Filed under: Sermons
Grace and peace to you, Sisters and brothers in Christ.
With two girls in our house, we know what jealousy looks like. Even the preverbal baby can express this feeling!
Lydia’s in the highchair, signing that she’s all done. As soon as her feet hit the floor, she sees her sister getting a sandwich and immediately reaches out her hand, demanding, “mine! mine!”
What does it say when your vocabulary is smaller than 20 words, and “mine” makes that list?
It’s not just kids who get caught in jealousy. I spent the beginning of last week at a conference for pastors and often the first thing out of a new acquaintance’s mouth is, “how big is your church? What programs are you running? Do you have a big youth group?” On one level, that’s about finding similar congregations to gain new ideas and common ground… but on another it can easily be about seeing who’s got more resources, more people, and more energy.
What is jealousy all about?
Jealousy rises out of a worldview in which there are limited resources. There’s only so much of a certain good. That might be money, food, space, or even relational goods like love, or honor. Anyone else possessing this good takes some away from what might otherwise be ours.
Reading the Bible, we discover that this has been a problem for communities throughout the ages!
In Numbers, we read about the community of Israelites, on their way from slavery in Egypt to freedom in the Promised Land. Moses is their leader. God calls Moses to go and free the slaves, and then to lead them to a new home, but where we meet Moses this morning, he’s wearing thin under all the stress of leadership.
So, God teaches this leader how to delegate and share authority. Moses gathers the elders together, bringing them away from everyone else. Then, God takes from Moses some of God’s Spirit that has been on Moses, and spreads it around to the seventy elders, so that they can also lead from God’s Spirit.
Now, I don’t know if 70 was too high a number to count, or if Moses experienced leading his people as difficult as herding cats, but somehow two leaders aren’t where they are supposed to be. These two are out with the rest of the regular people when they receive the Spirit of God, and they are prophesying in front of everyone. Everyone can see that these leaders have the Spirit of God, just like Moses.
Moses’ second in command, Joshua, freaks out. He hears about it, and he’s like, “we gotta do something. You gotta stop it. These people are a threat.”
Joshua sees this sharing of authority and power as a problem. Moses’ leadership is in question, if he’s not the only one who can speak to God and share God’s message. There’s only so much holiness to go around, and if Moses doesn’t have it all, then that’s a problem.
But Moses stops Joshua short, “no, no. Are you jealous for me? If only I weren’t the only one trying to get these stubborn people to hear God! If only everyone would carry God’s Spirit and God’s message!”
Generations and generations later, the disciples sound pretty much the same as Joshua, with a touch of the tone of a tattle taling 1st grader:
“Jesus, teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we told him he better cut it out, and stop right away, because he’s not supposed to do that, he’s not a part of us.”
With Joshua and the disciples, you can feel the anxiety ramping up. Jealousy over the power, anxiety that it’s out of their control- but like Moses, when Jesus addresses them, the anxiety gets deflated.
Jesus calmly states, “do not stop him.”
Jesus isn’t concerned about maintaining his market share or controlling his branding. Jesus doesn’t really care if other people are doing his work just right. “Whoever is not against us is for us.”
I was at a wedding on Friday, and the conversation turned towards various helping ministries. Lutheran World Relief, World Vision, and Samaritan’s Purse all came up. Everyone had opinions on which was better and which didn’t do the work as well. I may not want to support each, not agreeing with all the strategies for ministry, but I can recognize that they all have the same goal- to help those in need out of a desire to follow Jesus.
Are there so few people in need, so few under the oppression of deadly forces, so few thirsty for clean water, so few in need of hearing a promise of love and peace, that we need to be clawing at each other to be first to serve them?
As we face a new era in what it means to be church, actively choosing against jealousy and anxiety leaves us open to choosing life and meaning. As a congregation, we can stop trying to be like the band focused productions of the church down the street, or measure up our Sunday School stats to another’s. We can boldly move forward out of our own identity, serving our neighbors with the resources we can share, and the good news we’ve been anointed to spread. We can give thanks that the people we won’t reach, or even those who choose to leave us to taste the flavor of another congregation, will be met with the same loving Spirit of God from another group of disciples.
We serve a God of abundance. Remember that the witness to this God begins with God- and nothing- and from God’s word all creation comes into being. How can there be any limits, any caps with this kind of God?
God calls us out of the jealousy that tears away at our ability to be in community and share the love and resources everyone needs. It doesn’t make sense for us to fight in jealousy over God’s love and grace, or even over God’s call to serve, because God is not a limited resource.
But we are. Sure, there are billions and billions of people, many who have come before us and many who will come after us. I think God has a right to be jealous over us.
