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Brazen Beseeching – Sermon on Luke 11:1-13

July 24, 2016

I like Luke’s gospel a lot. He’s a good storyteller, and I love a good story. I mean, what would Christmas Eve be without Luke? As we read today’s passage together in a moment, you will find words that may be quite comforting to you, because, like the Christmas story, they are so familiar. That’s just the problem.

Maybe this never happens to you, but sometimes, as I read a familiar passage of Scripture, I tend to tune it out. ‘Oh, I know this part,’ says a little voice in the back of my mind. As my eyes scan the page, my brain goes on autopilot, and before I know it, I’m making a grocery list in my head, or planning the next day’s activities – even as I read words that should be challenging me and transforming me.

And I have to confess that I’m a little bit afraid to tackle a text that is so familiar to many of us. What on earth could I possibly add to what has already been said about the Lord’s Prayer? But here it is, the gospel reading from the Revised Common Lectionary, that well-organized three year cycle of readings from the Old and New Testaments, the Psalms, and the Gospels that we use to center our weekly worship in the Word of God. Following the discipline of the Common Lectionary forces us to face difficult passages, but it also forces us to revisit words we think we already know, to hear God speak directly into our lives. So let’s begin. Let us dive into the gospel lesson together this morning, and see what the Lord would have us find.

He [that is, Jesus] was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.” He said to them, “when you pray, say:

Father, hallowed be your name.
Your Kingdom come.
Give us each day our daily bread,
And forgive us our sins,
for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us,
And do not bring us to the time of trial.

And he said to them, “Suppose one of you has a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say to him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread, for a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him.’ And he answers from within, ‘Do not bother me; the door has already been locked, and my children are with me in bed. I cannot get up and give you anything.’ I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs.

“So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” (Luke 11:1-13)

There are at least four sermons available to us in this gospel reading, and you’ve probably already heard all of them. We could dissect the Lord’s Prayer, which some scholars suggest should really be called ‘the Disciples’ Prayer’ since this is the only place in the gospels where the disciples actually ask Jesus to teach them something.

Prayer is a central theme throughout Luke’s gospel, and we find Jesus praying at key moments in his ministry. In his book, Stories with Intent, Klyne Snodgrass points out that “Luke emphasizes the prayer life of Jesus by including seven references not present in Matthew and Mark: [Jesus prays] at his baptism, 3:21; after the cleansing of the leper and before the conflict with authorities 5:16; before choosing the twelve, 6:12; before Peter’s confession and the passion prediction, 9:18; at the transfiguration, 9:28; the Lord’s Prayer 11:1; and on the cross at 23:34 (omitted in several manuscripts).”[1]

This is the only instance we find where the disciples are asking to be taught, and it is significant that the lesson they want to learn is How to Pray. This request may not reflect a deep desire to converse with God as Jesus does, so much as it shows a desire to be identified with Jesus, even by the way they pray. And isn’t that what we claim to want, too? To be identified with Jesus by the way we live our lives, and even by the way we pray?

Of course, whole volumes have been written on the Ask-Seek-Knock verses, and you’ve already heard the Children’s version of the “how much more” verses. But perhaps the key to this passage lies in the parable of the Friend at Midnight, for this parable is unique to Luke’s gospel, and it contains a word that occurs no where else in the New Testament. Let’s take another look at verses 5 through 8, and this time, I’d like to read to you from the English Standard Version, to give us a slightly different translation than the one we read a moment ago.

[5] And he said to them, “Which of you who has a friend will go to him at midnight and say to him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves, [6] for a friend of mine has arrived on a journey, and I have nothing to set before him’; [7] and he will answer from within, ‘Do not bother me; the door is now shut, and my children are with me in bed. I cannot get up and give you anything’? [8] I tell you, though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, yet because of his impudence he will rise and give him whatever he needs.   (Luke 11:5-8 ESV)

Because of his impudence! Now, that puts a little different spin on this story, doesn’t it? The Greek word, translated here as ‘impudence,’ and in the version we read earlier as ‘persistence’, is anaídeia – and it only occurs this one time in the entire New Testament. Since we cannot infer its definition from other Biblical usage, scholars have examined ancient literature from the first and second centuries to determine its meaning. In those other writings, anaídeia most commonly refers to a lack of sensitivity to what is proper, a lack of modesty or respect, a brazen or shameless manner of behavior. Until Jesus told this story, anaídeia was considered a negative term. This kind of shamelessness didn’t even care about being shameless.

