No longer is church just the community social club, where everyone attended because that’s what you did as a citizen. No longer are churches the default for people to give their time or their money to. The great imperial institution known as Christendom is finally collapsing. I don’t find this particularly wrong or bad. It just is. Which means we need to reevaluate our identity.

The silver lining in all of this is that we keep hearing reports that the church is dying because it’s losing everything we assumed made it church—the privileged place, the record numbers, the buildings, the programs, the budgets. But it’s a silver lining because of stories like the one we have today.

There, we hear of a church with no privilege, no building, no programs, no fancy bulletins or projection screens, no staff, no Sunday School, no VBS, no fish fries, no ads, and yet, it is vibrant, alive, and radically changing the people connected to and around it.

And it’s not an anomaly. This was the church, the first group of Christians that gathered together. Whether or not you believe Luke’s numerical figure, it’s absolutely clear that those first Christians made a difference, a huge difference, attracting more people to their way of life. And they did it with just two things: the incredible good news that Jesus was raised from the dead, and their enormous willingness to take care of people.

Which of those two do you think people noticed more?

We have that same message. It was just last week that we remembered and celebrated the words of Mary Magdalene as she became the first apostle: “I have seen the Lord!” And thus did she deliver the good news to the disciples, who then, after a bit of prodding, took that news and shared it without hesitation, without real organization, without everything we had in Christendom and the church 50 years ago. By our own definition of what a church should do and be, they should’ve died. But they didn’t.

They lived out the Gospel in radical ways, like giving away their money and embracing the notion that the Christian life was one of giving and care for the needy, as the natural response to that good news, as the natural growth of everything Jesus said and stood for when he proclaimed, “The kingdom of God has come near”.

With nothing but their message and the love in their hearts that couldn’t bear to see the poor around them suffer, they changed the world. That was their identity.

So here we are. We, too, have an identity. Our identity, like there’s, has nothing to do with how big our budget is, or when Sunday School should be held, or how many people have been coming to us every Sunday, or how nice the building is, or which important members of the community chose our church to worship at. Sure, we used to think that our identity was wrapped up in these things. But they aren’t. And it’s a good thing, too, because everywhere around the world churches who put their trust in these things, who have made them the most important things in their lives, are failing.

Our identity is in the cross. It’s in the tomb. It’s in the waters of baptism that unite us to the God who hung on that cross and who was buried in that tomb and who rose again. We are intimately connected to and a part of that message, not only as witnesses to it but as people who live it, who are moved by the Holy Spirit. And if we can’t move, we have plenty of things we can get out of the way to make room for the spirit.

We are a group of people, adopted by God, given grace and mercy so bountiful that the love shown us can spill out wherever we go, to whomever we meet.

This is who the church is. People empowered by the good news, who take care of each other and those in need. Everything else is on the side; it’s not our identity. Our identity is in God. It’s in baptism. It’s in the good news, the sharing. It’s in our freedom to defy the norms and expectations of our culture and society to show love where it is needed most.

This is who we are. Thanks be to God that this is all we need, and that, through the spirit, it is available to us in abundance.

Featured Image: “Contando Dinheiro” by Jeff Belmonte is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Sermon – February 8, 2015 – Epiphany 5B

Fifth Sunday after Epiphany B
Preached at Faith Lutheran Church, Three Lakes, WI.

Isaiah 40:21-31
Psalm 147:1-11, 20c
1 Corinthians 9:16-23
Mark 1:29-39

There are few people in the world today who don’t know the name Nelson Mandela.

Mandela, a South African, grew up during the period of apartheid in his country. He joined a number of organizations whose mission was to combat that injustice, and it put him on the wrong side of his country’s leadership. Arrested multiple times, he was finally tried and convicted of conspiracy to overthrow his government, a conviction that carried with it a sentence of life-time imprisonment. He would spend the next 27 years in prison before finally being granted his freedom.

That, to me, is nearly unimaginable. As people like to point out, I’m only 28 years old, coming up on 29. For someone to be imprisoned for the same number of years that I’ve been alive? That’s… wow. Imprisonment is serious business.

In our Wednesday Bible study, we read part of the Gospel according to Luke, a part in which Jesus reads from the prophet Isaiah. He reads this: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” When he finishes this, he tells the people assembled in the synagogue that “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

Much–no, most of the story of the good news of Jesus Christ is the living out of this prophecy by Isaiah. Time and time again, Jesus brings release to the captives, and sets prisoners free. Nowhere in the Gospels do we hear of Jesus going to visit a prison, yet everywhere he goes, he sets people free.

