BibleGrace and peace to you, siblings in Christ.
I grew up as the only young granddaughter in my family.
This certainly had some advantages. I occupied a very special soft spot in my grandmother’s heart.
It also had some disadvantages-after receiving gifts from grandma, it wasn’t as fun to race around the house swinging my hair bow while my cousins zoomed their toy cars.
I figured I could play most anything that my cousins enjoyed. For the most part, we did play together and had a lot of fun. Climbing trees, playing in the sprinkler, making crafts… but there was one thing I never got into and actually scared me quite a bit: wrestling.
My cousins were a household of four boys, three older than me and one younger. They would get into fights. One way they had learned to work it out was through body to body full on angry matches. They grab each other and pull. From oldest to youngest the span between them is maybe 10 years and you can imagine that at 8 and 11, those couple years mean a lot when it comes to size and strength. So one might hold on simply to show his strength over the other, until the order of the pack was restored.
I didn’t like it. I didn’t understand the drive to hurt a sibling. I didn’t understand how they could be buddies again after this. I didn’t like the noise or the lack of control. I didn’t like the conflict.
Watching my girls together, I have to say that grabbing and pushing and holding and pulling are not activities that are reserved only for boys.
As we move into these texts, I want us to keep this image of wrestling in mind, and my own avoidance of it. We’re going to move into the idea of wrestling in the church, wrestling with each other, wrestling with God, and wrestling for the sake of the other.
The Genesis text drops us in to the storyline of Jacob and Esau. They were born wrestling, twins, with Jacob grabbing Esau’s heel. Jacob is the one who wrestles his brother’s birthright blessing away from him. He’s a trickster, and yet, the one whom God chooses to bless and through whom God builds the chosen nation.
We meet him tonight as he prepares to meet his brother. He’s sent his family on, hoping to keep them safe through the separation. As he lays down to sleep, and a unknown man comes and they wrestle until dawn. Pulling, pushing, grabbing on and not letting go. At the end of this tussle, Jacob is blessed, and also limping. He is named as one who wrestles with man- and with God.
The wrestling in these texts isn’t something to fear or avoid.
We have been experiencing a wrestling match in our pews.
The wrestling in our congregation leaves us limping, but also has the potential for us to clarify who we are. Wrestling involves holding on to each other- giving and taking- asserting and then giving space for the other.
Of course this image only goes so far. Aggression with a goal of forcing the other to yield isn’t what we want in the congregation. But engagement is. Coming to the mat together means being willing to test each other out- hear where we’re coming from- and allow those values to interact with our own.
I’m not advocating violence, but tenacity and interaction- holding on, being engaged, and working towards a goal.
We’re not conditioned for wrestling in the church. We want peace and welcome. We’re better prepared for sweeping things under the mat than showing up at the mat to work things out. No wonder we feel exhausted and uninterested when faced with values and strategies that push against each other!
When my girls are getting crazy with each other, I know that the laughter can easily turn to tears. It starts out with grabbing on – giggling arms holding each other in a bear hug. Then one of them lands on the other and the laughter gets wilder. Then someone smashes her head or gets an elbow to the nose and they are upset with each other. If I haven’t gotten them to calm down before, it’s with tears and blame that they come to me. And I turn them towards each other, to say sorry- it got out of hand- I love you- and I’ll play with you again.
That’s the turn we’re trying to enter here at Cross: I’m sorry- I see you’re hurting and I know I played a part in that. I love you- I’m going to hold on to you as my brothers and sisters in Christ. I’m committed to continuing to engage with you. Jesus is the reconciler who makes it possible for us to be brought together, even after hurt. Jesus gives us the strength and the vision to keep coming together to discover how we can work together for the kingdom of God, creating a shared vision for our congregation’s future in this community.
Can we hold on and push together to discover what God has in store for us? Can we wrestle the powers of this world together, for the sake of those most in need, holding on to God’s vision for creation?
In the Luke text, a widow is wrestling with a judge. Widows had little power in her time. But here she is, holding on to her demand for justice. She will pull justice out of the one who is unjust. Through her we see a vision of Luke’s proclamation that God is turning things upside down in order to right them up- the one who has no power will grasp it, and restitution will be wrested from the powerfully unjust.
Jesus frames this parable as telling the disciples to keep praying, and not to lose heart, wondering aloud if when the Son of Man returns at the final, complete coming of the kingdom, he will find faith on earth.
Think of wrestling as holding on and prayer as holding on to God’s promise and never letting go. Jesus’ telling the disciples to wrestle- to hold on to the promise. God is making all things new. God will restore justice and raise mercy. Tears will be wiped away and violence will end. All peoples will be brought together. The kingdom will come.
Do we have the stamina to keep on – to keep holding on- to keep hoping on- connected in prayer and trusting God will fulfill God’s promises?
Jesus will pull us forward. Psalm 122 speaks hope to us who are weary: “I lift my eyes to the hill, from where will my help come? My help comes from the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth.” We don’t look to ourselves. It’s not up to us alone to bring healing to this congregation, justice to the oppressed, or the kingdom down to earth. This is God’s work. We’re invited to join in to experience the joy of being on the edge of its coming. The One who raised Jesus from the dead is the One who promises to raise us to life. Even out of the pain of this present moment, God is birthing something new.
Hold on. Stay engaged. You may be limping today, but we will be blessed.
Grace and peace to you, creatures of God.
We’ve gathered today to celebrate our shared identity as God’s created beings and our holy calling to care for all of creation.