We have to remember that the culture of Jesus’ day was one in which honor and shame held great importance. You wouldn’t want to be caught unprepared for company, for this would bring shame on both you and your guest. Likewise, your neighbor would not want to bring shame on either of you by failing to help you maintain your honor.

So these verses (5-7) are really a long rhetorical question, typical of Jesus’ teaching style. The question “Who among you…?” introduced an everyday situation that was common enough for everyone to know the answer. No one would think of denying a neighbor whatever he needed to welcome an unexpected guest. It just wasn’t done.

It’s interesting that some translations interpret this shameless, brazen entreaty as persistence, because nowhere in this passage does it say anything about repeated asking. The man seeking help asks once. After the parable, Jesus says, “ask and you will receive, search and you will find, knock and it will be opened to you.’ He does not say, “keep on asking, seeking, and knocking until you get what you want.”

God is gracious and eager to supply all our needs. Our asking isn’t for God’s benefit, but for our own, to put us in the right frame of mind to humbly remember that all things come from God alone.

But this awareness begs another question: Just who is behaving shamelessly in this parable? Is it the one knocking at the door, asking for help? Or is it the one in bed, who won’t get up for friendship, but will for honor’s sake? The original Greek doesn’t help us much here, because the same pronouns – “he”, “him”, “his” – refer to both participants in the drama.

Maybe Jesus is describing the knocker-at-the-door as the Brazen Beseecher. In this scenario, we find a person who is willing to impose on one friend in an effort to maintain his honor with another. He knows he can depend on his neighbor to help him, not because they are friends, but because they both understand their social structure and they want to uphold it. Isn’t it ironic that such a culture allows someone to become vulnerable to a neighbor’s displeasure, risking the loss of honor with that friend, in order to maintain honor with a guest?

Or maybe the friend-behind-the-door is the Shameless Steward, climbing out of bed in the middle of the night, risking his family’s displeasure and the embarrassment of being seen ‘ready for bed’ when he opens the door, just to help a neighbor who didn’t get his baking done yesterday. Either scenario is possible, and maybe both possibilities are true. Maybe both friends are behaving without any regard for shame, stretching the limits of appropriate behavior with each other for the benefit of yet another.

Often, as I consider this parable, I find myself assuming the role of the one knocking, asking for help. As I lay my heart’s concerns before God, I find myself asking God to help me with this, or help me with that, shamelessly asking for the things I see as my greatest needs. I’m a lot like the guy banging on the door in the middle of the night, begging for help.

Now, mind you, I’m not asking for anything bad. I ask for wisdom and discernment. I ask God to give me courage when I’m under stress, to keep me focused on what’s really important, instead of being distracted by petty issues. I ask God to protect my children from evil. And I ask God to guide my steps, to keep me disciplined.

None of that sounds so awful, does it? But it does sound pretty specific, like the man asking for exactly three loaves of bread to feed a hungry traveler.

But, if I’m the person knocking on the door, that makes God the one inside, willing to get out of bed in the middle of the night for his own honor’s sake, to give me – notice it doesn’t say ‘three loaves of bread’ here – no, to give me whatever I need. And why? For his honor’s sake. So that God may be glorified.

“Hallowed be your Name. … Give us each day our daily bread.” Jesus teaches us to pray.

But what if the roles are reversed? What if I am the one in bed, and Christ is the one shamelessly knocking at the door? We find this image in Revelation 3:20, where Jesus says, “Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me.”

“I will come in and eat with him, and he with me.” Christ isn’t asking to borrow bread. Instead, he shamelessly offers table fellowship to anyone who will hear his voice and open the door. Christ bore the shame of our sin on the cross. He died for us. He brazenly knocks at the door of our hearts, waiting for us to hear his voice, to open the door, and to invite him in.

As we join Christ at the table, he does ask something of us. Christ asks that we bring honor to God by shamelessly, brazenly sharing the good news that God loves us and will provide for us – all that we ask, and all that we need.

