Grace and peace to you, sisters and brothers in Christ.
With an inquisitive toddler in the house, Jeff and I have become increasingly more aware of our responsibility as parents to interpret the world. We are laying the foundation of her worldview. We’re teaching her how to react and interact with life situations and different people.
The other week, we heard a story about two young children who had wandered away from home and were picked up by a neighbor and the police. This hit home for me as I realized how easy it would be for my little one to wander off. Her tendency to go wherever she wants or to open the door and let herself outside has sent me to the store to buy locks and to consider placing a permanent tracking device on her. It also has meant another conversation about police.
After our conversation, we check what she’s understood. What do police do? -They help people. They keep us safe. What do police wear? -They have a badge.
We’re training her to accept help from someone properly identified as a police officer. Not because we’ve met any of the local sheriffs, but because we trust the role of police, and hope that each person serving as such will act as they should. When she needs help, if we weren’t around, we want her to be comfortable getting the help she needs from someone safe.
In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus is preparing his disciples to take on their role as his followers. This passage comes towards the end of Jesus’ speech to the disciples. Jesus is sending them out to all the people of Israel, to declare God’s kingdom, heal the sick, and raise the dead. Jesus tells them to pack nothing, but depend on the hospitality of those they meet. He warns them that this is not going to be easy, in fact, it’s going to be very dangerous. People will reject them. Their ministry will have a bad affect on their families. Yet after these warnings, he offers this message of hope: they have been given the honor of being Jesus’ presence. Those who welcome them will be rewarded.
The writer of Matthew is using this event to speak to his own community. Matthew’s community are the next generation disciples, who struggle with having joined this new Christian movement because it has meant leaving family and familiar ways of living and worshipping. They continue the disciples’ work of proclaiming the kingdom in word and deed, working as Jesus for the world. They have experiences of welcome as well as rejection.
As this text finds its way to my ears, I find myself conflicted as to where we fit in. We’re overhearing a historic event, we’re considering the early church, and we’re expecting God to speak to us with instruction for our lives today. But which role is ours? We might hear this text from either side: both as the ones being welcomed or the ones welcoming others.
We might see ourselves in the long line of disciples whom Jesus sends out into the world. I know this might not be your first impulse. It’s more likely that you’ve been raised to think that missionaries are people who are sent, and that your job is to support those other people who are talented and trained to share the gospel. But the truth is that you have been united with Jesus in your baptism, and so share in his ministry. You are called to bring Jesus into the world, carrying his presence in you, and you do this as prophet, righteous one, and even as the least of the disciples.
As pastor, this task is easier for me to grasp than I think it may be for many of you. Like you all, I am called to enter the role of Jesus’ disciple, Jesus’ emissary, by virtue of my baptism. In addition to my baptismal identity and call, I have also taken on the role, or office, of pastor, through my ordination to the ministry of Word and Sacrament.
Like the police and other public servants, I put on a uniform that speaks to my role. Here for church, I put on my stole as a symbol of being yoked with Christ, and both here and in the community, I wear a clerical collar as a sign of my office. In an age of informality, I still appreciate being called “Pastor” because it is a reminder to both the one addressing and to me that I am called to fulfill a role. This uniform and address are reminders that I work on behalf of, in the name of Christ.
To work in the name of Christ is not to elevate myself to his divinity, but to step back from seeking praise for myself. It’s not about me. It means that I am not looking to be accepted based on who I am, not because I’m Elizabeth, not because I achieved a certain GPA, or went to a certain school, or look a certain way, or can quote so many Bible verses.
Sent in Jesus’ name, I come as an imperfect vessel of Jesus’ perfect presence. As I enter your lives in times of joy and sorrow, in the midst of grief or illness, on your wedding day or the baptism of your child, I dare to enter such holy times and places of vulnerability because I trust that Jesus Christ will be there for you, through me. I myself have nothing to offer, but Christ has something to offer, so I come as Christ’s messenger, Christ’s presence, because that’s what he has told me to do.