We read the beautiful poetry of creation, God’s speech bringing into being new life. Waves and rain, soil and sand, animal and human- and it was good. This refrain of “it was good” echoes in our hearts when we walk in the woods, harvest our gardens, marvel at a sunset, and enjoy our animal companions. God has created all that is, and in looking at creation with thankfulness and wonder, we look beyond the creation to God who created – and find the One whom we can thank and praise.
Genesis 1 tells an account of an ordered creation, while Genesis 2 tells of a God who is deeply engaged with the creative process, open to change and adaptation for the well-being of what God is bringing to life.
In this second telling of creation, God looks at the human creation and sees that it is not good for the human to be alone. This lack of companionship inspires God to create the animals and bring them to the human to see which would be a helper and a friend. God’s first answer to a person’s loneliness is an animal. Those who consider pets members of their family know God had it right. God creates for there to be relationships of mutual benefit, so that together, creation is good.
It is so fun that you have brought your animal helpers and friends today. I love that our scriptures talk about animals having this potential to fill a gap of our loneliness. You all know what it feels like to have an animal’s presence bring you joy, comfort, and understanding. That companionship is a gift of God.
In your caring for your animals, you are living out God’s call for humans to join God in tending to the creation. With our offerings of items for the Watertown Humane Society, we join in tending those animals in most need of care. As those created in God’s image, we are called to be about God’s work, caring for all of creation in our responsible use and thoughtful care of the entire world and all who live here.
As we give thanks for the gift of God’s good creation, we also remember that God cares for us. God has given us life. God has given us human and animal companions. In Jesus, God shows us the depth of his commitment to creation. God enters creation in Jesus, a created person, in order to be more fully connected to us, so that even when we die, we would not be separated from God.
Today we’ve brought our animals to church to be reminded that all of creation is God’s. We all look to God for life, and we return to God our thanks and praise for all we have been given.
Let us raise to God the joys and needs of creation in prayer, responding to Lord in your mercy with hear our prayer.
FIRST READING: Genesis 1:1, 20-28, 31a
A reading from Genesis:
In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, 20God said, “Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the dome of the sky.” 21So God created the great sea monsters and every living creature that moves, of every kind, with which the waters swarm, and every winged bird of every kind. And God saw that it was good. 22God blessed them, saying, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the waters in the seas, and let birds multiply on the earth.” 23And there was evening and there was morning, the fifth day.
24And God said, “Let the earth bring forth living creatures of every kind: cattle and creeping things and wild animals of the earth of every kind.” And it was so. 25God made the wild animals of the earth of every kind, and the cattle of every kind, and everything that creeps upon the ground of every kind. And God saw that it was good.
26Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.”
27So God created humankind in his image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.
28God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.”
31God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good.
Word of God. Word of Life.
Thanks be to God.
A reading from Genesis:
In the day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens,5when no plant of the field was yet in the earth and no herb of the field had yet sprung up—for the Lord God had not caused it to rain upon the earth, and there was no one to till the ground; 6but a stream would rise from the earth, and water the whole face of the ground— 7then the Lord God formed a human from the humus of the ground, and breathed into its nostrils the breath of life; and the human became a living being… 18Then the Lord God said, “It is not good that the human should be alone; I will make it a helper as its partner.” 19So out of the ground the Lord God formed every animal of the field and every bird of the air, and brought them to the human to see what it would call them; and whatever the human called every living creature, that was its name.
Word of God. Word of Life.
Thanks be to God.
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Bible Grace and peace to you, siblings in Christ.
I’m so glad you’re participating in worship today. When we gather here for worship, we’re joining the worship in heaven. Have you ever thought about that before?
Whenever we prepare for communion, as part of the Great Thanksgiving, I say a prayer that closes, “with all the choirs of angels, with the church on earth and the hosts of heaven, we praise your name and join their unending hymn” and you all jump in to sing “holy, holy, holy”- praise described in the book of Isaiah as the song being sung by the angels to God.
What we do here mirrors what’s going on up there.
What’s going on up there is joyful worship and celebration.
Today’s gospel helps us to see what’s got God celebrating.
There are two groups of people hanging out with Jesus. One group is those who think they have figured out how to live the way God wants. The other group is those that first religious group thinks aren’t living the way God wants. We might call them the righteous and the sinners. But if we do that we might be missing the point of Jesus’ stories.
Jesus tells them two stories, one for the men and one for the women, to be sure everyone can relate. A shepherd lost one of his sheep and then ran around looking for it. When he finally finds it, he calls together all his friends and family to celebrate with him. A woman lost one of her coins and sweeps the house looking for it. When she finally finds it, she calls together her friends and family to celebrate with her.
Jesus concludes by declaring there is more joy in heaven over the lost who are found than those who never needed to be found in the first place. That’s his answer to the religious grumbling, “this man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
The religious people who are following Jesus are voicing their expectations that Jesus should allow only the right people to be with him. Especially in their time, with whom you spent time, with whom you ate, said a lot about who you were. Your company could put you to shame. In some way, their grumbling is a protective warning- “Jesus, if you want to be a respected leader, don’t go hanging out with the wrong people. That’s not what a good rabbi should do.”