A couple of weeks ago, we heard another very familiar story from Luke’s gospel, one that we often call the parable of the Good Samaritan. It’s a story Jesus tells in answer to the question, “Who is my neighbor?” Today’s story turns that question around and asks us to consider, “Whose neighbor am I?” Who needs me to set aside my own ideas of proper behavior so I can shamelessly offer mercy and give glory to God?

But we also need to remember that this whole passage is about prayer. It’s about asking for what we need. And what we need is often not the three loaves of bread we see as our most pressing issue. What we need is God’s Spirit, breathing life into us and through us into the world where we live.

Jesus says, “If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” No snakes instead of fish. No scorpions instead of eggs. God will not ration out three loaves of bread to share with a friend. How much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to us, if we dare to shamelessly ask!

So what would it look like for this congregation to be made up of people who shamelessly ask God to give us what we need, instead of what we want? Are we ready to dare to ask for the Holy Spirit to be poured out on us in ways we haven’t seen before, ways that might not look too polite? Are we willing to risk embarrassment for the sake of the gospel?

Because I know people in this community who risk embarrassment every day, coming here and brazenly asking for what they need because they can’t find it anywhere else. We can give them “three loaves of bread,” but how much more God asks us to offer them! How much more God offers to us, if we will only ask for it.

One of our Five Strategic Goals is to “create an environment for Pentecost to happen.” Luke’s other book, the Book of Acts, tells us that the believers were all gathered together in the upper room after the resurrection, waiting for the gift of the Holy Spirit to be poured out on them. And what were they doing during those fifty days of waiting? They were praying. They were praying shamelessly, asking God to come among them and give them what Jesus had promised.

Jesus says, “everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.” He reminds us that even in our human frailty, we know how to give good things to our children. “How much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” So let’s ask. Let’s get on our knees and beg brazenly for the very thing God wants to give us: his own dear self, in the person of Jesus Christ, and the power of the Holy Spirit. Let’s pray.

[1] Klyne Snodgrass, Stories with Intent, 440.

2015-01-14 Good Samaritan road

Who is My Neighbor? Another sermon on Luke 10:25-37

I preached on this text just a few months ago, to a different congregation, so the first part of this sermon is that sermon, with a few tweaks. But events of this past week have demanded that I speak to the violence that has overwhelmed us, and the need to remind my very white congregation that Black Lives Matter.

Here’s the set up to today’s gospel reading, from last week’s reading in Luke 10. What has just happened was the sending of the 70 (or 72) into the villages and towns where Jesus plans to go next. These disciples are the advance team, and their mission is successful.

The 72 have just returned, and Jesus has prayed a prayer of thanksgiving and praise to the Father, rejoicing in the Holy Spirit and blessing these disciples. Everyone’s feeling pretty good about what has just happened. If this were a television show, the commercial break would come right about here.

Luke sets off today’s famous story with one of his signature introductions: “And behold.” Luke acknowledges what has just happened, and connects it to this story with “and.” But there’s that “behold” to show us that we are about to hear something new.

 

25 And behold, a lawyer stood up to put him to the test, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” 26 He said to him, “What is written in the Law? How do you read it?”27 And he answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.”28 And he said to him, “You have answered correctly; do this, and you will live.” 29 But he, desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” 

30 Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who stripped him and beat him and departed, leaving him half dead. 31 Now by chance a priest was going down that road, and when he saw him he passed by on the other side.32 So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33 But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was, and when he saw him, he had compassion. 34 He went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he set him on his own animal and brought him to an inn and took care of him. 35 And the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, ‘Take care of him, and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back.’ 36 Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?”37 He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” And Jesus said to him, “You go, and do likewise.”

The lawyer who steps up to question Jesus only asks two questions. The first is a test, but the lawyer’s question isn’t as simple as our modern translations make it seem. A literal translation might sound more like, “Teacher, I will inherit life eternal having done or fulfilled or acquired what, exactly?” It’s a messy question, and hard to put into simple words.

Jesus identifies a teachable moment, and answers the question with –you guessed it – another question. Actually, two – and this is important. Jesus wants to know “What is in the law? You’re a lawyer, you know the scriptures; you already have your answer. You tell me what it says.” That’s questions number one.