Last week, we heard a story about Jesus setting a man free from the demons that haunted him. There are many such stories in the Bible, about Jesus going into towns and the countryside and casting out demons. Even in our story this morning, Jesus spends most of his night casting out demons, releasing people from the oppression and dominance of another power not their own. Exorcism was one way in which Jesus set people free.

Another way, of course, which we also hear about in our story this morning, is healing. In this case, it’s Simon’s mother-in-law, which gives us a few glimpses into Jesus’s life and ministry. The story takes place in Capernaum, on the sabbath day, at Simon’s house. Capernaum becomes Jesus’s “home base”, where his ministry starts, and where, from time to time, he returns. In the Gospel according to Mark, it’s also where he performs his first healing—Simon’s mother-in-law. Not a lot can be said about her. She has a fever, which, in that time, without antibiotics, was a big deal.

One of the reasons I like Mark so much is that, when he tells his stories, he keeps it simple. There’s not a lot of fanfare, there’s not a lot of extraneous information. Jesus simply takes Simon’s mother-in-law by the hand, lifts her up, and she’s healed. The fever’s gone.

And yet, for all its simplicity, it is an event that is profound and spreads through the countryside like ripples on the surface of a lake. As soon as the sabbath is over, at sundown, people start bringing the sick and the possessed to Peter’s house, all night. It isn’t until just before dawn that Jesus gets a break, any time to himself, when he goes off to a secluded place and prays.

Of course, I’m skipping over the part of the story that people like the least, and in our culture, I don’t blame them. Peter’s mother-in-law receives this wonderful gift, this healing, this curing of her fever, and the very first thing she does is serve Jesus and his disciples.

Ugh. Such stereotyping. This is not what we like to see or read, women reduced to a serving role. All I can say is that this story was written down 2000 years ago, and that’s what she was expected to do. Returning to her role as the hostess who takes care of her hosts was a return to what she was supposed to be, to what she was meant to be—at least, according to the story.

But maybe there’s something to that. One of the more troubling aspects of imprisonment in this country is something called recidivism. Recidivism is what we call it when someone is imprisoned, released from prison, and then commits another crime that lands them back in prison.

It’s troubling because, ideally, once someone leaves prison, they are supposedly “set free”. Yet, recidivism shows that when someone is let out of prison, they aren’t necessarily “set free”. They’ve been released from captivity, but somehow, everything else that keeps them trapped in the cycles of behavior that got them into trouble in the first place drags them right back into imprisonment.

43%, so almost half of the people released from prison in the United States end up back in prison. That’s a disturbing, disturbing statistic.

I have to ask, why? Why is being released from captivity not enough? What more is there than the freedom to do whatever we please?

When Simon’s mother-in-law is released from her illness, we may think it backwards and patriarchal that she is healed just so she can get back to work serving her guests. But whatever you may think of the job she was released to, she was freed TO something. She wasn’t just freed from her illness, she was freed TO something greater.

Similarly, a few minutes ago, I talked about Nelson Mandela, who spent 27 years in prison before being released. But when he was released, he didn’t simply walk around and do nothing, basking in his freedom and release. He was released from imprisonment, but he was also released to something far greater.

Nelson Mandela, in the first election that all South Africans were allowed to participate, became president of his country. He worked for peace and reconciliation, not revenge. He won the Nobel Peace prize. He was known as the Father of his country. And when he died a year and a half ago, the world lost one of the greatest leaders it has ever seen. Nelson Mandela was freed from imprisonment and freed to rise up and lead his people through one of the most difficult transitions a country can face.

So, what about else? What does Nelson Mandela or Simon’s mother-in-law have to do with us?

Every Sunday, we gather at the very beginning of our worship and confess that we are captive to sin and cannot free ourselves. We receive the forgiveness made possible by Jesus’s death on the cross and made alive in his resurrection from the dead. We leave joyous, sent into the world in peace to serve the world.

I wonder, though, if we see ourselves more as released from sin than we see ourselves as released to something else, to something greater.

If we are just released from sin and death, there isn’t much hope for us. We’re going to go back to the way things were before. This is a part of our reality, anyway—no one, after having been forgiven on Sunday morning, has ever made it to the next Sunday without needing to be forgiven again. There is a 100% recidivism rate when it comes to sin.

It happens when we look at the mission God has in store of us and we say, “We can’t do that—we have a building to maintain, and image to keep up. This is the way we’ve always done it.”