In the Old Testament, we hear of a jealous God, jealous for our worship and full attention. In Jesus, we see God jealous in a different way. In Jesus, God is jealous for the wellbeing of all people, especially for the people on the outside, the ones who are often seen as not good enough, not having enough. Each person is a limited resource- and God’s desire is that everyone would be valued, would be healed, and would have what they need.
So, when the disciples and Jesus talk about the man casting out demons in Jesus’ name, I think Jesus isn’t so focused on jealousy over his own honor, but on the fact that the demon possessed has been freed. That’s the goal Jesus has in mind. It’s not for us to be jealous, but for us to rejoice that God yearns with the eagerness of jealousy for each of us.
There’s no lack of God’s love to be shared among us. God looks at you, God looks at every person in this world, claiming you in love, “mine.”
Every December in North Dakota, while streetlights shine off the snow and ice, three people sit down at a table in an empty church with phone books open. They are the nominating committee, tasked with finding a group of people willing to serve on council for the coming year.
They start with a list of suggestions. But by the end of the night, their enthusiastic invitation to serve has dropped into a desperate plea, “We need two more people to be on council and everyone else has said no.”
Maybe some of you have been on one or the other side of the phone in a conversation like that. It’s no fun either way. The callers feel discouraged that no one will care enough about their church to take on leadership. The ones who answer later in the night feel undervalued, wishing the church would see them as more than a live body to fill a slot.
It doesn’t have to be this way! I was at a conference in Moorhead when someone finally let me in on the secret: people in every congregation have gifts! When they lead from their gifts, everyone wins.
Duh, right?! When you do things that match your passions, when you serve by doing something you’re good at— that feels right. You bring energy and joy- you do good work. We don’t have to do work or have committees that no one wants to be a part of. Things can be dormant for a season.
Today is about you discovering your gifts, celebrating and claiming them, and committing to putting them to use in specific ways here at Cross and wherever your daily life takes you. If you haven’t already, take some time now, during the offering, or after worship to respond to the statements on the pink Spiritual Gifts bulletin insert to discover your gifts and ways to use them through our shared ministries.
Not all of us find it easy to say we’re good at something. If you’ve ever filled out an application for a job, college, or scholarship, you know it can be hard to tease out those skills you’ve developed. We might look at an opportunity and think, “I don’t have what it takes to do that.”
You might get a big red stamp of rejection from employers, admissions, or other organizations, but you won’t from God. God is all about calling those who would never have thought they were eligible to apply. God doesn’t wait until you’ve mastered a skill, God calls you into a mission and gives you what you need along the way.
The Bible is full of stories in which God calls the unsuspecting, the outcast, the unskilled, and the sinner into big jobs of carrying out God’s mission. We read two examples this morning.
The first is Moses. More typically, he’s pictured as the great hero and patriarch- a strong faith leader who leads the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt, delivers God’s commandments, and guides the freed slaves through the wilderness to the Promised Land.
We might think of Moses as larger than life, but today we see him true to size. God’s heard the cries of the suffering slaves in Egypt and has decided to do something about it. God wants to send someone to carry God’s message of freedom. God speaks to Moses. God says, “I will send you” and Moses questions, “Who am I?” and ends, “O my Lord, please send someone else.”
“Please send someone else.” I can feel that phrase sinking to the pit of my stomach- that moment when someone needs to step up and lead, but instead I just look down and try not to make eye contact. So often we tell ourselves we’re not good enough, we wouldn’t do it as well as someone else… but here is God, calling someone who doesn’t think he can do it, and with God’s help he will- not perfectly- but in the end God will free the Israelites and settle them in a new land.
In the Gospel of Mark, we witness Jesus calling Levi to be his disciple. Levi is a tax collector, a person most people would avoid. Jesus hangs out with Levi and his friends, the other tax collectors and sinners, inviting them into a relationship of transformation and ministry with him. Certainly the people who thought they had it all together, the religious people, didn’t think any of those sinners had what it takes to serve God. But Jesus did.
Jesus does. Today, God is still pulling us who aren’t quite ready, don’t think we’re good enough, and maybe aren’t even willing – God is pushing us into the big work God’s already doing: restoring creation, bringing healing, embodying forgiveness, and sustaining life. God is at work for the sake of all creation and is calling you to join in.
God is creating a team, a body to work together for the sake of the world. Not one of us has everything the world needs. To us in a culture valuing self-reliance, Paul casts a vision of a community as a single body. Each person is a member of the whole. Every member is in relationship with the other, needs the other in order for the body to function. We are each members of the body of Christ, and together we carry out God’s purposes in the world.
