Filed under: Sermons
Grace and peace to you, sisters and brothers in Christ.
Throughout this season of Lent, we’re exploring faith on Sunday mornings. Last week, we talked about faith as trust. Faith is a gift of God that turns us towards God in trust. God proves Godself trustworthy through the witness of scripture, the sacrifice of Christ, and the ways God is present to us today.
This morning, we wonder about faith against the odds. What’s it like to keep the faith when times are hard? How do we keep trusting when our prayers aren’t being answered? What if the promise is just too great to be trusted?
Abraham- called Abram in today’s reading- is an example of this faith. He trusts in God even when it seems impossible that God would follow through and actually give him the things God has promised.
Back in chapter 12, the Lord said to Abram, ‘Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.’
So Abram leaves home. Even though we often refer to Abram as an example of faith, he struggles to trust. He has a hard time trusting God will keep him safe. He tends to try to make up his own plans, including passing his wife off as his sister in a disastrous attempt to be welcomed and honored by the Pharaoh. That ends well enough for Abram, he gets livestock and riches, while the Pharaoh ends up cursed. Pharaoh figures out he’s been cursed because he’s taken another man’s wife, but instead of attacking Abram, he sends him safely on his way, his wife, Sarai, restored to him. It seems like Abram took a really difficult route that hurt the people around him rather than just trusting God in the first place.
The biggest problem for Abram is understanding how God will fulfill God’s promise to start a nation from him. Abram has no children and he’s old and only getting older. This is weighing on his mind as we enter our reading from Genesis today.
He wonders if he’s misunderstood the promise. Maybe God will be creating a nation out of his household, not directly from his own children. Abram can’t figure out how God make this happen.
God’s response is to repeat the promise. God sends him outside to look at the stars. Count them, God says, that’s how many will be in your family.
Looking up at the stars, Abram believes.
I wonder what it is about those stars that makes Abram believe. Does it remind him that God created all the heavens and surely can give him a son? Is it a place where he encounters God and is strengthened by God’s presence? Or is hearing the promise one more time enough to inspire his faith? The text doesn’t explain. All it says is that God saw Abram’s faith.
Even the New Testament celebrate Abraham as an example of faith, citing his passage. But I’m not so sure I agree. Abram can’t handle waiting for God’s timeline. At that moment, under the stars, he might have been full of trust, but later on, when no son comes, he begins to wonder if God’s waiting for him to do something to make it happen.
Remember how I explained Abram’s first attempt to take matter into his own hands? I don’t think his wife appreciated being married off to another guy. Well, his second attempt to fulfill God’s promises himself isn’t any better. He decides to have a baby with one of his slaves. I think he figures that’ll be good enough- at least its his own kid. His wife is old and not getting any younger, so it would seem that avenue is closed.
But that wasn’t God’s promise. All of Abram’s attempts to make God’s promises come true fall flat. It doesn’t seem possible that God could do what God said God would. But God does. Years later, Sarah and Abraham have a child, Isaac, who will be the beginning of a new nation- God’s own people.
Our God works good that is against the odds. Our God fulfills promises that seem impossible. God gave Abraham and Sarah a child and a new home. Generations upon generations later, their descendants would include people of many nations, all brought in to their family by Jesus. Abram couldn’t have imagined how God was going to accomplish God’s promise. His faith wasn’t met with God’s answer in his impatient timeline, but it was in God’s.
God’s promises are for outcomes that are against all odds. God will birth God’s vision into reality. Jesus’ life and ministry show us what God’s mission is. God promises that the hungry will be filled, oppressive powers overturned, sick healed, and outcasts brought in to community. God’s mission is to bring all people into a connection with their life-giving creator that will never end. God declares sin forgiven and death defeated.
When we look in our lives and around our world, these things can seem impossible.
It would be impossible if it were only up to us. But God is at work. Sometimes God helps us keep the faith in hard times by giving us a glimpse of the work God is doing. That would be like the stars that gave Abram hope in God’s reaffirmed promise. Like the bright sunshine and warmth of yesterday that remind us spring really will come- it’s a glimpse, not the whole reality, but sometimes it’s enough to keep us going until what we wait for comes.
When we are reminded of God’s work, then our faith is nurtured and we are renewed in our ability to trust in even the biggest promises. Faith is a gift that God creates in us, but there are ways that we can put ourselves in places where that faith is fertilized. Faith is tended to when we participate in worship, Bible study, and prayer, and when we spend time with other Christians who can help us see how God is faithful.