But then Jesus immediately follows with a much more personal question – “How do you read it?” At once we realize that Jesus does not see the Law as a dead and stagnant set of words that mean the same thing to everyone. The Word of God is living and active (Hebrews 4:12), and how we read it determines how we will respond to God’s message.

The lawyer doesn’t hesitate, but begins by quoting the Shema, “Hear O Israel, the Lord your God is One. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” (Deuteronomy 6:4-5)

We think of this as a command, but the verb “shall” is not an imperative in this case. It’s more of an indication that something will surely happen in the future. You are going to love the Lord your God, because the Lord is the only God there is.

The lawyer adds part of Leviticus 19:18(b), and this blending of two verses gives us what we now call “the Great Commandment.” To love God, we must also love our neighbor.

Yes, Jesus says, you’ve got it. Go do it. But just as Jesus turns back to his friends, who are still celebrating their successful mission trip, the lawyer adds a new question, and this isn’t a test, it’s an attempt to justify himself. This guy who was challenging Jesus a moment ago suddenly feels the need to get his approval, so he asks, “Yes, but … who is my neighbor?

I can imagine the others getting quiet as Jesus looks at the lawyer. They have a hunch they know what Jesus is going to do. I imagine Jesus pausing a moment, considering the best way to teach this lawyer about the high cost of discipleship. He decides to take on this expert in the law, and everyone else settles in to listen. They know that a story is coming.

Jesus sets the scene. It’s the road between Jerusalem and Jericho. About a year and a half ago, I was on that road. We stopped at a Bedouin camp to get a good view of what is commonly called The Valley of the Shadow of Death. I think I have shown you some of these photos before, but let’s get a refresher course on what this valley looks like. ….

2015-01-14 Valley of the ShadowIt was the rainy season, so there was a bit of green showing here and there, but when we looked out across the Valley toward Jerusalem, it was hard to imagine anyone walking through this wilderness.

 

That’s Jerusalem off in the distance, on the very rim of the horizon:

2015-01-14 UP to Jerusalem

 

 

 

 

 

When we turned and looked down the valley in the other direction, we could almost make out Jericho.2015-01-14 down to Jericho1

 

In between is treacherous wilderness, and the distance was too great to be traveled on foot in a single day. This made travelers vulnerable to the robbers and nomads who spent their lives scrabbling out an existence in this wasteland.

bedouin homes

The place where our bus stopped was near a Bedouin camp. At first, we thought it had been abandoned, but the tour guide assured us that it was not.

The guide warned us to take valuables with us when we got off the bus, and keep them close. We were also encouraged to not buy anything or try to bargain with these Bedouins. And whatever we did, when the children asked us for candy, even if we had some, we should refuse. It might be a ruse to get us to open our bags or pockets – something you should never do in front of a Bedouin child. You also should not let them catch you taking their pictures.

Bedouins on the run to meet the bus 2015-01-14 10.35.17

Sure enough, as soon as the bus stopped, here they came.

I was careful to wait until the children weren’t looking to take a snapshot.

Bedouin girl 2015-01-14 10.36.45

 

 

Bedouin boy with backpack 2015-01-14 10.36.01This charming little guy had a backpack full of trinkets he was trying to sell us. Everything was “one dollar.” When we declined, he held out his hand and asked, “Candy? Gum?” He went from salesman to beggar in the blink of an eye.

As I tried to imagine someone walking from Jerusalem to Jericho, it occurred to me that these Bedouin children were a much milder version of the robbers in Jesus’ story. Clearly, they were not a real threat to us. We were in no danger of being stripped and left to die on the side of the road.

2015-01-14 Good Samaritan roadBut if this was the road Jesus and his listeners were imagining as he told the story, I could see why you wouldn’t have wanted to travel it alone.

Whenever Jesus tells a parable, he invites us into the story. There is almost always one character with whom we identify. Quite often, there’s a twist somewhere in the story that surprises us. It tells us we’ve been identifying with the wrong character all along, if we really want to be followers of Christ. The story of the Good Samaritan is no exception.

The first two people who accidentally happen by are a priest and a Levite. IF you were the man lying in the ditch, who better to come along than someone whose life is dedicated to God? At the very least, you would expect no further harm to come to you. These must be the heroes, surely.