We often reflect their concerns. We want to protect Jesus, to keep him holy. We come to think of ourselves as the ones who deserve to be in Jesus’ company, and bar the way for those we’ve decided are less deserving. We want everyone to prove themselves worthy of receiving Jesus. The thing is, Jesus doesn’t need our protecting. Worrying that too many people have been allowed into the party and focusing on all the reasons they don’t deserve to be there keeps us from enjoying the celebration. Can you imagine the dinners that must have happened- with Jesus sitting and laughing with the tax collectors and sinners while the Pharisees and scribes recline next to him, scowling the whole time because they are counting all the ways those other people aren’t worthy of Jesus? They’re closing themselves off to the celebration at hand!
So how do we move away from a mindset of righteous judgement and into an attitude of celebration? We realize that we actually need Jesus- we can’t be righteous on our own, and we give back to Jesus his job- to judge the living and the dead.
Ask yourself- Am I willing to admit that I’m the sheep that’s wandered off and the coin that’s found a cozy hiding spot with the dustbunnies in the darkness? Acknowledging my guilt reminds me I’m no better than anyone else.
Remember, the sheep and the coin aren’t things that have the power to make decisions to move themselves. The sheep is guided by instinct, try to eat enough to stay alive, and the coin has no mind of its own at all. Am I willing to admit I have no power on my own to choose God and keep from evil? Acknowledging my powerlessness turns me to rely on God.
That’s the key to the spirit of joy that makes celebration possible. We have to let go of our need to be the righteous. We have to let go of our power to judge people and keep them out. We have to let God be God and let God do the work God intends. Only Jesus is good. Only Jesus gets to decide who he’s going to go seeking and bringing back and celebrating. Those are both the so called righteous and sinners.
Jesus has decided that we’re worthy of being found. Our being found is worth celebrating.
I’m exploring Brene Brown’s work in preparation for our synodical church leader’s fall theological conference. She researches shame and vulnerability. Shame is what keeps us from living whole lives. What defeats shame is a sense of worthiness. In her famous TEDTalk, she says, “you know what- you’re imperfect and you’re wired for struggle, but you are worthy of love and belonging.” Worthiness is an ability to say, “yes, I’ve made mistakes, I’ve done things wrong, but I am worthy – worthy of love.” If there was ever a brilliant secular explanation of the gospel- this is it.
You and I have messed up- we’ve chosen to be lost- we’ve chosen to judge- we’ve chosen to break apart community. Jesus knows that all, and acts in reckless love. Jesus has made us worthy. Jesus has acted because he’s decided you’re worthy. You’re worth his life!
I’ve read plenty of commentaries about why this coin is worth so much to this woman, but honestly, when I read the gospel, all I can think is- who cares about a dropped penny?! If you open your wallet and a bill flies out of it into the wind, how much does it have to be worth for you to go wildly chasing after it? (I suppose it depends how much is left in your wallet.)
When I was little, one of my jobs was to clean my dad’s car. It wasn’t a hard and fast command, but an opportunity. If I cleaned the car, I was allowed to keep any coins that I found.
I would carefully sort out the mess of papers, fast food bags, and clothes, digging down under the seats to remove those receipts trapped there, all in hopes of finding a few quarters. Every coin counted! By the end of my time, I would be very happy to have a baggie full of change and my dad would be very happy to have a clean car.
Today, when I vacuum my van, sometimes I realize that chunk of crystallized fruit snack I just sucked up was attached to a quarter. When it’s time to empty my shop vac, and I look down into that pile of dirt, I remember that there is some money down there. I’m less attached to each quarter than I used to be. (Ok, I’ll be honest, I really do still stick my hands in there and dig out the quarters – the only difference now is that I soak them in bleach before putting them in my wallet.)
The thing about the gospel is, sometimes you might feel like you’re about as worthwhile as a penny. Pennies pretty much cost more to make than their actual value as currency. You might be that fruit snack and goldfish coated penny that’s lived on the floor mats through the entire winter, but Jesus has still decided to scrape you off, clean you up, and make you his.
When Jesus tells his story, he’s talking to people who know their values- some of them know the world sees them as pennies and the others $100 bills. Jesus welcomes – and values- all of them. He’s going to get down and dirty on the cross to show just how much each of them is worth to him.
As Jesus’ followers, we’re called to reflect what Jesus has done in valuing all people, through our loving action for their well-being.
As we celebrate “God’s Work our Hands” Sunday along with ELCA congregations across the country, we celebrate that God has called us to join God’s work in this world. God works through our hands to reach out in love, welcome, and healing. Today also marks the 15th anniversary of the September 11th attacks on our country. This morning the Sunday School thanked our Ixonia Fire and EMS Department. Every day these servants go into the community to help those in need, without weighing the worth of the ones calling for help. On that tragic day 15 years ago, servants and strangers entered collapsing buildings because they believed that others were worthy of their help- even to the point of giving up their lives. As then, today emergency responders continue to serve and not one of them stops to say- maybe you’re not worth saving, if you hadn’t been speeding, or you hadn’t been drinking, you wouldn’t be in this problem. Their job is to serve without hesitation or judgment.
We’re freed to be God’s hands, reaching out to others without judging their worth, because we know that Jesus has made us- and them- worthy. We’re freed to worship in great joy because we know ourselves to be those once lost and now found- who are continually becoming lost and being found over and over again.
There’s a party going on in heaven because of you. God is so happy to have found and claimed you that God’s throwing a party. We’re invited. The party is happening right here- right now. That’s why we gather as a church. We’re here to celebrate that Jesus has come in love to find you- and you- and you- and all the world.
Filed under: Sermons
Bible Grace and peace to you, sisters and brothers in Christ.
When my college girlfriends and I got together this summer, we shared memories and swapped stories.