God fulfills promises beyond all human expectation. When it’s hard to believe, remember Jesus. Jesus came to earth to show us more clearly who God is, what God is up to, and what God will do for us. When Jesus died, no one believed what would happen next. Jesus had been teaching openly about his death and trying to get people to understand that this would not be his final end, that he would be raised to life, but it was too impossible. Until that morning, when the women and the disciples went to the tomb, and found it empty. God raised Jesus from the dead- nothing is impossible for God. The things that God did through Jesus are glimpses into what God will do for us. May that revelation give you hope, as you look at the struggle in the world and in your own life and wonder how God could ever work good out of all that is bad. God brought Jesus from the dead. God will do many other wonders, as God renews the world and brings it into alignment with God’s vision, in God’s time.
Throughout Lent, we’ll be exploring the theme of faith. We’ll ask questions like what is faith, what’s the point of it, and who is it directed towards? This week, we begin by defining faith.
Faith is trust.
Faith is not belief- saying you agree to a list of various proposals. Faith isn’t measured by your ability to spout off memory verses or church history.
Faith is trust. Trust requires a relationship. You can’t have trust without something to trust in. You can’t around declaring, “I have trust.” People will look at you, waiting for you to finish the sentence- you have trust IN… Trust isn’t a thing you can hold or possess- it’s an action towards something- someone- else.
There’s no faith in a vacuum. You need a partner with whom to dance this life of trust.
Faith occurs in a relationship. As Lutherans, we teach that faith is a gift that the Holy Spirit creates in us. We don’t go and get God for ourselves. We don’t even go halfway to meet God. God comes all the way to us. God does everything to create trust in us.
God comes to us, through the sacraments and the Word, and creates faith within us. When we are baptized, when we receive bread and wine, the Holy Spirit enters us and turns our hearts back towards God. Through these means of grace, the Sacrament and the heard word, God starts and sustains the relationship of faith.
God proves Godself trustworthy. Here’s where we need to step away from our individualistic mindset. Some of you may have experiences in which you feel God has answered prayer or otherwise rewarded your trust by acting the way you’d hoped. Some of you may have plenty of examples in your life that might make you question God’s ability or desire to come through for you at a time of need.
God is trustworthy not just to individuals at a specific moment in time, but to a whole creation through all eternity. Where we are in life at this moment is not the final end God has in mind for us. God gives us seasons in which prayers are deeply answered during these long and sometimes difficult years as we await the day God will make all things new.
You might visualize faith as trust in this way. Let’s imagine Tammy’s having some friends out on her pontoon boat this summer. They’re out in the middle of the lake, zooming to the other side, when someone- let’s call him Kurt- trips and falls off the back of the boat. Kurt is so surprised, he starts drowning, flailing his arms, dipping down and bobbing back up. Tammy turns the boat around and drives towards her friend. The other people on the boat throw out a life saving ring for Kurt to grab. Now, there also happens to be a very brave duck who is totally undisturbed by all this commotion. So Kurt’s there, splashing around, and he reaches out to grab something. Will he grab the duck? Will he grab the life ring? They both seem to be floating on the water. But only one is going to save him. Kurt knows which one to grab because he knows what it is- he knows the ring will be trustworthy. He didn’t create the ring, he didn’t manage to make it come towards him, but he will grab on to it. In the same way, God comes to us, sending faith right to us, and showing Godself to be the one worthy of our trust.
God’s trustworthiness is recounted in the many stories of faith contained in our Holy Bible. That’s where we learn God is worthy of our faith.
The problem is that for many people, those stories in the Bible don’t hold a lot of meaning. They’re old stories, sometimes objectionable stories, and with their strange words and rituals, they’re not stories that are easy to claim as our own. That’s a big problem for the church.
It’s one we’ve had a role in creating. When we treat the Bible as a book of history that belongs in the past or as a life-answers book for moments of struggle, we neglect its richness and its purpose.
If we could reclaim the Bible as the source for a more fluid encounter with God, then through it, God would restore our trust. If we let our creative imagination be caught up by the Holy Spirit so that these stories became our stories of identity, our stories of faith in a way that leads to our living them today, then we would know -and act in- the trust that is built on the relationships the generations of faithful have had with God. When we claim Scripture as our faith story and discover Christ working a story of faith in our own lives, then we are moved to trust in the God who has been faithful through the generations and will be trustworthy to the end.