But they both hurry over to the other side of the road. Neither of these likely heroes stop to help. They probably wanted to avoid contamination – touching this man, who looked like he might be dead, would make them ritually unclean.

It is the third traveler who is moved to compassion. Finally, someone who can do something! He gets down off his camel or donkey, cleans the man’s wounds with wine and oil, bandages him up and puts the man on the camel – or donkey. But there’s a catch. This kind person, whose care has saved a life, is – a Samaritan. The very last person on earth any self-respecting Jew would ask for help. The Enemy.

There was a long history of animosity between the people of Samaria and the people of Israel. It went all the way back to King Solomon’s son, who had failed to keep the kingdom together, and ten tribes had renounced their allegiance to David’s line. They stopped worshiping in Jerusalem, and within a very short time, had turned away from worshiping God alone. The tribe of Judah – the Jews – didn’t even really consider the Samaritans to be Hebrews anymore. As far as they were concerned, the Samaritans were worse than Gentiles.

The disciples and the lawyer who heard Jesus tell this parable might have had a hard time accepting the Samaritan as the hero. They probably assumed it would be the priest or the Levite. After all, it’s easy to justify their failure to help by remembering they were just trying to stay clean. But the person who does the right thing turns out to be a Samaritan – just about the worst possible ethnic group any of the disciples could imagine.

The difference between the Samaritan and the first two holy men who happened along that road between Jerusalem and Jericho wasn’t a matter of eyesight. All three of them saw the man lying in the ditch. The difference is what they did when they saw him. The first two made a beeline for the opposite side of the road. Only the Samaritan saw the man and had compassion. Remember that this word compassion is more than pity. It’s a gut-wrenching, heart-changing feeling. The Samaritan didn’t see an enemy lying in the ditch; he saw a person in need.
He saw a brother, a neighbor, and his heart went out to this stranger.

Jesus says, “Go be like the Samaritan.” Go be like the person you snub. Go be like the person you think you’re too good to be around. Go be like the person you think is your enemy.This week, we have seen violence erupt in an all too familiar pattern.

On Tuesday of this week, Alton Sterling was shot and killed by a police officer in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

On Wednesday, Philando Castile was shot and killed by a police officer in Falcon Heights, Minnesota. These two incidents sparked a wave of protests, prayer vigils, and calls for justice.

On Thursday, a sniper attacked police officers in Dallas Texas as they protected and served during an otherwise peaceful Black Lives Matter demonstration. Five officers died, and seven officers, along with two civilians, were injured.

Each of the people involved in these shooting incidents was a beloved child of God. Every single one. Every single person was a neighbor.

While violence and anger have escalated, many have experienced a growing sense of frustration and a feeling of helplessness. What can we possibly do? How are we to respond?

We may think that we are exempt from racial unrest here in our little corner of the world. But we aren’t. We may not be shouting racist epithets or actively discriminating against people of color, but even in our silence, we still experience privilege because of our white skin. We benefit from a system of oppression and advantage no matter what our intentions are.

During World War II, Martin Niemöller was a prominent Protestant pastor who opposed the Nazi regime. He spent the last seven years of Nazi rule in concentration camps. After the war, Niemöller gave lectures, and his point was always the same: through their silence, the German people, and the Protestant churches in particular, had given support to Nazi imprisonment, persecution, and the murder of millions of people. Even if they did not agree with Hitler, their silence had made them complicit in the evil that Hitler had perpetrated. Niemöller’s famous words, repeated in several different variations over many speeches, go something like this:

“First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out –
because I was not a socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out –
because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews – and I did not speak out,
because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me – and there was no one left to speak for me.”

Over the last several days, we have seen T-shirts and signs and hashtags on social media repeating the phrase, “Black Lives Matter,” and sometimes I see a response that says, “All Lives Matter.” One of my black clergy colleagues wrote this week that saying, “All lives matter,” is like saying “All houses matter” when there is one house on fire. Of course all houses matter, but shouldn’t we be throwing some water on the one that is burning right now? It’s like going to the emergency room with a broken leg and hearing the doctor say, “Well you know, all bones matter.” Of course they do, but shouldn’t we be taking care of the one bone that is broken right now?