My roommate Ali has been hosting an event called “Beer and Hymns” for a number of years. On the last Sunday of every month, a group gathers together at the back of a pub with a hymnal next to their drinks. There are regulars who make it every month and new people who find their way.
This summer, a group of young men came in. One of them was wearing a St. Olaf t-shirt and Ali introduced herself as an alum. They chatted up all the usuals, comparing majors and dorms. Then one of them turned serious, and looking her in the eye, asked, “Was it worth it?”
The constantly rising tuition, the long hours of study and time locked away in a practice room— was the cost worth the reward? Did it all work out in the end?
Behind his question was the fear- have I made the right choice?
Halfway along the journey is a hard place to begin weighing the costs. Where we meet Jesus, he is coming close to the completion of his journey. He looks behind at the crowds. Do they have any idea where they are going as they follow him?
Jesus is going to his death. It’s going to get really ugly.
On this side of the resurrection, we know death will not be the end, but does Jesus? First there will be a complete experience of abandonment and failure. Jesus’ journey will cost him his life.
The text we read this morning doesn’t sound very uplifting. It’s hardly the motivational speech you’d expect a leader to use to rally the crowds onward. But maybe that’s because Jesus isn’t really interested in raising a crowd, he wants to form disciples who are ready to go all in with him for the gospel.
In the first churches where this gospel was read, the faithful would know what it is to hate father and mother, brother and sister, to leave everything behind to follow Jesus. This hating Jesus talks about isn’t about a feeling, but about priorities and actions. Jesus is saying that they can’t choose it all. They can’t choose their family which represents their old way of life if they want to choose Jesus. In the past, your family was your whole world, it was the source of all your connections- your social, economic, religious, and educational sphere were all contained within or grew out of the family. Your family identity decided who you could hang out with. Following Jesus means choosing loyalties. Will you live like your family, or live like Jesus? These Christians can’t be loyal to their families and live in segregated communities when Jesus calls them to be loyal to him and live in a new community in which rich and poor, Jew and Gentile, men and women were all welcomed. It’s one way or another- it can’t be both.
So for those first Christians, it’s not a shock to hear Jesus say they will have to hate their family and choose him first, because they’ve done that and they know the cost of following Jesus.
For us, this text is quite a shock.
I don’t think we ever talk about there being a cost to Christianity.
Often people tell me they want raise their children Christian so that they will learn to be good people. But being good, respectable citizens is not the call of Jesus. Jesus is turning the way things are, the way the world is supposed to work, the order and the rules, upside down. That’s the kind of dismantling that will make you lose your friends- and your life.
But if that’s really true, why don’t we ever think about it? Why don’t we ever calculate the costs of our faith? Why do we think there won’t be a cost?
Sometimes I think we’re the blind ones in the back of the crowd, who don’t really know where Jesus is going and are going to check out when he’s being crucified. Or we’re just so focused on getting into heaven to be with Jesus that we forget to be with him at the cross.
The cross is where Jesus shows us who he is. There Jesus experiences rejection, humility, suffering, and death. Jesus is the God who chooses to suffer for the sake of healing those who suffer. Jesus is the God who chooses to be rejected for the sake of welcoming into community those who are outcast. Jesus is the God who chooses to die so that death would be defeated. Jesus is found in the experiences and people we often try to avoid. What a strange God, to choose suffering rather than glory. Jesus gave up everything for us.
The challenge of this text is the question- will you give up everything for Jesus? Will your life choices reflect that the only thing that is important is Jesus? With his final comment, So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions. Jesus cuts to the chase. In effect, Jesus says, “in order to be mine, you can’t look to your money, or your house, or your family, or your calendar- and say mine.”
To be Jesus’ disciple, we have to give up power and control over everything. We in the church don’t like doing that. While I was on Synod Council in ND, we had to deal with churches attempting to use their offering as a tool of power. Even as they said this was their act of faith, returning to God what is God’s, they restricted their money to certain projects to put pressure on the church to do what they wanted. It was a sad reminder that even in our following Jesus, we want to take the lead.
Jesus calls us to follow. When this challenge is too hard, then rest in the gospel. Jesus knew the cost of his faithfulness to us. Jesus chose twelve disciples to be his closest followers, and when the cost of following Jesus became clear, as he was arrested and led to death, they ran away and hid in fear for their lives. Still, after his resurrection, Jesus came to them and spoke peace. Jesus sent his Spirit to guide them and empower them to continue to be his disciples and disciple others.
We might never live up to the challenge Jesus puts before us. Our lack of faithfulness does not take away Jesus’ faithfulness to us. Jesus is always coming to us, picking us up, bringing us close, giving us strength and forgiveness to continue in his path. God gives us everything we need, even after we’ve given up all we have. A new family, a new identity, and new life; these are the gift of God.
My friend Ali wasn’t quite sure how to answer that St. Olaf student’s question. Had she ended up with the life she expected out of her investment in college? Maybe not. But as she told the story, she was surrounded by the community that had been formed out of that experience. Maybe that was the reward that made it all worth it.
Those early Christians looked around and saw the new brothers and sisters Jesus gave them and believed Jesus would give them even more. How will you weigh the costs and wait for the outcome?
Filed under: Sermons
Bible Grace and peace to you, siblings in Christ.
Do you ever buy a lottery ticket?
Gambling isn’t a big part of my life, but when that jackpot reaches ridiculous amounts- $500 million dollars- sometimes I buy a ticket.
Then I start to dream. If I suddenly had $500 million, what would I do with it?