In Deuteronomy, we see the Israelites benefitting from just such a practice of faith. When the harvest begins, they are to go to the priest with a basket of those first crops. When they give the offering to the priest, they recite the story of their relationship with God. They name Joseph as their father, remembering that God brought him to Egypt through his brothers’ plotting so that all of his family and God’s people might be saved from the famine. Then, generations later, when Joseph’s descendants are enslaved, God frees them and leads them out of slavery into the Promised Land.
The one presenting the offering locates himself within this story. He declares that his people have experienced God’s trustworthiness and now he is enjoying the Promised Land. He gives the offering as an act of trust, built on this identity and relationship forming story of God’s trustworthiness for the people.
The offering is an act of trust because it is a giving up of what is harvested first, while the rest of the crops remain out the fields to continue to grow or await harvest. It’s not a carefully measured portion of the entire harvest, once all is safely stored away.
Anything could happen to the rest of the harvest. Bugs might come through and eat it, hail might rain down and destroy it, the quality might not be as good as expected. They might realize they have given the best away and can’t get it back. They might not have enough to feed the family, to survive until the next harvest. They might be ridiculed at their foolishness for giving away that first good harvest.
That’s the risk they take in faith. They take that risk because they are able to claim relationship with a God who has protected them, liberated them, and fulfilled promises for them.
Sure, God protected Joseph and his family by having his brothers try to kill him and eventually sell him as a slave. Yes, God only had to liberate the people because they ended up in slavery in Egypt for generations of suffering. And it had been many generations from the time Abraham was promised a new land and a nation and when the people entered the Promised Land and tended their first harvest. The Bible contains messy convoluted stories of God’s faithfulness in which the end of the story isn’t achieved in one person’s lifetime. Still, God’s people are invited into lives of faith and they follow, not knowing where they are in the grand story of God’s action for all.
Trust is a relationship that leads to action.
Sometimes that trust leads to actions that puts your livelihood and life at risk.
That’s what our Gospel reading is about: will Jesus remain in a trusting relationship with the Father even though it will put his well-being and his life at risk? That’s what Satan is testing. Satan is testing Jesus’ faith. Jesus passes. He will not break trust with God even when God does not provide the food for which he hungers. He will not change allegiances to gain power over nations. He will not demand God keep him safe from all danger.
Luke is the only Gospel to end on the ominous note, “Satan departed from Jesus until a more opportune time.” In Luke, Satan will return, to use Judas to set events in motion that will lead to Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion. Then Jesus’ trusting relationship with the Father will be tested again. Will Jesus choose to be rejected, humbled, and killed or will he choose to escape to safety?
Jesus passes that test, too. Jesus embodies the trustworthiness of God, the one who comes to us in love and remains faithful to us even when it means his own suffering and dying. God shows God’s trustworthiness when everyone turns away from Jesus, and Jesus still moves towards them in love. This is the lived revelation that the relationship of trust we have with God is created and sustained by God alone. Our faith is founded on Jesus’ faithfulness, not our own.
Faith is trust, a trust that God creates and inspires within us. This Lent, you don’t have to attempt the impossible by trying to create faith in yourself. However, you do have the opportunity to be amazed by the trustworthiness of the God who has come to you in love. Spend this week considering how God has been faithful to you. That might mean taking a walk and celebrating God’s masterpiece of creation. Write a list or create an album to share on social media that showcases ways God has brought you through hard times, placed people in your life to inspire you, or cared for you. Send a letter to someone going through a struggle that recognizes the difficulty of the situation without needing to push too quickly to the final joy God will bring. God has called you to be a witness to God’s faithfulness.
May you be blessed with trust, the gift of a God who will never give up on you.
Grace and peace to you, sisters and brothers in Christ.
As I explained Ash Wednesday to my four year old, I said this day reminds us that we are going to die and that sometimes we do bad stuff. She replied, “But Mom, I’m little. I’m not going to die for a long, long time.”
I asked her to put ashes on me. She’s used to the practice of an evening blessing, so she’s knows the ritual, but had to repeat the words after me. She wanted ashes before school, too, so I marked her, “you are dust and to dust you will return,” held her hand, walked her to school, and kissed her goodbye. As I watched her merge into the steady stream of students climbing off buses and out of cars, backpack bouncing as she ran into school, I was struck by what we had just done.