Instead of saying, “All lives matter,” Jesus said, “Samaritan lives matter.”
Instead of saying, “All lives matter,” Jesus said, “Children’s lives matter.”
Instead of saying, “All lives matter,” Jesus said, “Gentile lives matter.”
Instead of saying, “All lives matter,” Jesus said, “Jewish lives matter.”
Instead of saying, “All lives matter,” Jesus said, “Women’s lives matter.”
Instead of saying, “All lives matter,” Jesus said, “Leper’s lives matter.”

Even though Jesus loved everyone, even dying for their sins, he went out of his way to intentionally help specific groups of people – the alienated, mistreated, and those facing injustice.
So saying, “Black Lives Matter” is one of the most Christ-like things we can do.” (from Stephen Mattson’s article ‘Social Justice is a Christian Tradition – Not a Liberal Agenda’ in Sojourners (08/11/15))

In the Friday Five this week, I issued a call to prayer that echoes our Bishop’s call to pray for peace and justice. If you use Facebook, I invite you to “like” the church’s Facebook page, where you will see a prayer prompt each day this week at noon. Prayer is the most basic, fundamental thing we can do as Christians, to begin the transformational healing our world so desperately needs. No ministry can be effective unless we first bathe it in prayer.

But prayer isn’t enough. It’s a start, but until we actively work at peacemaking, there will be no peace. Until we actively work at listening to the cry of pain in our community, we will keep walking past the very ones Christ calls us to stand beside. Until we actively work at recognizing the privilege we experience just by not having to think about racism if we so choose, our brothers and sisters who have no choice but to think about racism every waking moment will continue to suffer.

So let’s keep praying at noon every day this week. But let’s do more than that. Let’s look for ways we can actively work to overcome hatred and fear with the love of Christ. If a Samaritan can do it, surely we can. If a Jewish lawyer can do it, surely we can.

As we pass through the Valley of the Shadow of Death, the choice is ours. Will we see and cross over to the other side of the road, or will we see and be consumed by gut-wrenching compassion for those who suffer injustice, especially our brothers and sisters of color whose lives matter to God?

When Jesus finished his story, he asked the lawyer, “Who proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” The lawyer said, “The one who showed him mercy.” And Jesus said to him, “You go, and do likewise.” He says the same to each of us. Amen.

Wheat-harvest-Kansas

The Kingdom of God Is Near – Sermon on Luke 10:1-11, 16-20

July 3, 2016

After this the Lord appointed seventy [or seventy-two] others and sent them on ahead of him in pairs to every town and place where he himself intended to go. He said to them, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest. Go on your way. See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves. Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals; and greet no one on the road. Whatever house you enter, first say, ‘Peace to this house!’ And if anyone is there who shares in peace, your peace will rest on that person; but if not, it will return to you. Remain in the same house, eating and drinking whatever they provide, for the laborer deserves to be paid. Do not move about from house to house. Whenever you enter a town and its people welcome you, eat what is set before you; cure the sick who are there, and say to them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you.’  But whenever you enter a town and they do not welcome you, go out into its streets and say, ‘Even the dust of your town that clings to our feet, we wipe off in protest against you. Yet know this: the kingdom of God has come near.’ …

“Whoever listens to you listens to me, and whoever rejects you rejects me, and whoever rejects me rejects the one who sent me.”
The seventy returned with joy, saying, “Lord, in your name even the demons submit to us!” He said to them, “I watched Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightning. See, I have given you authority to tread on snakes and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy; and nothing will hurt you. Nevertheless, do not rejoice at this, that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.” – Luke 10:1-11, 16-20

 

Jesus sent an advance party to the places he planned to go himself. He told them to offer healing and peace, and to announce that the Kingdom of God had come near. But he didn’t send these disciples out alone; they went in pairs, to give each other encouragement and to hold each other accountable. A couple of weeks ago, we sent out some disciples from this congregation to offer healing and peace to the East Side of St. Paul. Through their work and their witness, they made it known that the Kingdom of God has indeed come near. I invite the UrbanCROSS team to come and share with us some of their experiences.