The dreaming is the really fun part. I imagine all the amazing things I could do. Take my whole family to Norway and Germany, tracing our family heritage. Take my girlfriends and their families on a cruise- or better yet- buy us our own resort! Make sure my kids and my niece and nephew have college paid for. Buy land on Lake Superior and build a retreat center with a special focus on clergy renewal.
I dream of never having to worry about money again, or struggle with that tricky dance between my ministry as a call and work that pays the bills.
So once in a while I buy a ticket so I can surround myself with the joy of dreaming. I know I’ll never win- sometimes I don’t even check the numbers. It’s mostly about the chance to hope- to imagine living the way you can only dream about.
When I get caught up into all this, I get caught up into a lie. Of course, the primary lie is that I have any chance of actually winning all that cash- the odds are never in your favor. But there’s a more dangerous lie. That lie is that I can’t live a life that reflects my dreams right now.
I could live today as if I had won the lottery.
Before you think I’ve really gone off the deep end and am about to explain my get rich scheme, hang on with me—-
it’s about looking again at my dreams and seeing the values at the root of them. Family, travel, time with loved ones, being a part of bringing renewal to others, living with integrity and without stress. I might need to reframe from a vacation on a private island with a chef to one at a state park, around a campfire, but I can still make time to be with family and friends.
I don’t have to wait for the day my lucky numbers are pulled for it to be possible for me to live with the same joy as if I was a winner.
In an even greater way than simply limiting our expectations so that we can live out of our joy, our faith changes the kind of life it’s possible for us to live now.
When we read in Hebrews, “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen,” we hear an option for a new way of life that is grounded in confidence in God’s work for us. Through faith, we see our life today changed by the promises God has made to us.
Faith gives hope content. Faith describes what we hope for.
One of the church Fathers wrote this beautiful description of what our hope is: “Faith depicts for us in advance the resurrection of those still lying dead in their tombs and causes the immortality of the dust of our bodies to become evident” (Theodoret)
This means that when you walk across the street to the cemetery, in faith, you don’t imagine the dead bodies in the ground, but you see your loved ones rejoicing alive in Jesus’ presence. It also means that you don’t see your own life fading away, bitterly living into what you thought would be golden years- you see in your fragile body the new body of the resurrection you will receive through Jesus.
The central promise is that God alone gives life, and God gives life abundantly and eternally. This life is not all there is. God’s promises extend beyond the grave, into a new creation that God is preparing.
To have faith is to live as if you have today everything you’ve hoped God would provide. It means that your decisions about what’s important today are shaped by your having received what God has promised. The tricky thing about this is that you haven’t fully received what God has promised yet.
Living in faith does not mean you will win the lottery because that’s what you’ve been hoping for. God is not going to reward you with lots of money just because you pray today. So often we think prayer is about asking for what we want and hoping that we get it. Even Abraham, in our reading from Genesis, is wondering along these lines. God’s promised descendents and Abraham doesn’t have any kids. He asks God, “What will you give me?”
Abraham asks because he’s not seeing any results of God’s promise. How long is he supposed to keep trusting that God will do what God’s said when there aren’t any signs that his hope will come true? Why would we uproot our families, change our jobs, rearrange our budgets, spend time at church, and pray if we aren’t going to see any results in return?
Most people might think you’re nuts. Even faithful people might laugh at you.
Our great matriarch of the faith, Sarah, Abraham’s wife, doesn’t get much attention in the Bible while God is talking to Abraham about moving to a new land and having lots of kids. We get the idea that she’s heard these promises, and obviously she’s followed along, uprooting her life to travel along with Abraham. Of course she’s wanted kids, but they just haven’t come and now the time for having babies has passed.
So when angels come to tell Abraham that he really is finally going to have a child that year, Sarah, overhearing in the kitchen, snorts out her laughter. It’s pretty ridiculous. I like the way Hebrews puts it- she’s so old she’s as good as dead- how’s she going to have a baby now?
I think her laughter is one of those I’d rather laugh than cry type of moments, but when her child is born, her laughter is full of joy. Her son is named laughter, a reminder of our reaction to God’s ridiculous promises.
God promises things that seem impossible. Life today and after death. Forgiveness. Peace. Reconciliation. Healing. Unified community out of diverse individuals.
When we look at the reality of our lives, all these promises seem far, far out of reach. But when we look with eyes of faith, we see what God is making possible.
People who work in remodeling are good at this sort of thing. They see a house that is in disrepair. I would see a huge mess of a broken house that is good for nothing else but to be bulldozed away. But fixers would see the gross parts stripped away and beautiful new walls and counters and bathtubs put in. They could see the way the remodeled house would become a welcoming place of refuge, where family and friends would gather. They can look at the brokenness and see what will be. That vision gives them hope, makes it possible for them to do all the hard work that needs to be done to get from the current state of destruction to the future state of beauty.
In faith, we are called to be people who see the future state of beauty overlaid on the current state of destruction. This is meant to give us hope for what God will do, and strength to be God’s workers in bringing that future into the present. Knowing God’s promises, we can see what God is doing, and we can join God’s work with courage even when we never see the completion of God’s work.
We are a people who need measurable results. We are outcome driven. That kind of mindset just doesn’t work well with faith. It doesn’t work because it’s centered on the individual person as the judge of what has been achieved. God’s timeline is different than ours. God’s promises are for a whole creation, not just one people or one generation. Each of us might receive a glimpse of a promise being fulfilled, or be a part of one small way the beautiful future is coming into today. Or, we might sacrifice, pray, work hard, and see nothing for our life of faith.