I was reminded by the child I have borne and committed to care for and be there for- that I will die. That I may not always be there for her. That even if I live as long as she does, there will be – there already have been- times when I fail her.
And we were reminded that she will die. Even while I thank God that she hasn’t had a reason to know that young ones die, I never forget it. She’s not too young to die. That’s what so poignant about this day. We try to hide the truth from ourselves and our children, but in the end, we can’t protect them from death. That’s where our trust in God really is tested. That’s when I realize most that I want to be God. It’s my job as her mother to make sure she’s safe, isn’t it?
But I know I do not have that much control. I am haunted by the knowledge that other parents have dropped off children who would never return from school. I can’t make sure kids are always nice to her. I can’t make her succeed.
The only way I can let her go- the only thing that gives me the strength to not rush back and pick her up and stick her in a bubble for the rest of her life- is to trust in God.
It’s not a trust that thinks that somehow my faithfulness or my prayer will protect her from all harm. It’s a trust the releases her into the wide vision of God’s mercy, recognizing that Jesus is with her today and will bring her in to the future creation. Ash Wednesday is about our recognition that we need to shift our trust- from looking for life and safety within ourselves to discovering we have already been gifted with those things by Jesus Christ.
Someone challenged me the other night when I was talking about Ash Wednesday. I was describing how this day might be one of the most important public witnesses we Christians make to the world. On this day, we participate in a public act of declaring that we are in the wrong. It’s one of the most counter cultural acts we do this year and we do it out in public.
These ashes mean that we will die, we have sinned, we have brokenness within us, and we have participated in systems that hurt others.
We mark them in the shape of a cross to remember Jesus’ choice to do all things to love us, be with us, and bring us into a healed creation and new life. He died on the cross to accomplish all this, knowing that we can’t accomplish it on our own.
Today, we do this act of repentance in public. I offered ashes and prayer out in town earlier today and tonight we’ve come together to make public confession and receive ashes. Throughout the day, I saw other people wearing dusty crosses- even ESPN sportscasters didn’t let their makeup artists wash their crosses away.
The person I was talking to found this public display to be altogether too public. He argued that the Gospel talks about Jesus telling people to stop being so public about their faith. But that’s a misreading of the text. The text frames it as Jesus questioning who will be rewarding their acts of piety. Are we out praying in the streets or parading our ashes so that others will think we’re holy? Are we trying to one up our neighbors by declaring we’ve given up not only chocolate but also Facebook for Lent? If being here at church, or taking up a Lenten practice, or wearing ashes all day is about impressing other people, then that’s missing the point. That’s what Jesus is preaching against.
However, Hebrew Bible talks about ashes as a communal act of repentance for shared sin. It’s a whole community declaring that they’ve created and embraced sinful structures of society that have broken away from God’s intention.
The public nature of this act is an antidote to the typical public voice of Christianity we’ve been shouting to the nation. So often the Christian voice says, “I’m right and you should do it my way.” Today we say to the world, “I’ve been wrong. I’ve hurt you.”
This day acknowledges our need for forgiveness. It’s about all of us taking a break from pretending we have it all together. It’s about accepting responsibility for the ways our actions and attitudes contribute to the brokenness and suffering of the world. Recent events have led many to become increasingly more aware of the price to the world of our inward looking lifestyles. We have seen refugees die without a welcome into safety, citizens attacked because of their race, and increasing lining up of oppositional forces. As a community, we have chosen against God. As a community, we need to repent. Whether we offer ashes one on one on a street corner or cafe, or within the church community, this is necessarily a public, communal act.
It might seem safe and private here in the church, but think about the difference between standing together declaring “I have sinned” and hearing “you are dust” over and over again- and an alternative of taking a little baggie of ash to mark yourself while looking into the mirror. We hear the reality of our sin – and we hear echoes around the room that declare we are not alone in our sin. Today your friends and neighbors will know that you know you are caught in sin. Then they will know that they are not in this struggle alone. We all carry guilt, we all need forgiveness, and Jesus has made it ours through his own faithfulness.
Through this public act, we declare that we are in need of forgiveness. We need the work Jesus has done for us. Jesus left heaven to come into the brokenness of our world. He has come to heal us, forgiving us and opening the way into a new creation where death no longer wins.