You may not have been set aside by ordination or consecration, but you have been chosen and called through baptism, and there you were clothed with Christ and marked with the sign of the cross. You, too, are called to bring Christ to others.
You don’t have to be a great speaker, or healer, or encourager, or administrator. Those gifts are good, but it is not only the people “out front” who serve the world as Christ. This text reminds us that the littlest or the least among us is valued by God. There are many among us who do thankless work. You may do the work that is taken for granted, never noticed until you’re gone on vacation or have to step down. You might not feel like you fit in. Even those who rub us like sand in our sandals have a place in Jesus’ community. Whatever your specific gifts and calling are, you are faithful in sharing them through your greater calling to go into the world as Jesus’ presence. As you live and work in Jesus’ name, it becomes less about you and your abilities, and more about the one in whose name you go. Jesus has the power to make himself known through you in both your best days and your most clumsy efforts.
By taking on your role as baptized child of God, and being welcomed by others for the presence of Christ you bring them, you are blessing them. It can be difficult to accept being welcomed. For those of us who are used to being the host, who like to get up and serve others, it can feel strange to be on the receiving end of hospitality. To be Jesus’ presence can mean taking his stance of humility and accepting welcome as a gift, even from those you intend to serve.
When I was volunteering with Lutheran Disaster Response in Puerto Rico, we built a house in the middle of a shantytown. One afternoon, we were walking through the town, picking up trash. A man came out of his little house with Styrofoam containers of freshly scrambled eggs for us. It was something I was totally unprepared for: accepting a gift from someone who had so little. It was a welcome that bridged the divide between the one planning to serve and the one planned to be served. In Christ’s name, we serve each other. Because we bear Christ to others, we may find ourselves welcomed in unexpected ways.
Jesus also calls us to be the ones welcoming others. In this passage, he is speaking to the insiders, the community of disciples, and Matthew writes to his own community, another group of insiders. So we have to look outside this text to hear the refrain God sings: calling us to welcome the sinner, the outsider, the immigrant, and the powerless, as well as the other Christians: prophets, righteous ones, and even the least and the most irritating within our community.
Here in this place, God is forming your worldview, and training you for your role in the world. Jesus has united himself with you, and calls you to bring his presence to all the world. May you experience the joy of being welcomed for the sake of the one who sends you, and for the sake of the message of love Jesus speaks through you.
Grace and peace to you, sisters and brothers in Christ,
If you were to imagine a holy place, what would you see? What does sacred space look like to you?
I remember being in Italy, people filling a plaza buzzing with conversations of all subjects and the sharp click of stilettos on cobblestone. Then I’d walk into an old church, and I had passed through a portal into holy space. A reverent hush fell over tourists and worshippers alike. It was as if the very walls were steeped in prayer, after overhearing them for so many years. Even if it had been a long time since you had talked to God in prayer, it seemed a natural thing to do in such a holy place.
I think also of early mornings on the river, when the power of the current and the interaction between the warm water and cool morning air create a mist of swirling shapes. It was as if dreams could walk among the awake and visions of holy messengers were possible. The illusion of power over your own life was swept away as you became aware of the power greater than yourself.
There’s something in us that knows the power of sacred space. Otherwise normal places become set apart because of what happens there. Sometimes a space is special only to a few people, like the location of your first date or your first kiss, or where you answered that call and found out you got the job. Because of its sacredness, the space lends some sense of possibility to what might otherwise be difficult to believe. You might go back there to remember that moment, to try to recapture the magic, and revive a failing romance or flagging confidence. One of my cousins walked his soon to be fiancee around Holy Hill for over an hour so that he could bring her in to a special place and ask to marry her.
Holy, sacred spaces might be obviously set aside, or there may be something about what happens there that has made it special to you. On the whole, these are places that make us more open to the divine. They are spaces that open us to possibilities and give us the courage to take a leap into a new way of living, being, or seeing ourselves.