[SPECIAL REPORT: Mission trip team on UrbanCROSS]

It started with just 70 or 72 people, this movement of trusting and following Jesus. Seventy or so people who were given the task of spreading peace, healing the sick, and announcing the Kingdom of God. This year’s Annual Conference Session in St. Cloud was just one example of how Christ continues to call us to offer peace and healing while we proclaim the Good News. Sue served as our conference lay delegate this year, and she is going to share with you some of her observations.

[SPECIAL REPORT: Annual Conference Session]

The kingdom of God has come near to you. This is the only sermon Jesus gave his disciples to preach. Heal the sick, spread peace, and say these words over and over: the Kingdom of God has come near to you. Practice saying this to yourself for a moment: “The Kingdom of God has come near to me.” Go ahead, whisper it to yourself out loud!

You have just heard some examples of the Kingdom of God drawing near, of being sent into the world in the name of Jesus to heal brokenness and spread peace. Sometimes we may think that the Great Commission from Matthew’s gospel is the only call to discipleship Jesus offered. But here we are, traveling toward Jerusalem with Jesus through Luke’s gospel, and we see that Jesus has always been sending his followers out to heal, to offer shalom, and to remind this crazy world we live in that it is not our final destination. The kingdom of God has come near to you.

When Jesus sent out the seventy (or seventy-two, depending on which version you favor), he warned them that the work they were to do, this Kingdom work, might not always be easy. We might think that he made it even more difficult with the instructions he gave: take nothing with you, accept whatever hospitality is shown to you, and don’t go looking for the softest bed or the best cook in town. In other words, allow yourselves to become vulnerable, and trust in God to provide for your needs. When people welcome you, receive their hospitality with grace. Know that sometimes, your message will not be received very well. When people don’t welcome you, move on. Either way, the Kingdom of God has come near, and there’s nothing you can do to stop it.

When Jesus tells us that the Kingdom of God has come near, he says “near,” not “soon.” Theologians like to talk about the “already and not yet” of the Kingdom of God. God’s kingdom has already been introduced to this world in the coming of Jesus, God’s own Son. This Kingdom is not something you have to wait for. It is now, it has already come near in the person of Jesus Christ. You can reach out and touch it, it’s so close to you. But it is not yet completed, not yet fulfilled. Christ calls us to participate fully in God’s kingdom, to help bring it to full reality when Christ comes again in glory. There is still work to do. There is still a harvest to gather in.

Maybe you noticed an article in the New Ulm Journal (Friday, July 1, 2016) this week about the wheat harvest in Kansas. It’s been described as a once-in-a-lifetime harvest. Yields in some fields are well above 100 bushels an acre. That’s a lot of wheat. One custom cutter brought in four combines to harvest a particular farm, and had to park one on the side of the field, because the trucks couldn’t keep up with the amount of grain coming in. Remember the piles of corn we had around here last year? They are piling wheat at the Co-Ops in Kansas, because all the storage bins are full to bursting, and there is nowhere else to put this bumper crop.

The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few. Harvest time is when you bring in all the help you can find, because there is only a short window of opportunity to get the crops in while they are at their peak. Cousins and in-laws and neighbors work diligently together from early morning into the night to bring in the harvest. They understand the urgency of the situation.

Jesus reminds us that our situation is just as urgent. In the passage we heard earlier from Galatians, Paul writes, “Let us not grow weary of doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest time, if we do not give up.” (Galatians 6:9) It is this urgency, this need to persevere in doing the work of the Kingdom that brings us to one more realization: we cannot do this work alone.

We need each other to fulfill Christ’s call on our lives. Jesus sent out his followers two-by-two, not to echo the animals entering Noah’s ark, but because he knew how important it is to have partners you can depend on in ministry. A partner holds you accountable for keeping the work going, just by being present. You don’t want your partner to see you goofing off, do you? And a partner offers encouragement when you need it most, when you feel weary, and especially when your message is rejected and you feel like your work is in vain. A partner helps you keep focused on your mission: to offer healing, to spread peace, and to share the good news that the Kingdom of God has come near.

We are called to be partners in ministry together. Jesus sends us out into the world like sheep in the midst of wolves. He gives us authority to act in his name, encouraging one another, so that, when the Kingdom finally comes in its fullness, we can rejoice that our names are written in heaven, where we will feast at our Lord’s Table with all the company of saints. As we anticipate that joy, Christ invites you to this Table.