When we look at each other with ashen crosses above our eyes, we are reminded that we are in this brokenness together, and Christ alone will bring us in to a new creation. For one day we stop pretending that we have control over our ability to choose good rather than evil. We stop pretending that we have life together. We stop pretending to be God. Today, we put all our trust on God because there is no other option. Only God can wash away our sin, break the power of systems of evil, and breathe into us creatures of dust the life that is never taken away. God has already done this work, through Jesus, for you. Amen.
Filed under: Sermons
Grace and peace to you, sisters and brothers in Christ.
I’m Pastor Elizabeth Davis. I serve Cross Lutheran Church in Ixonia. Thank you for welcoming me to be among you today. The United Methodist Church has always been very close to my heart. When I was little, my grandmother would bring me to her Methodist Church in Union Grove, and it was there I built memories of worshipping, learning in VBS, as well as counting ceiling tiles and swinging around poles in the basement. Her father and some uncles were Methodist ministers, so I feel like there might be some extra rejoicing in among the saints to see me worshiping among you all today.
I can’t quite remember who it was who suggested us pastors should switch things up and appear at each other’s services this week. I’ll give Pastor Ron credit since I’m here among you today. As I sat down to prepare with this text, my first thought was that we chose this date so that none of us would have to figure out what to say about the Transfiguration among our own people. It’s better to give the difficult texts to someone else- it feels good when we return and people are excited to hear their own pastor again!
The Transfiguration, and really this whole period after Epiphany, is about seeing something in a new light. It’s about seeing Jesus in a new- or deeper way. With that in mind, it makes a lot of sense for all us pastors to switch around today, because it gives us a chance to see our brothers and sisters in Christ in a new way. Hopefully, we are coming to a greater sense of each of our churches as part of a shared network, with our own specific gifts to bring to the shared work of praise and service. We may have looked at each other with suspicion, or viewed each other as competition, but if we really see each others, we discover we are brothers and sisters called to work together for the same goal. That goal is to follow Jesus in to the world today. We discover more about who Jesus is through the stories of the gospel.
Transfiguration is what we call the event in our Gospel text. Jesus takes his key disciples and goes up a mountain to pray. The disciples have a hard time staying awake. When they are able to open their eyes, they see Jesus changed. He’s shining- glowing- transfigured- the same Jesus they’ve known, but somehow also different.
I’ve been thinking about this as a movie scene, when a young man returns home from college and he sees the girl next door biking down the road. But he doesn’t recognize her at first. Her hair is streaming out, there’s a glow around her, and the scene slows down. Suddenly he realizes she’s the girl he’s spent summer playing kickball with, but now he sees her as something else, too- an attactive woman!
If you take out the hormones and the romantic tension, that’s what’s happening on this mountain. The disciples see Jesus clearly- in the glory that belongs to him, alongside and even honored above Elijah and Moses.
The Transfiguration is about seeing Jesus more clearly. Part of me wants to say, it’s about seeing Jesus as he really is. But it’s not. Not seeing Jesus as he is, as if he is really only about glory at the core of his being, while the suffering and the humanity is just a facade.
Jesus is both the Son of God, shining with glory and power, and the Messiah, whose way of saving is through giving up all power, even dying, so that all creation might be healed.
The disciples have been with Jesus in his ministry. They’ve seen him perform amazing signs, heard his words of wisdom, and even gotten to the point of recognizing him as the messiah. So you’d think they’d know who he is and wouldn’t have been so dumbfounded seeing Jesus in all his glory.
The disciples see this vision of Jesus’ glory and find themselves in the presence of Elijah and Moses, and Peter blurts out- it’s a good thing we’re here because we can build you all homes and then we can stay here forever. They are awed and amazed by this sight of raw power. What they’ve only halfway understood until now about all of who Jesus really is becomes blindingly clear. The mountain is a place of clarity and revelation of Jesus’ power.
Jesus doesn’t express a need to stay on the mountain, but his disciples do. Jesus will go down from this experience of assurance into the world of need. A crowd waits for him and they will demand he do more healing; they are desperate for his work. It’s Jesus who is honored on the mountain and not on the ground, but it’s the disciples begging to stay. I’m right there with them. Who among us wouldn’t have been just like Peter- wanting to stay right there, where faith is sure, where difficulties and suffering and the real needs of the world are far, far beneath us.