For the Gospel of Matthew, a mountaintop is this type of space. Important things and teachings take place on a mountain throughout this Gospel. The mountain is the place where the distance between God and people has been lessened.
Today we hear that the disciples go to a certain mountain as Jesus had instructed them. There they meet the resurrected Jesus and receive his final words to them. Jesus has a call and a promise to give them. The call is to disciple others and continue Jesus’ work. The promise is that Jesus will be with them.
Jesus calls the disciples to become disciple-makers, saying, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you” (28:19-20a). Jesus is preparing to leave his disciples to do the work he has prepared them to do. They’ve followed him throughout his ministry, and he’s been able to teach and correct them as they’ve tried to do what he is doing.
Discipleship is really an apprenticeship model. There are not many trades today that allow for this type of teaching, so often we go off to school and then are set up to compete with others to try to rise to the top, without stopping to learn by working alongside those who are more experienced. The disciple, like an apprentice, attaches herself to a teacher, doing everything just like the teacher. It might start with gaining some basic knowledge, but progresses into hands-on training. A good teacher allows the disciple to try out his knowledge, not leaving him to fend for himself, but correcting and encouraging, offering insight along the way. The goal is for the disciple to become just like the teacher, doing the same work, continuing in the teacher’s thought or philosophy.
The disciples to whom Jesus speaks are getting ready to be the teachers to new groups of disciples. They are to initiate new disciples and bring them into the community through baptism. Then they are to share Jesus’ teachings and train up these new disciples to live in the way Jesus taught.
As Jesus sets before them this task for which they have been prepared, Jesus promises, “…remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (28:20b). Jesus is about to ascend to be with the Father, but he will continue to remain with the disciples through the Holy Spirit. The Spirit will be the continuing presence of the teacher-master, who will guide and continue to develop the skills and work of the disciple-apprentice. Today we also read from Genesis, and hear how God existed before time and created time itself. So we hear Jesus’ promise to be with disciples until the end of the age as a promise given by the time-keeper, a promise that extends into a holy, God-filled future.
We inherit this call and promise as our birthright. We are baptized into this identity as disciples and called through the water and spirit to be discipling disciples, following those early disciples in following Jesus and inviting other to join us.
Each of you is called. You are called to invite and train others into the community and practice of faith. I know it can sound like a daunting task. You might ask, “who am I to be a discipler?” Protesting, “I’m nothing like Jesus, nothing like those disciples, nothing like the better religious people I know.”
Notice in the Matthew text that those who gathered on the mountain are described as both worshipping and doubting when they meet the risen Jesus. Even these elite eleven disciples are of mixed mind when Jesus hands them the baton of ministry. They’re not 100% sure they can do this, but history shows that they pushed on anyway. And God was indeed faithful to them. They were able to disciple many others, just as Jesus had called them. The church truly grew to include disciples of all nations, and Jesus’ presence has continued among us through these generations.
A phrase one of my colleagues gave me to describe this mix of worshipping and doubting as it hits us today is, “fake it until you make it.” You might not always feel the most sure in your faith, the most persistent in your prayer, or the most holy in your works. But you are called to keep worshipping, keep praying, and keep doing as Jesus has done. You are called to disciple others, even as you continually need direction and support from the master.
This space is sacred space. The possibility brought closer to you is that Jesus’ call and promise are meant to fall on your ears and your heart. As a church, we can help amplify this call and promise to each other. We need to learn to recognize each other’s gifts and encourage each other to use them. This means trying to hear the needs of our congregation and identify people among us who could best meet those needs. It means not being afraid to say to a pew neighbor, “I see these gifts in you, and I know our congregation and the world would be a better place if you would use your gifts in this way.” — maybe that would sound like,
“I love that you are always so animated when we talk and you make me feel comfortable enough to share my own story. I know we are about to start a new season of Sunday school and could use good people to share the story of God’s love with the young people. Would you be willing to prayerfully consider using your gift of storytelling as a Sunday School leader?”
