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Sermon June 1: Familiarity
June 16, 2008, 11:33 am
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Exodus 19:2–8a
Psalm 100
Romans 5:1–8
Matthew 9:35—10:8 [10:9–23]

          Since we celebrate Father’s Day today, I was thinking back to my childhood memories of being with my dad. There are familiar moments, typical events. Like sitting on the couch with my dad, watching Star Trek- and when the scary aliens started fighting, feeling much safer for having my dad next to me. Or following Dad out to our backyard to watch the spring storms roll in, trusting that he would keep me safe, while insistently suggesting we run to the basement for cover. Or- a memory of a safer moment- sitting at the kitchen table, while Dad made specially shaped pancakes for breakfast. These are a few of the familiar memories that have formed the basis of my relationship with my Father.

          Trust, love, safety, presence- these are some of the qualities I have been blessed to experience in my relationship with my dad. I think I have been very lucky. Because of our good relationship, I get it when Jesus calls God Father. Jesus is God among us- choosing to live a human life, to try to express really big and awesome Godstuff to us, so that we can grasp at least some small piece of who God is. Jesus calls God Father, Daddy, because we all have fathers, we know who that is. The problem is that we don’t always have fathers who demonstrate the type of self-giving love that Jesus is trying to tell us about. Our fathers have faults, because they are not God. When the word “father” brings us a familiar image of incredible love and forgiveness because we have experienced that type of relationship from our human father, we find it easier to think of God as Father. But when we’re not really sure who a father is, or haven’t been able to experience a father at his best, it can really be hard to see God as Father. Our picture of God can become clouded with our experiences of disappointment, abandonment, or abuse. We are singing a number of hymns about God as Father, pray to “Our Father”, but father is not the only image we have of God. We call God counselor, advocate, friend, comforter- many other titles that might build from experiencing relationships with other humans, people from whom we might catch a glimpse of the incredible love, patience, and presence of God.

          Familiar phrases can sometimes roll quickly through our mouths and not quite engage our brains or hearts. Father God can sometimes be that phrase. We meet another in our reading from Romans: suffering produces endurance, 4and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5and hope does not disappoint us …

The progression in this phrase is one that has given comfort and meaning to many people during difficult times. Various phrases in our culture are rather similar: “what doesn’t kill you will only make you stronger” as well as the expectation that we pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps. These later phrases focus on the benefits of hard times and the expectation that we have the power and responsibility to lift ourselves out of our own problems.

          There have been people who use this verse to condone suffering. They declare that since suffering produces endurance, 4and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5and hope does not disappoint us, it’s ok to keep people in their situations of suffering. After all, Paul clearly acknowledges that there will be suffering, and it produces good character and spiritual development.

          When I was in high school, I left the country for the first time. I traveled with my dad and a team from Lutheran Disaster Response to work in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Georges. There wasn’t a whole lot of obvious post-hurricane cleanup to be done; we came as the relief effort was drawing to a close. So we traveled into a village of squatters, living in small homes, sometimes only consisting of a few walls of pressboard and a bit of corrugated metal for a roof. Those I met lived in conditions I considered situations of suffering. I suppose it could have been worse, they had electricity and water running through the makeshift village, after all that is more than some have. I was always met with kindness, hospitality, and generosity. People seemed so happy- and their faith was so strong. And so it might be easy to use these folks as an example of how situations of suffering produce people of strong character and faith. We might almost envy their situation.

          Across the street from this precarious village, this illegal settlement, was a very different housing opportunity: multimillion dollar oceanfront homes and a condominium complex. If we could choose to be born into either situation, certainly we would choose the squatter’s village for its faith benefits? I think not.

          The problem we face with familiar images for God and familiar Bible passages is that we forget to consider what they really mean for us. Paul starts out with suffering. He’s talking to the early church- and they know suffering. Some have known the struggle of explaining a new faith commitment to skeptical family members. Paul himself faces imprisonment during his ministry. Paul’s acknowledgement of suffering echoes up the centuries to us. There is suffering we all face- in broken relationships, death of loved ones, loss of homes and jobs… We all face difficult situations at some point in our lives.

          We get into trouble when we start justifying the presence of suffering based on passages such as these. Justice is also a very important theme throughout Scripture. When we have told slaves to accept their situation, sent battered women back to their husbands telling them abuse is their cross to bear, and comfortably muse on the faith growth of the poor- we are living in sin. We force people into suffering and miss the point Paul is getting at.

          Paul is speaking to people who know suffering and acknowledging it. Sometimes we pretend there is no suffering in our lives or our world. We think it’s something we need to fix alone, something to be ashamed of. We’re told to put on a happy face. We’re told that if we only had enough faith, nothing bad would happen to us. Paul knew better than that. Suffering happens. In God’s vision for creation, it shouldn’t. But we are broken people and it does.

          This Romans passage is not about condemning people to suffer, nor is it about wearing rosy glasses through our own experiences of suffering. It is about God being with us through the worst and best of times. “God’s love is poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us”. God is present with more love and forgiveness than even the best father we have known. God is the Father who gently covers the skinned knee with a bandage, who holds us tight when our first best friend decides we’re not cool enough anymore, who stays up late to help us cram for that history final, who speaks words of encouragement when our own children are born.