This mountaintop revelation is a reminder of the piece of who Jesus is that might be most difficult to believe in the days to come. This scene follows Jesus talking about his future of suffering, rejection, and death. When the disciples are in the midst of these most difficult days, when Peter hears the rooster crowing and realizes he has denied Jesus, will they remember this mountaintop moment, when they were so sure of Jesus’ power?
The experience of seeing Jesus revealed in all of God’s glory wasn’t enough for those disciples to remain steady in their faith when times got difficult. They still thought only of saving themselves when Jesus was arrested. They thought Jesus’ work had ended when they laid him in the tomb. When the heard the story of the empty tomb, they wouldn’t believe it at first. But then there was something in Peter that compelled him to go and see for himself. Perhaps it was that memory of this day on the mountain, a memory he might have discounted as a vision too strange to be trusted, but now, combined with the empty tomb, might just have resurrected some hope that the power of this Jesus was more than death itself.
Maybe the mountain wasn’t enough to completely change the disciples, to solidify their faith against all hardship, but it was enough to be a reminder- a glimmer of hope- that would come to them when it seemed all was lost.
As a pastor, I think people look at me and figure I must have a strong faith. But there are days of struggle when I just want to be sure. When I long for certain proof of God’s power. I’d love to be up there on that mountain, eyes wide open like Peter. Could you imagine seeing the power of God face to face? To hear God’s voice? To see the most important men of the faith? I’d want to stay right there forever. It would mean knowing for sure that God’s power really is greater than the power of death and destruction. It would mean that this man who spoke of loving enemies, giving away all for the sake of the poor, really did speak God’s vision for creation.
I wouldn’t want to come back down into the need of the world. That’s where I live today. That’s where it’s hard to believe and remember and trust that God really is working to make all things new, that God really does have the power to heal, that God will bring all things into life again.
It’s hard to hold on to a faith that declares Jesus’ power when we don’t see God’s power working as quickly as we’d like. When a young father discovers he has cancer, when a teenager dies of suicide, when a child is born to parents without the capacity to care for her, when some people are sick from too much to eat and others starve. The needs of the crowd are so great.
That’s why Jesus came back down off the mountain. That’s why Jesus has sent the Holy Spirit to come among us today. Jesus has shared a piece of his power and his compassion with each of you. Jesus calls us to follow him, down from holy heights and into the world of need.
On that mountain, it was so clear that God was present. When we’re in church, we’re surrounded by reminders that God is here. Then we go out the doors and into the world, and it can be hard to remember that God is most at work out there. But it’s out there that Jesus is already active.
When Jesus descends from heaven to be born to a human mother, when Jesus climbed down off the mountain to answer the needs of the crowd, when Jesus is raised up not on a throne but a cross, Jesus declares his place is among us, among the suffering, among the forgotten, overlooked outsiders. With eyes opened through faith, that’s where we’ll see him. Not only on a majestic mountain, not only in this sacred space, but in the places of daily life and among people who struggle.
So on next Sunday morning, I’ll be back at my own church, and you’ll have your own pastor restored to you. But that afternoon, and Monday, and Tuesday, and all the days after, I hope we’ll all have left our own holy sanctuaries to meet each other in the world and among the crowd. Then we won’t be Methodists or Lutherans or bound up in our liturgies or our confessions of faith, but we’ll be those who carry Jesus’ spirit and follow Jesus’ call to make things new, heal the sick, and comfort the despairing with God’s promise of new life. Then we’ll see revealed in each other the face and the power of Jesus. That’s the changed vision God is preparing for us today.
Filed under: Sermons
Texts this week Jan 31, 2016
Grace and peace to you, sisters and brothers in Christ-
Take a moment to think of Jesus. Try to picture him. I want you to really see him. What’s he wearing, what’s his hair like, where is he? Imagine that you’re with Jesus. You’re standing there- there’s you and there’s Jesus.
Now, if Jesus was right there, right in front of you- what would you do? What would you say? What would you ask?
I’m going to take a wild guess, but I’m thinking that your first impulse isn’t to push Jesus away. The last thing you’d be thinking is- where’s the nearest cliff- I want to push Jesus off.
This really weird response is what we hear happening in the gospel today.
So what on earth happened? What happened that the people in the Gospel didn’t respond like we’d expect? Shouldn’t they be happy that the Son of God is there among them- that he’s come to explain the elusive scriptures- so they can finally understand what God wants?
What did Jesus do, to make the crowd, so early on at this beginning of his ministry, want to kill him?