We need to step away from asking just anyone to fill a certain slot of need, and move towards setting each other up to be successful by asking people to step into roles for which God has especially gifted them. I just started watching first episodes of the TV show “Parenthood.” Max’s parents are told that he has asperger’s, a form of autism. As they try to take in this diagnosis, the psychologist tells them that their job is to find his gifts, to enter his world, and help him bring to the world what he has been especially gifted to offer. This is the same role we are called to have for each other, helping each other recognize our called and giftedness, so that we can serve the world as Jesus’ disciples.
Stepping up to discipleship requires trust in the master, trust that you have been gifted in a way that will enable you to share how God is active in your life and welcome others into experiencing God’s presence. No matter where you find yourself on the continuums of worship and doubt, Jesus has promised to be with you. You’ll never be cut or kicked out of Jesus’ school of disciples. It was a hard call even for those first eleven disciples. Maybe only on that sacred space on the mountainside, with Jesus in front of them, would those half-worshipping, half-doubting disciples agreed to follow this call and returned off the mountain with purpose rather than fleeing back into normal life. It can be a difficult call for us, too.
I pray that you would experience this place as a sacred space that opens you to the possiblity of following Jesus’ call. In the word and sacrament that carry Jesus to you, may you be strengthened in your own faith and prepared for discipleship. Be blessed with Jesus promise: Jesus is with you always. Amen.
Filed under: Sermons, Uncategorized | Tags: "God doesn't give us more than we can handle", Acts 2, hope, Jesus, John 20, John 7, Pentecost, Spirit
It’s been one of those weeks for me. When all the swirling forces of life combine to make a perfect storm. It’s the preschool germs that keep coming home. It’s the laundry that never ends and only gets half-folded before the baby is crying or the toddler is hungry or the dog needs to go out. The calendar that keeps getting filled up. The bills that arrive each month. The extended family members in various degrees of illness and health. Another bowl dropped and shattered on the floor. The days that never have enough hours and the weeks that never have enough days. My junk is what it is, and the mess of my life won’t look like yours. But one week or another, I’d bet you’ve been here, too. With a messy life leaving you feeling worn out, overwhelmed, and exhausted.
Exhausted. That’s a good word for me today. At its roots, there is “ex” meaning from, and “haust” coming from a word meaning to draw or even to take. Draw from. Take out of. Like each little bump in an otherwise smooth road of life has come along and taken a straw to siphon off a little bit more of my energy, a little bit more of my patience, a little bit more of my spirit. Until I am drained. I am dry.
Have you been there before? Have you felt like you have nothing left to give? Not even enough strength to make it through the day? Maybe you’ve been so bad that you’ve known you can’t handle one more thing… and then the phone rings again, something else has happened. It can be too much. And those well-meaning pious phrases like, “God doesn’t give us more than we can handle” leave you angry and certain that God didn’t give you any of this.
If you’re there, or if someday, you find yourself there, know that you’re not alone. People here have been there. People you look up to have been there. People in the Bible have been there.
The disciples have been there. We meet them there in our reading from John. The text says they’ve locked themselves in a room out of fear. They’ve just seen their beloved teacher killed by the religious and political powers that be. They’ve buried the one who has given their lives meaning and purpose. Now they are alone, afraid, exhausted. Their courage, drive, faith, and purpose have been drawn out of them. They are deflated.
That room feels like all the air has been sucked out of it. Suddenly, into that stagnant mess, Jesus appears. He who once was dead is filled with life. His presence fills the room. He speaks and breathes upon those gathered. He breathes out the Holy Spirit.
The disciples are ex-hausted— drained out. Then Jesus comes and in-spires them. Jesus breathes into them. They are filled with the Holy Spirit.
Early in John, when Jesus was describing what would happen through his ministry, he presents another image of the change he works from us being exhausted to inspired.