If that’s the case, we would be in good company. We read in Hebrews, “All of these (ancestors) died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them.” It can be a struggle to keep trust in God’s promises when you can’t see God making them come true. We need the community’s vision, and not just the vision of the people of Cross, but the vision of all the faithful around the world and through the ages. Then we are strengthened in our hope, because sometimes a promise made to one person is more fully made real to the next generation.
St Augustine wrote, “When you hope, you do not yet have what you are hoping for, but, by believing it, you resemble someone who does possess it.” In other words, fake it ‘til you make it. Act like you’ve won the lottery and can live the way you’ve only dreamed. Be confident that God will do all God has promised- living into those promises today by being people who create peace, increase love, and bring reconciliation. Then keep on with that work even when it doesn’t seem to be making any difference. In the end, it’s not going to be you who heals the creation, but God.
God has already achieved that healing through the death and resurrection of Jesus. In Jesus, our hope has been fulfilled. Now we wait for all its effects to soak through our world.
As you go into your week, be confident in living into God’s promises. We gather here at Cross to live as if the kingdom of God has already come down to us. Church is our practice ground for living as if God has already fully transformed the world. We confess and receive forgiveness to live as if we have finally reached a place where sin has power no more. We share the peace to live as if all our relationships were healed. We gather at the communion table to live as if all people were brought into God’s celebration. We eat shoulder to shoulder to live as if we were already at God’s eternal banquet. We are sent into the week ready to practice God’s kingdom in this world, knowing that we’re not totally there yet, but God will make a good future happen.
Along with Hebrews 11:1, think of this quote: “Faith is the courage to move forward rather than retreat in cowardice.” Move forward into the new future God is creating- in which God is at our center, all people are united, death is no more, forgiveness is accomplished, and joy is complete. This is the kingdom of God Jesus proclaimed is near.
Read the Gospel Grace and peace to you, sisters and brothers in Christ.
In 2007, I served a congregation in the urban center of Rockford, Il. The congregation I served was a historically Swedish congregation, but in the recent years had embraced the diversity of its neighborhood, reaching out, being transformed by new members of many races, and beginning new ministries in partnership with Latino and Laotian communities. They had made a commitment to get to know their neighbors. It wasn’t always easy or very pretty. Some of the people I got to know that year were in the midst of struggles: drug addiction, abuse, incarceration. I was pushed into conversations with people whose lives I couldn’t comprehend, and together we were blessed to find God.
Through our work of engaging our neighbors, I had joined a group visiting a local mosque. Next door, there little ethnic market, selling Middle Eastern foods.
One day I stopped in to the store. I don’t remember all of what I bought, but when it came time to pay, I realized I was short a few dollars. I was so embarrassed. Where were my math skills? Couldn’t I figure out how much was in my basket and how much I could afford? I could feel my face flushing as I dug deeper into my purse, hoping to find a loose $5 bill.
I was about to ask the cashier to take off some of the items to bring down my total when he looked at me and said, “it’s ok. You can have these.”
I was shocked- what kind of business model were they using?! I was embarrassed, I was receiving a stipend each month; it wasn’t a lot, but I could certainly afford to buy rice! I was humbled, here was a stranger, maybe someone who worshipped at the local mosque, maybe an immigrant, someone who fit all the categories my white Christian culture labeled other, dangerous, potential terrorist, and he was showing me grace. I didn’t want to need it, but he gave it anyway.
Grace. A gift unearned and given freely. Without prerequisite and without obligation. In my case, being shown grace by that stranger made me see him differently, see myself more clearly, and led me to reconsider my own prejudices, thoughts, and actions.
Our reading from Luke’s Gospel is all about grace. In Simon the Pharisee, we meet someone who thinks he doesn’t need grace, whose self-righteousness has prevented him from being transformed by God, whose quick judgment keeps him from recognizing another servant of God.
In the woman kneeling at Jesus’ feet, we meet someone transformed by grace, led into loving worship and service by the audacious forgiveness she’s received from Jesus. In Jesus, we meet grace personified, the God who sets aside all glory and honor in order to place his own holiness over all the undeserving.
In the inner thoughts of the Pharisee, we hear him thinking Jesus isn’t very perceptive. Jesus ought to have figured out this woman wasn’t any good: she wasn’t invited, she doesn’t have a place at the table, she is a sinner.
Jesus hears his unspoken repulsion and tells a parable. In this parable, a creditor is owed money by two people. Ones owes a little, the other a lot. Neither of them can pay. Instead of throwing them in jail or enslaving them until they’ve worked off their debt, the creditor cancels their debts. In the Greek, this word cancel could also be translated as “gave freely”- the one who held in his hand power over these two, payment stubs unfulfilled and overdue, let it go, gave it back, restored the debtors to freedom from owing him.
Pastor Karen of Stone Bank told this story: she and her husband, when they were first married were quite poor. They had just finished school and not yet started their real jobs, but they needed a place to live. Her parents offered to loan them the money for a down payment on a house. Once they got the house, they diligently repaid their loan. Karen’s husband made out little payment stubs, and every month, on time, they would write out another check. The gas bill might be late, the refrigerator might be empty, but they always made a payment to her parents. Years passed, and then one day, her dad telephoned. “You don’t need to pay us anymore,” he said. Karen was flabbergasted, “What do you mean? Of course we have to pay you. We’ve only paid 40% of what we owe. We have all the rest of the payment coupons written out.” Her father said, “you’ve done enough. We want to give you this. We love you.”