God calls, God equips, and God places you within a community. God invites you into the joy of witnessing God’s life-giving work firsthand, coming into being through the work of your hands, your words, your gifts at work.
Grace and peace to you, sisters and brothers in Christ.
Last spring, a pastor was in her office, putting the finishing touches on the liturgy for Easter Sunday. The phone rang. The woman on the line asked what time church was on Easter morning. “10 o’ clock,” the pastor replied. “Oh, you really should change the time. That conflicts with Easter brunch,” the caller sighed and hung up.
It’s stories like these that make me want to laugh… and cry… and give it all up. What’s the point?
What are we all here for?
Or to back it all up… what’s the point of faith? Why believe, or trust?
What will we get out of it?
I find meaning in being connected to the great story of God’s love for creation, wonder in a God who chooses to come among us and die for us, and hope in God’s work to move us all from death into life.
If we mean point as in goal, then I’d say the point of faith is our transformation.
This is where the epistle James weighs in. The author writes, “faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.”
Now, Martin Luther, the founder and namesake of our tradition, hated James because of this verse, declaring it a gospel of straw. The central claim of our tradition is that our salvation is a gift of God’s love and Jesus’ faithfulness. Our salvation is not a result of our own works- our own earning. Luther in this book of the Bible heard a message that countered the main message of the Bible, that God loves us and claims us for life through Jesus. Sometimes James can be read as saying that we need to do good things in order to be loved by God. It can seem to be setting us a rules based system for earning our place in God’s kingdom. There’s no place for that kind of thinking in a faith that is firmly grounded in Jesus’ faithfulness, seeing Jesus’ righteousness as the only thing that holds us in God’s love.
But Luther wasn’t a stranger to the idea that faith has a point. Luther himself wrote that we are freed from sin, death, and worry about making ourselves good enough to be accepted by God, so that we can serve our neighbors. You are loved in grace in order to be there for others. We are freed for.
In this way, Luther is really in step with James, as it is written in James, “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you?”
To the latter, we might claim, “yes, Jesus alone saves me.”
But James continues, “If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill, and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?”
There’s the point on which we must be convicted. Faith that leads to self-assurance is stagnant. It is self-centered. If self-centeredness is our central sin, then faith ought to lead us out of it. God’s work in our faith is to turn us away from self-centeredness, into a position of gazing on God’s love for us and reflecting it out into the whole creation.
James turns our question, “what am I going to get out of this” inside out. He looks to the needs of those outside. “What will someone else get out of your faith?”
Faith without works is dead- it is death to our neighbor.
What’s the point of having faith, if all it does is make you feel good about yourself, give you warm fuzzies, but does nothing for your neighbor’s well being? That is not faith. That is idolatry. If an hour of feel good entertainment, or encouragement when we are down, if Jesus in my back pocket is what we are expecting out of our faith, then that is idolatry, and we have made ourselves – our wants- our god.
The point of faith is to join God’s life-giving work for the sake of the whole creation. God means to use us to provide life for our neighbors.
It makes me happy to think about helping people. I imagine grateful smiles. Children clean because of the soap we’ll gather, families fed because of the meals we’ve served and the pantry we fill.
But it’s not always so simple. There are times when our active faith, our service, isn’t doing much for us. When we’re going on hour 3 of the highway cleanup and feeling pretty tired. When we’ve served the same family at the pantry or community meal for generations. When we get pushed over the edge when someone at the pantry asks for a different brand of cereal, or another doesn’t finish her dessert at the meal. It comes right back to us wanting something for ourselves, even if it’s just the power to judge who gets to receive what we’re giving.
Faith with works, living, active faith, is being in a place where God is continually transforming us. It’s faith with service that sometimes leaves us feeling good, and at other times makes us uncomfortable. It’s faith that sometimes struggles and falters when the need of the world seems so great, and we are so overwhelmed that we can’t see how God really is bringing in a new future. Living, active faith can push us into situations that force us to confront our assumptions, where God is changing our worldview and our relationships. It doesn’t mean that we’ve yet arrived at the person we are called to be.
In the Gospel, we see Jesus encountering someone outside his community. She’s a woman and a Gentile, which means that to a Jewish man, a teacher, she’s not worth much. You don’t have to be nice to people like her. But like Abraham before her, she knows that God is just, and she is not afraid to argue for what she needs. As we see God change God’s mind, here we see Jesus change his mind. This mother breaks open Jesus’ plan for ministry, exposing the prejudices that Jesus has simply accepted as the way things are, and reorienting him towards greater openness.