Jesus speaks of all of us as parched, dried up, thirsty people. Jesus can change that, so he calls out, and welcomes everyone to come. “Come, and drink from me,” he invites. Then Jesus shifts the image. Instead of continuing the image by saying those thirsty people come to him and are satisfied, Jesus declared, “Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.”
Not only is the original dryness quenched, but it is replaced by a stream whose source will never be depleted. Instead of a one-time refreshment, there is a gushing abundance. Jesus changes us from dried up to overflowing.
From exhausted to inspired, dried up to overflowing: this is the change Jesus works in you, through the Holy Spirit. Jesus breathes the Holy Spirit into you, Jesus fills you with the living, flowing, rushing Spirit.
Jesus sends his Spirit to you, so that you may have life, believe in him, and continue his work of proclaiming the kingdom of God. Jesus has continued to pour out the Spirit since those first days of his resurrection, when fears were calmed and people of all nations heard the good news in their mothertongue.
So what does it mean when you find yourself in a dry spell? If Jesus is pouring out the Spirit abundantly, why would we ever be exhausted? Is Jesus withholding the Spirit? Is there something you’re not doing right?
The Spirit is ever faithful. Jesus never abandons you. But feeling overwhelmed and abandoned are real. It’s important to remember the source of the Spirit when considering your expectations of how you should feel throughout life. Jesus has given you his Spirit. Jesus has always been connected with the Spirit, but that doesn’t mean that he didn’t have difficult times during his life and ministry on earth. Even filled with the Spirit of life, Jesus wept at Lazarus’ death, was betrayed by a friend and followers, suffered, and died. Filled with the Spirit, Jesus still suffered.
So, to proclaim that Jesus has filled you with the Spirit isn’t to say that all your problems will be solved, grief will be no more, and every mundane moment of life will suddenly be filled with meaning. It is to say that the God of life and love is faithfully with you always. One of my favorite verses speaks of the work of the Spirit when we are at our most troubled: Romans 8:26, “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.”The Spirit is always working to connect us with God.
In connecting us with God, the Spirit reframes the troubles of our days. The Spirit elevates us to catch a glimpse of God’s longer and more hopeful perspective. God’s vision always includes light after darkness, presence after loneliness, life after death.
If you find yourself overwhelmed by circumstances in life, there are things to be done to help you find yourself more settled in an awareness of the Spirit. The Spirit leads us to gather for worship, to pray, and to listen to God and join in God’s work in the world. These are places in which we are more fully aware of God’s kingdom in which all those things that burden us will be eased and made well. The Spirit brings us to the one from whom we can drink and be more than satisfied.
May Jesus so inspire you that you would have faith even in the most difficult times of life, and comfort in the overflowing grace of God’s life-giving presence.
Filed under: Sermons, Uncategorized | Tags: death, disciples, Farewell Discourse, grief, Jesus, last words
There was once a man who had just buried his father. His relationship with his old man was never too intimate. The old man wasn’t like that. Never said “I love you” or “I’m proud of you, son.” The only time he could remember seeing his father cry was when, as an eight year old, he stood next to his father as they shoveled dirt into his mother’s grave.
Now, as he went through the old farmhouse, that memory stung his eyes with tears. He brushed them away, trying to be stoic like his father had been. “Death is just part of the game.” Those had been his father’s last words to him. As he sorted into boxes all the remnants of his father’s life, those words left a bitter ache. He had hoped that, at the end, his father might have something … more… to say to him. But it had been the same as always, obvious and uncomforting words not quite filling the space between them.
As he was packing up the bedroom, he found a box under the bed. Pulling it out, he discovered that it contained a series of leather-bound books. Flipping one open, he saw his father’s sharp script covering the pages. A journal? A boxful of journals? He had never known his father was one to write. He sat down on the bed, and began to read.
As he read, he finally heard the voice he had longed for. Moving back and forward through time, this written voice spoke of love. The son heard a familiar story, the story of his life, his family, but now there was insight- reasons his father had raised him as he had. Even if it didn’t all make sense, even if they weren’t choices he appreciated, finally he knew that his father had wanted the best for him; his father had loved him.