If we are not just released from the power of sin and death, but are released TO something else, what is that? What does it look like?

Does it look like a building that is not only used for Sunday morning worship, but is also a center for serving and volunteering?

Does it look like putting aside our own interests for the interests of others, even people we consider undesirable?

Does it look like loudly and boldly proclaiming the good news, that the kingdom of God has come near, no matter what people think of the news?

Does it look like 200 people doing nothing but sitting in the seat, or does it look like 20 who are devoted to the work of the church?

I can’t tell you exactly what it looks like. But, I can tell you that when Jesus healed Simon’s mother-in-law, he didn’t just heal her from her illness, he healed her to her full place in society. When he cast out demons from people, he didn’t just heal them from their possession, but healed them back to full, abundant life.

And when he died on the cross and rose from the grave, he didn’t just free us from the powers of sin and death so that we could go back to being the same old same old people we always were. He freed us to be living disciples, filled with the Holy Spirit, new creations as powerful as beautiful and as awe-inspiring as the stars.

This is what it means to be free. This is what liberation means. Go now, and be free!

Featured Image: “love-nelson” by Emanuele Bertuccelli is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Sermon – January 25, 2015 – Epiphany 3B

Third Sunday after Epiphany B
Preached at Faith Lutheran Church, Three Lakes, WI.

Jonah 3
Psalm 62:5-12
1 Corinthians 7:29-31
Mark 1:14-20

When I started college, I actually stopped going to church for a few weeks. Surprising, right?

It wasn’t that I was having a crisis of faith. It wasn’t that I suddenly had better things to on Sunday mornings and church wasn’t a priority any longer. It wasn’t that I was mad at the church I grew up in, or a pastor, or anything like that.

I stopped going to church when I started going to college because I was suddenly living in a brand new town six hours away from everything I’d known before. I was surrounded by new people, in a new environment, with new challenges and new expectations. In short, I was living in an introvert’s worst nightmare.

In that situation, then, going to a brand new church, with people I didn’t know, where I was already uncomfortable… it wasn’t going to happen. No way. Maybe later, but not right away. I had to get settled first. I had to meet some people. Get comfortable.

That’s where Angel and Sarah came in. They were two members of the campus congregation, and truthfully, I don’t remember how we met. What I do remember is they introduced themselves to me, we talked about campus congregation and the Thursday night worship services, and they invited me to “come and see”.

Still, for a few weeks, I didn’t go—I was still too shy to go and meet a whole group of new people. I wanted to, but never got up the courage. Thank God for Angel and Sarah, though. Whenever they saw me on campus, they’d call me by name (how cool is that?) and ask how I was doing.

More than anything, that’s what I remember. They called me by name and extended an invitation. That was enough—I ended up worshipping with the campus congregation for four years and became super involved in the campus ministry at Capital University. It was something so incredibly simple—calling by name, and an invitation. It was easy to extend that invitation. It took a few seconds.

And it changed everything.

It’s also what makes Jonah’s story so funny. You know how it goes: Jonah gets a call from God on his cell phone with a message saying he’s been outsourced to Nineveh. His mission, which he doesn’t have a choice to accept, is to give them a proclamation of judgment and doom: forty days, and Nineveh will be overthrown! So long, see ya later! Good riddance to bad rubbish.

Pretty good news for Jonah, I’d say. He hates Nineveh with a passion. Really, really hates Nineveh. Nineveh had been the capital of the Assyrian Empire, the Empire that destroyed the Northern Kingdom of Israel and scattered the people to the corners of the empire so they could never again be a community. 10 tribes of the Israelites were lost because of Assyria. Forty days, and Nineveh will be overthrown? Great! About time,

Sounds like a pretty cushy job, too. Nineveh is such an evil city, Jonah is only telling them of their inevitable fate. The city is beyond all hope, and is going to be destroyed, end of story. Jonah even gets to be there to watch it happen! Court side seats, how sweet is that?

So why on God’s green earth does Jonah run away? Why, if this job seems to be everything he could have ever wanted, does he get on a boat in the opposite direction, abandoning his duty, having to go through getting swallowed by a big fish before he’ll finally go and do what God tells him to? Does Jonah know something we don’t?

Yes, yes he does. Jonah absolutely knows something we don’t.