A living, active faith that spills over into working for the well-being of all creation is not easy. It isn’t always rewarding. We can be confronted with our own prejudices. We can find ourselves trying to impose our own set of rules for living onto others. Then we can fall into what Luther hated about James: trying to judge if someone has met the minimum requirements to be good enough to receive God’s blessing and our service.
We need encounters with real people and with the Scripture that force us into self-examination. For this Sunday, we in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America have been asked by our brothers and sisters in the African Methodist Episcopal Church to recommit ourselves to asking God to work within us, send us encounters that uncover our own assumptions and prejudices, our fears and our ignorance. We are not where we want to be yet, but we trust that God will move us from complacency into action, from comfortable ignorance of the way many live into discovery, change, advocacy, and co-working as God builds a new creation in which all people are known and valued.
James pushes away any attempt for us to claim that we are better than anyone else. He talks about our need for forgiveness. Even those of us who think we have life mostly together, that we haven’t done anything really bad- that our sin doesn’t stink as much as the next person’s, are labeled sinner just as boldly as any other. There is judgment in that, but also freedom for mercy. No one but Jesus is good. Not one of us is bad enough to push Jesus away.
Even in our state of sin, Jesus comes to us. Jesus creates faith in us. Jesus abundantly loves us, and calls us to be that love overflowing into the world. Jesus entrusts us imperfect people with his own work.
The point of church is to be our training ground for the life we live outside this place. We gather, meet Jesus, are challenged by Jesus, and fed by Jesus, and then, sometimes together and sometimes individually we go out into the world to do what we’ve practiced: forming community, declaring forgiveness, working healing, and answering the needs of the poor.
If we’re doing church right, if we’re doing faith right, then we should each be able to answer with confidence this question: Would our neighbors notice if Cross wasn’t here any more? How would the world be less well without us?
If a quick answer doesn’t come to mind, let’s practice that answer together. Next week, we’ll be exploring how each one of us is entrusted with gifts from God so that we can join in God’s work in the world. There is a way for each of you to live your faith for the sake of your neighbor. Bring in a bar of soap for your neighbor. Clean the highway for your neighbor. Learn about the refugee crisis and do something to advocate for safe homes and an end to violence. Meet Jesus, be filled with his love, and be that love out in the world. You’ll find Jesus is out there too, already loving and lifting up those people his words once betrayed his privileged culture’s devaluing. God’s love and care for creation is bigger than we imagine. Celebrate. That love is life for you, and for your neighbor.
Filed under: Sermons | Tags: community, faith, forgiveness, gossip, Sin, speech
Grace and peace to you, sisters and brothers in Christ.
Every summer in Eagle River, just about the 4th of July, there’s a festival called Watermelon Days. In addition to vendors, there’s a big pavilion, under which there are troughs of freshly cut, cool and dripping watermelon. One year, after walking through the seemingly endless maze of hand knit caps, decorated sweatshirts, and fine pottery, holding her mother’s hand under the beating sun, a little girl finally made it to the watermelon stand. She ran up and got the biggest, juiciest piece of watermelon. She shoved it in her mouth, and as the juice ran down her chin, a gray-haired lady walked by and said, “you’d better be careful, or you’ll swallow a watermelon seed and then a watermelon will grow in your belly.” The girl froze, dropped her watermelon, and spit everything from her mouth onto the lady’s shoe.
Sometimes, we take the proverb, “you are what you eat” a little too far.
I made stir fry the other day, with broccoli from our garden. I thought I had washed it well, but as it cooked, I saw that I hadn’t quite picked off all the caterpillars, and there was a little extra protein frying in my dinner. Is this how I get butterflies in my stomach?
In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus and the Pharisees are debating about the religious practices surrounding ritual cleanliness. The Pharisees wouldn’t have touched my insufficiently washed broccoli, contaminated by the unclean worms.
Today, we can be confused by all this talk of ritual cleanliness and defilement and purity because it’s not our practice or way of thinking. For the Pharisees, ritual cleanliness was what determined your place in the community and the household, as well as your closeness to God. Your personal cleanliness was determined by your ability to keep your diet free of certain foods, washing food, cooking utensils, and yourself, as well as avoiding various bodily fluids. Your personal cleanliness affected the community’s cleanliness. The community’s cleanliness was necessary for God’s presence.
Today, this might be analogous to a group’s sense of welcome. What kind of person are you willing to move over to make room for at your table, and who do you pretend to ignore? What attributes determine if a person is actively welcomed or shunned?
Or, another way to think of the effect of the cleanliness worldview might be with the proverb, “choose your friends wisely.” My parents always reminded me before the school year of the importance of a student’s peer group- with its power to influence either good or bad behaviors. The people you associate with have the power to taint you: being around “dirty” or “bad” people makes you dirty or bad, too.