Jesus proclaims the gospel. God isn’t just for them. God is concerned for all people, all creation. That is what makes the people reject him.
Now I imagine most of us would think- well, if Jesus was right here, teaching me how to follow God’s will, finally letting me in to the secrets of God’s plan- there is no way I would reject him. That’s the kind of interaction I’ve been waiting for!
Most of us think we’re looking for clarity on how to live life. We want to know how to follow God in this life today.
The thing is, if any of us were in that same situation, with Jesus preaching about God’s work among the outsiders, I think we would have the same reaction as the crowd. In some ways, we already do reject Jesus’ embodiment of God’s preference for the outsider.
In the Gospel, Jesus has just started preaching and doing signs. He comes back to his hometown. He goes to worship and opens up the scroll of Isaiah, declaring that God gives sight to the blind and releases the captives, and then he sits down and says, this word of God is coming true in me.
The people say, yeah, ok, then do something among us. Do some great work of God here- we want this good news, this good work of God to happen among us.
But Jesus won’t.
Maybe it’s because he sees people doubting him- seeing him only as an eight year old kid, following his dad— but I think there’s some other reason that has to do with the upside down, outside in, way God works.
Jesus turns them to their scriptures to say- remember, there were lots of people in need among the Israelites, but God sent the prophets to do God’s work for the outsiders. Lots of people were sick and praying for God to heal them, but God went to someone who wasn’t praying to God and healed that person instead.
After this exchange, I can understand the people being angry. It’s kinda like Jesus saying- see all this good stuff God can do- it’s not for you. Certainly, they’re confused. They’ve been seeking God, they’ve been trying to live according to God’s law- and then Jesus says, hi, I’m God come to earth— but I’m not here for just for you.
I can understand they’d be angry- I think we are angry, too.
At the heart of that anger is fear. We don’t know what to do with this idea that God would give beyond expectation- that God would reach beyond the people God has promised to bless- and bless those outsiders first.
God promised God was going to bless the people descended from Abraham and Sarah- those who followed the law of Moses. They’re supposed to be the favored, chosen people- to whom God brings good news. They’re the people sitting in the synagogue, the people who end up pushing Jesus towards that cliff. Do we find ourselves among them?
The hard truth of this Gospel is that sometimes we are those who want to reject Jesus. Jesus shows us that we make exclusionary groups, so that we can be the insiders. We make boundaries to identify ourselves among God’s people. We use our power to create outsiders on whom we can put all our fears and blame. We use those outsiders to carry that tension outside of our group- so that we feel more secure.
In the wider world, I see this happening today with Muslims and refugees. As I listened to the radio this week, I heard about someone bringing guns into a Paris Disney hotel. All I heard in that brief 10 second report was that he had guns and a Koran. It’s a way of identifying violent, death dealing people- as those who are not white Christians, who are not us. We do this so we can feel safe in our own community, among our own people.
Our need to scapegoat by creating an outsider who we can demonize, blame, and destroy is one way to understand Jesus’ death. This is one of the meanings of the cross. Jesus calls us to embrace God’s vision, in which community is expanded so wide that there is nothing that would separate us from God. But that is too scary- too wide- for us. So, we killed Jesus. The part of us that wanted to throw Jesus off the cliff –back when he first introduced God’s overly wide view of who is worthy- finally won when we pushed Jesus to the outside and nailed his troubling ideas shut on the cross.
Jesus died because we choose not to live into God’s kingdom, with its unfair focused love for those who haven’t even tried. In Jesus’ death and resurrection, God showed just how wide God’s vision is- just how much effort and power God is putting in to this whole all are mine thing. God reaches into death itself and pulls Jesus out, shredding apart even death’s ability to keep anyone outside the beloved community.
As Christians today, we’re really stuck. We’re torn as we try to understand who God is and how we will respond. We want God to be open and gracious. Some of us have found our way into the ELCA because we have found this to be a church that embraces God’s openness.
And yet we’re still stuck. We can’t quite embrace the good news that God’s grace creates a welcome for all people. We still want control. We want to control God’s grace by defining who is worthy of it. We want to make sure that we get what we deserve- and that others, who haven’t tried as much or given up as much or wouldn’t pass a doctrinal test, don’t get what belongs only to us. We don’t want to be skipped in line- we’re afraid there might not be anything left for us who should be first.