Grace is such a terrifying thing for us Christians, and yet it’s at the center of our faith. It’s so threatening because it means that our salvation is out of our control. We are totally dependent on God. We want to know for sure that we’ve been saved, we want to know for sure that God loves us, we want to know for sure that we’ve been forgiven. So often we think that the only way we can be sure is if we contribute something to our faith. If God knows we tried to be good people, if we ask for forgiveness, if we hold true to the teachings, then maybe God will keep from punishing us.
We may say that everyone is a sinner, we may confess every Sunday that we have sinned, but we may also think to ourselves, “but at least I tried… I came to church… I didn’t do this… I did do that… I’m not as bad as that person…”
As long as there’s a part of us saying, “but at least I…” then we haven’t grasped the joy of God’s grace. We haven’t reached the transforming, healing power of the grace of God as long as we’re still believing we don’t need it.
When the Pharisee looked at the woman at Jesus’ feet, he said to himself, “At least I am not like her.” Jesus speaks the convicting law to Simon, “the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little” (7:47b). Simon believes he doesn’t need forgiveness, he’s been able to follow the law, and so he has closed himself off to the joy of the grace Jesus gives, and isn’t transformed into a life of love.
Today, Jesus’ words come to you, have you been forgiven a little- or a lot? Are you moved to love a little- or love a lot?
If you’re living with the delusion that God has forgiven or loved or saved you because you’ve done something worthy of God’s notice, then it’s time to give it up. God doesn’t need whatever good works you think you’ve achieved.
But that doesn’t mean God hasn’t done all those things. God has chosen to act in grace towards you. Jesus has come to be a gift of grace. So that you know without a doubt, even when you’ve failed at trying, when you’ve missed church, when you did what you meant not to and when you’ve not done what you should have— Jesus has come with grace for you- to declare you forgiven, loved, and saved.
It’s so hard to trust that there would be a free gift for us. Distrust and misplaced trust is the root of sin. It is the sickness that infects us all.
I am so sad when I see this sickness infecting congregations. My home church was so infected with sin that its fevered delirium intensified into symptoms that broke apart the community. A group of people started secret petitions for their cause, bypassing their elected leadership. My family was caught in the middle of it all, trying to remain neutral to maintain friendships even as they tried to avoid the pressure to sign up for one side or the other. When everything finally became public, and outside consultants came in to help unravel the conflict, the whole system was so anxious they couldn’t follow through with the good advice they received. One group thought they had won, but in the year that followed, as leadership changed, so did the congregation. Five years later, the congregation is a third of its size, and has few of the same people I used to know. I pray that now God is working healing, and that they have learned strategies for well-being, so that they never again allow the festering that turned their cold to turn into pneumonia.
Their story is a lesson for us as we start to show symptoms of our own spiritual sickness.
There is one thing that will break this fever. There is only one cure that will restore the body and not simply leave us hobbling along, alive, but amputated.
Our salvation- our healing- is the grace of God: Jesus Christ.
Only when we are finally open to the gift of grace that Jesus so abundantly lavishes on each one of us, grace that is not limited or tarnished by its being shared with those who appear holy and those who do not, then we can be transformed to see each other through the undeserved love of Jesus. When you know that you have absolutely nothing to persuade God to love you, and yet that Jesus has done absolutely everything to love you and make you loveable, then Jesus can coax love out of your heart. Jesus can transform our little love into big love, love that heals even the deepest divisions, the most heart-rending betrayals.
Grace frees us to see the other, even to see the enemy, as one who is loved and saved. Because Jesus alone has achieved our salvation, it’s not our job to categorize people as righteous or sinner. Jesus makes it possible for you to remain in community with someone who has hurt you, because you recognize in that person the same brokenness you have, and the same status as a forgiven, beloved child of God Jesus has given you.
This identity, this love, this life, this faith- it’s all gift. You don’t have to be afraid that God will reject you. It was God’s free choice to commit to loving you to life. Encountering this grace changes our assumed label of God as punishing judge. The statement of your debt has been shredded. Jesus alone has made your salvation secure, so you can follow in foolish, free abandon, loving God and loving all God’s people, without counting the cost.
Read the Gospel Grace and peace to you, sisters and brothers in Christ.
A. and I spent the last few days down in Kenosha, at the Greater Milwaukee Synod Assembly. For the second year in a row, the Assembly was held at our ELCA church college- Carthage. It’s a beautiful campus, on the shores of Lake Michigan.
Lake Michigan is an anchoring space for me. The soft rustle of the waves receding speaks, “home,” to my spirit.
Up the coastline from Kenosha is the Wind Point Lighthouse. During my school years, it was this light that I would see shining through the fog. Under its light, on the night of my high school graduation, I looked out over the unending blue of the lake, watching a distant lightening storm, knowing that who I was as student, child, and friend, would be changing as I moved away, started college, and ventured onward into the unknown.
Place has always been an important part of my identity, and revisiting those anchor spaces reminds me of who I am- helping me to take stock of where I am in relation to the person I dreamed of becoming, grounding me for new trials ahead.
Our Gospel today is a story of place and identity- of leaving and returning, of losing and being restored.
It starts outside the city walls, where things are more dangerous and unknown as the certainty of the city is left behind. One group is coming out from the city. They are moving slowly, reluctantly, propelled forward by necessity and yet unwilling to reach their destination. They carry a heavy burden, the dead body of a son, and all the grief and fear that has taken up residence since he left.