Ritual cleanliness either made you a part of the community, or set you outside the community for a time, so that the whole community could maintain its purity and its connection to the most holy God.
Jesus counters the Pharisee’s focus on ritual cleanliness by declaring, “there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile… For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come…” (15, 21a).
Jesus is less concerned with the practices of purity. Regarding my opening examples, I think Jesus would have laughed with that little girl and grabbed another piece of watermelon. I’m not so sure I can picture him crunching up those fried caterpillars… but you never know. These foods won’t create something bad within us. Jesus relocates the source of our uncleanliness, from external washing rituals to internal motivations.
But that leaves us with the difficult reality. What’s bad is already within us. The human heart- or whatever we conceive of as our center of being- is a place where evil and sin are harbored. That badness is expressed out of us in our actions and our words.
Alone, we are trapped in sin. All we do, even our best work, is marred by the root evil that resides within us. We might describe this sin as our base self-centeredness, in which we are turned in to ourselves, see only our needs and wants, and attempt to take God’s place in control, power, and judgment.
We are not left alone, trapped in sin. Through baptism, we are united with Jesus and given his righteousness, his sinlessness, and are thus freed from sin. But that freedom from sin is something that is not totally ours yet. We can still be stuck. Even when we try to make ourselves look good, there is something bad deep within.
Jesus says it’s from within that defilement comes. The epistle of James helps clarify how that community-destroying evil is expressed. For the community to whom James writes, sin has found its way into their speech. In James 1: 26, we read “If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless.” A bit past our reading for today, in chapter three, we read, “6 … the tongue is a fire…9 “with (our tongue) we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. 10 from the same mouth comes blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so.”
Talking is the central communication tool we have, and we do it all the time. Yet it is one of the greatest dangers to any community, and perhaps one that we here at Cross find we often struggle with.
We are a tight community, sometimes calling ourselves a family. But that can mean that we don’t guard our speech as we might among strangers. We can lose sight of what kinds of speech builds up community and what tears it down. A fun conversation can turn to gossip. Questioning concern can turn to judgment. Familiarity can find us speaking for others because we think we know well enough how they would answer. Talking is necessary for building relationships, and yet it can also so easily break them apart.
It’s helpful for all of us to always bear in mind Luther’s explanation of the 8th Commandment. In explaining what it means to not bear false witness against your neighbor, Luther writes, “We are to fear and love God, so that we do not tell lies about our neighbors, betray or slander them, or destroy their reputations. Instead we are to come to their defense, speak well of them, and interpret everything they do in the best possible light.”
As you go about your day, people can’t see your thoughts. They don’t know what is in your heart. But they can – and do- hear what you say, even when you think they aren’t listening. Think of all the ways you communicate throughout the day, all you spoke about yesterday. That is what shows the world what is inside you. That is what people will hear coming from one who is called to be Christ’s light for the world. That is how people will know Jesus- and may determine whether or not they want to know him more.
Will they hear you sticking up for someone everyone else is talking bad about? Will they hear you working towards an end to the rumor, pointing questions back to the source? Will they hear you encouraging others to try to see how another’s words or actions might be interpreted in a better way? Or will they hear you joining in to relationship fraying conversations? Will they note your silence?
As students return to school this week, we are reminded of how important speech is in developing a healthy learning environment. My heart breaks as we learn about the constant hurt of bullying among our youth. We must work to end this evil and heal those who are hurting.
Taming the tongue is not just a task for the youth. It is a struggle for all of us, and one that doesn’t seem to be valued in our culture.
God works within us, in the midst of our struggling, to bring us more closely into alignment with God’s vision for us. James describes our encounter with the Word of God as looking into a mirror. We see ourselves more clearly, and can turn from the mirror into a life that is continually transformed by that clarity of vision. Sin and struggle are a part of this life, but God also calls us to grow into a newness of life, freed from sin.
We are all on the path towards healing, towards better speech, towards loving action, towards following Christ more closely. Today we gather around Jesus’ table, first for healing and anointing, remembering that wherever we are on the journey, God is beside us, wiping away tears from hurtful words, restoring relationships, and forgiving where we misspoke. Later we gather to be fed by Jesus, who took all the world’s hate onto himself, experiencing the pain of rejection, so that we might be forgiven and made one community in him.
From ourselves, only sin can come. Thanks be to God, you have not been left alone. God has chosen to place God’s own holiness within you. The most holy one has entered our world, has entered your heart, and has not been pushed back by the brokenness that also resides there. Your heart might be a kitchen full of dirty dishes or half-washed vegetables, but the Spirit of God is at work, tidying up and making you holy.