When a loved one dies, our opportunity to ask “why” about events and decisions ends with them. Maybe we never got to hear the words we most longed to, or are left with questions that will never be answered. For those few who receive them, a message left behind can sometimes give beautiful comfort, or at least can provide a remembrance of the relationship.
We open the gospel to hear Jesus praying to the Father. He is praying after, or as part of, his long final teaching to his disciples. Jesus knows he is about to die. Jesus knows he is about to leave his beloved community.
So, while this is a prayer between Jesus and the Father, and the disciples and recorder of this prayer are partially only eavesdropping, we can infer that Jesus meant for this prayer to be remembered and shared with the community and the many who would become members of the community, including us today.
This is Jesus’ final message, or at least a part of it. This prayer is a gift for those first disciples, who were about to be plunged into that bewildering experience of watching a loved one die. For those who would be left with so many unanswered questions when Jesus dies, this prayer is a revelation of Jesus’ intentions for them.
This prayer is a gift for us. We haven’t lived through the emotional rollercoaster of serving alongside Jesus, watching him die, and meeting him as he is resurrected and then remaining on earth to continue his work as he ascends to the Father. We do receive this prayer in the midst of retelling this movement. We hear this reading on the last Sunday of the Easter season, near the time when the church celebrates Jesus’ ascension, and just before we celebrate Pentecost, when we remember that Jesus sends the Spirit to be as his presence with us. This prayer helps us make sense of Jesus’ accomplishments in his death, resurrection, and ascension. It helps us find our place in the great salvation story. As Jesus prays for the ones in front of him, he is also praying for us. Along with the disciples who heard this prayer in person, we are the ones the Father has given to Jesus. Jesus’ intentions for those first disciples continue to be his intentions for us, the goal of his work.
What is Jesus asking for? Jesus prays for the ones given into his care, that the Father would protect them and make them one, so that the community shared on earth among the believers would mirror the community shared between the Father and the Son. This is his most explicit petition for his disciples, but Jesus’ prayer also includes Jesus’ petition to return to glory now that his work on earth is drawing to a close. Jesus summarizes that work as glorifying the Father, giving eternal life, and making the Father known.
Jesus is talking to the Father for us. We get to hear Jesus’ plans and hopes for us. Because we trust that God accomplishes what God intends, these things for which Jesus prays are things that are our reality today. What Jesus prays, God has made so.
We could spend days talking together about how we see Jesus’ prayer being accomplished in our world today. And scholars have spent even longer trying to figure out what Jesus even means- what it would look like to be one, to be protected, and so on.
There’s one petition worth exploring a little bit deeper. Jesus talks about giving eternal life to all whom the Father has given him. Jesus doesn’t just mention eternal life, he defines it. As Jesus prays it, eternal life is knowing the Father, the one true God, and Jesus Christ, whom the Father sent. This is worth considering because so often we think of eternal life only as a future destination, somewhere we might be lucky enough to go, somewhere nice and reserved for those who were nice in this life. To Jesus, eternal life is a quality of life that is experienced here and now. It’s living now and being immersed in the life-giving relationship God creates with us.
This isn’t to say that Jesus is ignoring any sense of life after death. Jesus is about to die, and he is confident that he will travel through death to life, to be present with the Father. Jesus is coming to the Father, and, at the end, Jesus will also come to us, as he has already brought us into the relationship shared in God.
As Jesus approaches death, his thought are for his disciples- and for us. We are not left wondering about Jesus’ intentions towards us. This prayer is Jesus’ assurance that God is working in our lives. God is giving us eternal life, protection, and community with God and with each other. Jesus’ work was to give us these gifts. Be confident that Jesus has done everything necessary for you to receive these good things.
Jesus’ prayer is clearly recorded for you, so that you would not need to search and wonder, but may rest assured that Jesus loves you, and that even though death will come, you will not be left alone.