          God welcomes us all into the family. No suffering, no sin, can keep us away. In our deepest moment of sin, God comes to us. Jesus’ incarnation, suffering, and death show us God’s love. We are children who have done nothing to deserve love, helpless as newborns, rebellious as teenagers. But God loves us with the intensity of a father for his beloved children. And that is something to celebrate this Father’s Day!


Sermon June 1
June 16, 2008, 11:31 am
Filed under: Sermons | Tags: , ,

Deuteronomy 11:18–21, 26–28
Psalm 31:1–5, 19–24

Romans 1:16–17; 3:22b–28 [29–31]
Matthew 7:21–29




           Many of us have or will receive stimulus package rebate checks in the mail. Our government hopes this flow of cash will create more buying, more selling, more creating, and more jobs. Those of us who have been watching prices steadily rising might find our wallets getting thinner. We start to discriminate more tightly between our needs and wants. And at the top of our list- is us. There’s a saying circulating around the internet and it even found its way into the Letters to the Editor of the Rockford Register Star: If we spend that money at Wal-Mart, all the money will go to China.
If we spend it on gasoline, it will go to the Arabs.
If we purchase a computer, it will go to India.
If we purchase fruit and vegetables, it will go to Mexico. And none of it will help the American economy. The only way to keep that money at home is to spend it at garage sales, because those are the only businesses still in the United States.
          It’s all about me- I matter more than anyone else, and the USA is more important than anywhere else. I’m about to get something good, and I’m going to keep it for myself, and for those in my group, my country. The rest of the people of the world just don’t matter.

          I get the idea from Paul’s letter to the Romans that there is a similar sentiment that the new Christians are feeling toward their Jewish neighbors. They’ve received some great news, their teacher, Jesus, died and rose from the dead. Because of Jesus’ faithfulness, they are made righteous before God. So they look at those who do not follow Jesus with scorn. They’re covered, and if others aren’t – it’s not their problem.

          There’s really a lot of confusion for those early Christians. Jesus was a Jew and his disciples were, too. But after Jesus’ death and resurrection, the disciples are sent out to all nations. Paul is especially sent to the non-Jewish nations. So the new Jesus followers wrestle with what it takes to follow Jesus- do they need to live as Jews and follow the law? The Jews were always the chosen people of God, the only people with whom Yahweh had a covenantal relationship. Who are the people God chooses through Jesus? Does the relationship with God that Jesus offers supersede the coventantal relationship, is it a part of that relationship, or is it something different alongside it? What does it take to be “saved”?

          It is this last question that we see echoed at the beginning of our Gospel lesson. When I look at the opening verses of our Gospel, I am troubled. We read Jesus rejecting those who believe they have done everything right. Jesus denies them, saying he does not know them! What can these harsh words from Jesus mean? They are words that trouble many people. Words that trouble me.

          As I’ve been talking to friends and colleagues, reading from scholars, about this text, I’ve heard others echo my confusion and fear regarding these verses. Some folks suggest Jesus is talking about motivation and attitude. We face the danger of doing service to people so that we can feel good about ourselves, or earn favor with God. Others suggest those who are denied just weren’t doing the right things or keeping the law.

          As I think about our passage from Romans and the question, “what becomes of boasting”, I find these troubling words from the Gospel able to drive the point home. Righteousness and justification are gifts of God’s free will. They are not given in exchange for what is done, for belonging to the “right” group. It’s not about us. All our works, our prophesying, our casting our demons, our doing good works in Jesus’ name- these are not the tickets that buy us an elevator ride up to heaven.

          Our righteousness, our justification, our salvation are given to us by Jesus’ faithfulness. This is good news! But there are times when we look at good news and see it as bad news. If our righteousness is based on Jesus’ righteousness, we can’t boast that we have it because of something we did. We can’t look at another person and think- they don’t have it- but I do- and feel that we are more special or better than that person. Jesus died for them, too!

          Because God invites all people into relationship, we can no longer ignore our neighbors, or think only of our own needs. God claims us, and others around the world, as God’s children, clothed in the righteousness of Christ. It is my fervent hope that those reading the editorial from the Register Star would immediately think- the Chinese, Arabs, Mexicans- these are my brothers and sisters in Christ. These are fellow human beings for whom Jesus suffered and died. They are people who have a right to live – to flourish in dignity. It’s natural for us to want to have the resources to take care of ourselves and our families. But in Christ, our family is made a whole lot bigger.

          This morning, we gather here at Zion. All around Rockford, thousands are gathering for the same purpose, meeting the same God in their midst. That’s a pretty cool thing to think about. But when we expand our scope, we realize that from our bedtime, during our deep hours of sleep, and between lunch and our afternoon nap, Christians gather around the world for Sunday worship. Many of those communities will have read the very same lessons we read this morning. Geography, language, race, and customs may create a distinction among the various people of this earth. There is one foundation which unites us. God the Creator brought us all into existence, God the Son has extended his faithfulness to create us as a righteous people, and God the Spirit sustains and guides us as we seek to live into God’s kingdom.