His father is gone, he has no brothers, and his mother is left alone. If you’ve been through the funeral of a loved one, perhaps you know something about what she might be feeling. Staying upright takes all her energy, it seems impossible that she’s even able to put one foot in front of the other. Does she even see the ground under her feet, the faces around her, as she is softly pulled along by the tide of neighbors and friends moving towards the burial place?
They are not the only group outside the walls that day. Jesus and a crowd of people are on their way into the town. Certainly, they must have made plenty of noise, too, but I cannot imagine that mother heard anything but her own cries and the dizzying thump of her heartbeat that somehow, unfairly, has continued on while her son’s has stopped.
She’s not only consumed by grief, but she has lost her identity and her security. Do people still see her as a wife without a husband? Will they still call her a mother without a son? She is without a man to define her, to provide for her, to protect her, and in her time, that means she is very alone and vulnerable.
The woman may not have noticed or cared for anything beyond her grief, but Jesus sees her. Jesus sees her and has compassion on her.
Jesus walks right into the procession and touches the bier on which the dead man is being carried. Then Jesus commands him to rise and restores him to his mother. In this miracle, she is restored.
The mother hasn’t asked for this. Unlike so many in the gospels, she hasn’t gone out searching for a miracle, or begged at Jesus’ feet. Maybe she was so lost, she didn’t have room for hope or miracles, she couldn’t have possibly found the power necessary to seek Jesus.
Jesus isn’t only the one who responds to prayer, but the one who seeks us out to know us. He has compassion – suffers with us. Jesus sees her suffering. Jesus goes right to the place of suffering to lift her out. Jesus is the life-giver, the restorer of identity, the one who holds within Godself all the joy and suffering of our real lives, so that we are known.
In restoring this man’s life, Jesus restores the widow’s identity as a mother to a living son. Her direction is changed. She had exited the city, leaving behind the title of mother, traveling to the resting place of the dead, planning to return to the city, but to what? She has lost all sense of identity and all connection to space. Her home was her son’s- without him, where is her place?
Jesus changes the mourner’s direction and destination. With his gift of life, Jesus reorients the community of grief. Jesus points them towards God, the one who gives life, and they return changed.
Jesus comes to see you, to know your pain, and to restore you. No matter how long a child has lived, his mother will always be a mother. No matter how often others tell you your suffering isn’t really a big deal, Jesus knows your pain. That’s how Jesus begins to heal us- not by denying our lives, but by seeing them. And then he brings life to us, life that sustains us through the deaths today because Jesus’ life isn’t held captive by death.
The mother returns home, restored. But her home isn’t the same, she’s been changed by the journey. She’s met Jesus, and now everything- even the big things like death- have been changed.
Coming home is a beautiful thing, as we are wrapped in memories and familiarity. Hiding in home’s comfort, however, can keep us stagnant. We need to encounter what is outside of ourselves- whether that’s through physical travel or simply conversation. Sometimes we need to leave the safety of home in order to be willing to trust in God. Twelve of us are preparing to travel to a new space – the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation- in a couple weeks. Certainly, there are many affected by poverty in our own community, who share our daily spaces, but sometimes it takes stepping out of the familiar to discover more about who we are- and who Jesus has prepared us to be. Against a new backdrop, our own ideas and convictions come into clearer focus. Out in the space beyond our own city, we might find ourselves more open listeners to what Jesus has to say. Then we return home, changed by our new relationships with the people we’ll have met, changed by a new encounter with Jesus, so that we can live as a transformed people for the sake of our own communities.
As I drove to Synod Assembly, I passed a street and suddenly remembered, this was the turn to my friend’s house. I drove a bit more and my body knew it was time to take my foot off the gas as I neared the turn lane to exit the highway to my own street. If you’ve also been away from a place for a long time, and returned, maybe you know the flood of nostalgia. Maybe you also know the feeling of returning to the familiar and finding it not so familiar any more. New buildings have replaced the old, friends no longer occupy their homes.
The joy of being at synod assembly was to be reminded that we are a church bigger than ourselves, with voices of praise and hands of service that extend all throughout this region and around the world. We know that we are entering a time of reformation, realizing that the way we’ve been church isn’t working any longer and we can’t simply go forward coasting on cruise control. The church you remember is not the church of today, it’s not the church of the future. We can’t go home to the way it used to be.
For some gathered here, Cross is an anchor space. These walls and this carpet have watched over your baptism and confirmation, your marriage, and the funerals of your loved ones. You may feel the same disconcerting pain I feel returning home, noticing places I loved changed. If so, then I invite you to remember what it is that makes this an anchoring space. The voice that whispers “home” doesn’t come from the furnishings or words of the liturgy- it comes from the living and active Word: Jesus.
When you come here, it’s to remember who you are so that you can face the days ahead restored in your identity. It’s to take stock of how you measure up to who you’re called to be and repent so that God can direct you towards that self.
In this place, Jesus clothes you with his image. Without any act of faith, the bereaved widow receives her restored identity from Jesus. Likewise, you have received your primary identity from Jesus.
You are a beloved child of God. No matter how long you’re gone from this anchoring space, no matter how different you’ve grown from the image of a mature Christian you described yourself becoming during your confirmation speech, Jesus continues to hold your identity and your relationship in God.
People of Cross, remember Jesus has made us who we are and Jesus holds our identity firmly. We are one community in Christ Jesus. Baptized. Beloved. Fed. Sent.