We have this need for some to be losers in order for us to be winners. People tend to mock when all the kids get a trophy. They roll their eyes at participation ribbons celebrating all kids. We want to be winners. It’s not worth the effort if we don’t get singled out as special- and if someone else doesn’t fail. It’s like it’s not worth anything if everyone has access to it.
I think of a young family, preparing to welcome their second child. What is that first child thinking? Is she fearfully wondering if her parents will love both her and this new baby? Will there be enough love to go around? I think most parents would say that love is multiplied, not divided. Can we understand God’s grace in the same way – growing in strength and not diminished as it is spread over all the world?
We have a hard time living as a people of grace. We want rules and boundaries- some way to tell who is in and who is out. There’s still a child within us who needs structure, boundaries- someone else to tell us what we can and can’t do. That’s what makes the child feel secure. If there were no boundaries, we wouldn’t know the shape of our present. Because of that, we often choose to be bound, to be caged – instead of being free.
When I lived in North Dakota, there wasn’t a whole lot to do for fun. It was just Jeff and I for most of the time. So, we made our way through a number of TV series. One of those was Star Trek: The next Generation. There’s this one episode, where a person is wrongly accused of a crime and sentenced to jail. But this jail isn’t like our jail- it’s more like a jail in your mind. They’d maybe only have your body captive for a day or two, but in your mind, you would experience years. So this one person ends up in this mental jail and becomes accustomed to the life of a prisoner. That means not knowing when or if the food was coming, not seeing his family, not having a bed- it feels like years. Then his body is freed, his mind is no longer being controlled in that jail, but he’s not really free. There’s this scene where he’s in the bedroom with his wife. His wife wakes up and he’s not in bed. He’s laying on the floor, because he’s so used to not having a bed. He’s still trapped. He’s not living in to the freedom that has been given to him. It’s too hard to believe.
There’s another show I’ve seen more recently- Kimmy Schmidt. It’s about these women who are kept underground in a bunker and told the world has been destroyed. One day, they are freed. The main character, Kimmy, embraces life, not afraid to enjoy her freedom- but another character wants to go back down in the bunker. It was safe, something she was used to, and the big wide world that had gone on without them was just too much deal with.
We know captivity- so when we’re met with God’s freeing grace, it’s so hard to live in to.
We often say we want freedom, but then when we get there, it’s so wide, so open, it’s terrifying.
Think about kids going off to college. They’ve lived their whole childhood under the watchful eyes of their parents, following their instructions on when they should wake up and go to bed, what they should eat, when they should shower and change their clothes, being reminded to wear clean underwear— to be good, eat their vegetables, do their homework before playing…
When they get to college, there are so many options, so much freedom, they can feel lost and choose poorly. They are overwhelmed when they get to choose how to spend their lives. The freedom can be too much to handle.
The freedom of our faith can be just as terrifying. In the church, we get to choose- if we will bravely follow Jesus into the wide expanse of God’s love for all- or if we will push him off a cliff because we are offended by his message.
This passage reminds us that Jesus reaches outside of the community to show God’s power and life. As we continue to discover God’s will for us as a congregation, as council prepares to come together for a time of visioning. It would be well for us to remember this: if we follow Jesus, we do not live to ourselves, we do not serve ourselves, but we exist for the sake of the outsider, we exist for the one who may never thank us, never join our church. We give ourselves away for the other, because that is what it means to follow Jesus.
We experience Jesus’ radical welcome at the table, where Jesus comes to feed us with his body and blood so that we would be nourished by his presence. God creates faith in us through this eating. We all know that there are congregations and synods around us who choose to limit who is welcome at the table. They want to be sure that each person would be worthy of receiving Jesus’ gifts. That’s all about controlling the wide welcome that Jesus has made in his own death. Jesus didn’t die so that we could decide who would be welcome at his table and in his kingdom. Jesus died so that the worst sinner, the most lost unbeliever, the one who cannot express her desire- can all come to the table to be fed. When we experience a welcome table, we begin to live in to God’s kingdom, according to God’s wide angle vision and not our own narrow one.
The Jesus you earlier pictured is here for you. He’s come with love for you- love for me- love for those you don’t like and love for those you’ve never met. There’s enough for all. There’s great joy waiting for those who are brave enough to walk into this expansive kingdom of God- you might be surprised who you meet there, but you’ll also discover just how great the power of God’s love really is.