As a blogger who follows religious topics, I’ve seen all sorts of articles about the state of the postmodern church, the worries and fears about declining church attendance, and the “death” of Christianity. I have read plan after plan for how to revitalize the church, how to change worship to be more accommodating, how to organize committees and boards and mission teams to make church outreach more effective, and many, many other things. If we can just find the right combination of programs, personnel, strategic plans, vision statements, goals, and resources, we can save the church and finally get back to doing God’s work in the world.

It’s all very complicated, requiring lots of careful planning, training, teaching, and the latest and greatest publications from the most talented minds in theological thought to pull off this spectacular, remarkable feat. And it’s very difficult to pull off, requiring constant effort and maintenance. Not everyone will make the cut.

Does this sound like the general tone of things? Isn’t this how God’s work is done in the church?

Ah, but, that’s right, we were talking about Jonah. That’s why Jonah ran, right? Because he didn’t have all the right training, or the right books, or the right staff, or the right ideas, or the right programs?

Nothing of the sort, actually. Quite to the contrary. Jonah flees from God’s orders because he knows that his job is disgustingly easy, and because he knows exactly what will happen when he finishes it. We see it right there in the story.

Jonah marches into Nineveh, this hated city, and for one day, repeats the sentence given to him: “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” That’s all he does—a simple, blunt announcement from God. And look where it gets him.

With just that one sentence, he convinces the king of the city to order his people to repent of their crimes, to go into mourning, to beg God for forgiveness. The repentance spreads through the city: even the animals are put into mourning, covered in ashes and sackcloth. The change is so profound, so spectacular, that God decides not to go through with the plan to destroy the city: they literally changed God’s mind.

Which is exactly what Jonah was afraid of, and why he knew he didn’t want this job: he knew that, by simply proclaiming God’s message, the city would radically alter itself, and God would spare the city. He knew all it would take would be to go to the city and do what God told him to do.

You see, he did know something that many Christians have pretty well forgotten over the years. He knew what his job was, and that, if he actually did it, the results would be remarkable.

I was recently part of a group that took a look at the second chapter of Acts. The section in particular that was talked about goes like this:

“They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.” (Acts 2:42-47)

The group was asked what they thought of that particular description. Do you know what the response was?

“I wish God would add to our numbers.”

My first thought: all of that great stuff, and the only thing we focus on is the numbers? How far removed are we from being actual disciples of God? My second thought, though, was this: if we want the same results we read about, maybe we should start copying the same methods.

When Angel and Sarah invited me to be a part of my college’s campus congregation, it was so meaningful precisely because it’s unusual. It doesn’t happen nearly as often as it should, especially among mainline Protestant Christians in North America.

By and large, we are extraordinarily bad at inviting people to be a part of our faith journeys.

By and large, we are extraordinarily bad at taking care of our neighbors, unless we think we can get something out of it in return, such as butts in the seats.

By and large, we are extraordinarily bad at studying the Word of God, at prayer, at gathering together for worship and fellowship and meals.

Is it because it is too hard? Is it because we’ve given up? Is it because everyone’s told is that being faithful servants and disciples of God is beyond our reach, beyond our ability, beyond our finances, beyond our resources?

I don’t know. I don’t know why we are so bad at these things. What really worries me is that maybe we’ve been bad at them for so long because everyone says we’re not capable of being who God has called us to be.

I want you to listen to me very closely. Everyone is wrong.

Everyone is wrong because the Holy Spirit couldn’t care less about a congregation’s programs or staff or how learned they are in doctrine or how trained they are in special evangelism techniques. The Holy Spirit loves taking inadequate people (and we’re all inadequate people) and making them into something new.

Everyone is wrong because God didn’t care that Jonah entered the city of Nineveh hoping and praying that they would be destroyed. Through the proclamation and call to repentance, God sparked a revolution that saved the city from destruction.

Everyone is wrong because Jesus didn’t care that Simon, Andrew, James and John had never met him before, or, if they had met him, never considered him someone worth following. He called to them, and he invited them into a journey of faith. “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people,” he said, and with that single invitation, sparked another revolution that has been passed down to us.

In none of these stories did human beings create these sweeping changes. In each one, God changed the world through the simplest, most basic of acts: calling, speaking, inviting, praying, sharing money and food.

Through these simple, basic acts, God brought the Holy Spirit like a whirlwind of fire and ignited the hearts of people. God can do so much with so little. Words are all it took to save the city of Nineveh, to invite the first disciples into a new journey—words were all it took to create the universe. Simple words. Simple acts.

It doesn’t take much to invite someone along on your faith journey. It doesn’t take much to study the Bible, whether on your own or, preferably, with other people. It doesn’t take much to pray together, to gather together, to share meals, to support one another. It doesn’t take much to share the good news of Jesus Christ, summed up beautifully and perfectly in the first words of his ministry, words that would find their fulfilment in his death and resurrection:

“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near: repent, and believe in the good news.” The kingdom of God is right here, right now, near at hand.

Everyone is wrong when they say it can’t be done. Everyone is wrong when they say it’s just too hard. It isn’t. It’s simple.

“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near.”

If we let go and actually let ourselves do this, to share the good news through word and deed, I can’t wait to see what the Holy Spirit can do with us.

Sacred Space and Hospitality

Last week, the Duke University administration approved using the Duke Chapel bell tower to broadcast the Muslim adhan, or call-to-prayer, before the weekly jummah prayer service. Two days later, the administration reversed its decision in light of heavy criticism and “serious and credible concerns about safety and security”. Instead, the adhan was sung outside the chapel before those who wished to participate in the jummah headed to the chapel basement.

News outlets picked up the story and sensationalized it. High-profile speakers like Franklin Graham encouraged donors to pull their support from Duke University as a sort of sanction against the administration. It is implied that threats were made against the campus and students.

The question is this: is it okay for a Muslim call-to-prayer to be broadcast from a Christian chapel bell tower? The complaint seems to be that, because it is a Christian chapel, it is inappropriate. It is a Christian building meant for Christian use.

But, consider this. Muslims have prayed in the chapel basement for years. And while Franklin Graham may be referring to this when he says that the chapel has probably already been “desecrated”, it doesn’t change the fact that other religions have been using the chapel building for worship long before now. Where was the outcry then? Why is the call-to-prayer in the tower more offensive than Muslims worshiping in the chapel building?

Some claim it is offensive to have such a public display of Islam while Muslim extremists throughout the world are committing violence against Christians. To this I say, hogwash. If the call-to-prayer is an offensive reminder of the actions of extremists, then so too is the beautiful Duke Chapel carillon, and every Christian bell tower that “forces” passersby to listen to Christian hymns, a reminder of the centuries of violence by Christians that continues to the present day. Then there’s the irony of those who threatened violence and harm to the school and students if the bell tower was used in this way. Christianity has a long, bloody history and present of violence and terrorism that, no, is not behind us.

Some claim that allowing the adhan to be broadcast from the bell tower is another example of Christianity being pushed out of the public eye and replaced. A quick look at the Duke Chapel worship schedule and religious life pages would say otherwise. Christian worship is held every day at Duke, and the vast majority of official religious groups on campus are Christian (the chapel schedule for Friday doesn’t even include the weekly Muslim jummah). Our country is overwhelmingly supportive of Christianity to the exclusion of other religions. We occupy more space in society than is healthy for a country that claims religious freedom as one of its core tenets.

In my mind, the question is not about sacred space and desecration. Is God’s blessing and holiness so weak that broadcasting the adhan a few minutes each week from a building already used for Muslim worship would be enough to drive God’s spirit from the ground? Hopefully not! If so, every sinner (i.e., every last human being) that walks through the doors of the chapel and does not immediately receive forgiveness has long since driven God out with their unholiness and the question is a moot point. I have more faith in the power and strength of God’s presence than that.

Instead, the question is about hospitality. Christianity and the sacredness of God are firmly entrenched at Duke Chapel. Though the university is not a university of the United Methodist Church, it still claims strong ties to that church. If Christianity is under attack at Duke, it is from secular society, not Islam. Christians at Duke University have little to fear from their Muslim brothers and sisters.

But even in the United States, where Christianity is not under attack, we remember that the history of our faith includes long periods of persecution. We remember that, in other places around the world, Christians do live under the threat of violence from their neighbors–even from their Muslim neighbors. And we remember that, in those times, non-Christians, including Muslims, protected and sheltered us because it was the right thing to do.

Allowing the adhan to be broadcast from the Duke Chapel bell tower is not on the same heroic level as Christians protecting Muslims in Egypt or Muslims guarding churches in Kenya. But it would still be a gesture of hospitality and welcome from one group of God-fearers to another. The chapel, and almost every congregation and church I know of, is used for more than Christian worship because Christians all over the world recognize that welcoming the stranger is part of our calling as disciples of Christ.

Perhaps one day, we will finally see past the extremes of all faiths and remember that we human beings are not so different after all.

Featured Image: “In an all blue world, the beginning” by Corey Butler is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

An ELCA Pastor's reflections on life and the church

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