Come to this sacred table, not because you must, but because you may; come to testify not that you are righteous, but that you sincerely love our Lord Jesus Christ and desire to be his true disciples; come not because you are strong, but because you are weak; not because you have any claim on the grace of God, but because in your weakness and sin you stand in constant need of God’s mercy and help; come, not to express an opinion, but to seek God’s presence and pray for his Spirit. Come, for the Kingdom of God has come near to you, and Christ invites you to be part of it.

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Extravagant Hospitality – Sermon on Luke 7:36-8:3

Fourth Sunday after Pentecost C
June 12, 2016

For five long years, my mom was a single parent. As I look back to that period of our family’s history, it seems that those five years were my entire childhood. I was eight years old when my father went to prison. He urged my mom to divorce him and “find those girls a decent father.” I was thirteen when my mother re-married. A lot can happen between the ages of eight and thirteen. Five years can be an eternity.

During those five years, my mom worked her fingers to the bone to keep us fed and clothed and sheltered. She often worked two jobs to try to make ends meet. Mom’s work required her to be on her feet all day, and when she got home from her day shift, we four girls had a routine. Mom would collapse on the living room couch. One of us would bring her a fresh cup of coffee. One of us would brush her hair. And two of us would sit at her feet, remove her shoes, and give her a foot massage. We’d run a warm washcloth over each tired foot, then rub lotion into it, slowly massaging away the aches and pains of the workday. During this daily routine, we’d talk about our experiences of the day and listen to mom’s stories about the factory where she worked.

My mom was faithful to make sure we got to church, that we read our Bibles every day, that we prayed at bedtime and before every meal. But I think it was this holy moment we spent together every workday afternoon that really held our family and our faith together. Rubbing mom’s feet, brushing her hair, bringing her coffee – these were ways we could thank her for the sacrifices she was making for us. But the time it took to do these things was the real gift. This was time spent staying connected to her and to each other. As I pondered today’s gospel lesson about a woman who anoints the feet of Jesus, I couldn’t help thinking about rubbing lotion into my Mom’s tired feet, and what an important lesson of love I learned from that simple act.

This woman we read about today has something in common with the centurion and the woman whose son had died, that we met earlier in the seventh chapter of Luke. She is yet another person whose name we will never know. Some have claimed she was a prostitute, but the Bible never says that about her. Luke uses a different word to talk about prostitution (15:30). Here he only calls her a sinner, and it’s the same word Luke uses to describe Peter (5:8), a tax collector (18:13), and others (Luke 5:30-32; 19:7). We don’t know what her sin is, but it is one known to the rest of the community. She has a reputation. Maybe she eats pork, or has been caught lying or cheating or charging interest on loans. We don’t know. But she knows. And Jesus knows. And Simon the Pharisee does, too.

 

One of the Pharisees asked Jesus to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee’s house and took his place at the table. And a woman in the city, who was a sinner, having learned that he was eating in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster jar of ointment. She stood behind him at his feet, weeping, and began to bathe his feet with her tears and to dry them with her hair. Then she continued kissing his feet and anointing them with the ointment. Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw it, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him—that she is a sinner.”  Jesus spoke up and said to him, “Simon, I have something to say to you.” “Teacher,” he replied, “speak.”  “A certain creditor had two debtors; one owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. When they could not pay, he canceled the debts for both of them. Now which of them will love him more?” 

 Simon answered, “I suppose the one for whom he canceled the greater debt.” And Jesus said to him, “You have judged rightly.”

Then turning toward the woman, he said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has bathed my feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not stopped kissing my feet.  You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.” 

Then he said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” But those who were at the table with him began to say among themselves, “Who is this who even forgives sins?” And he said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”

Soon afterwards he went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. The twelve were with him, as well as some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, and Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their resources. – Luke 7:36 – 8:3

How would you feel if a woman you didn’t know came up to you, took off your shoes, and started weeping over your feet? The tears would roll down between your toes, as she wiped them with her hair. And then she would suddenly pull out a beautiful jar of salve, and start rubbing the fragrant ointment into your feet, as she continued to weep. Would you be surprised? Uncomfortable? Would you push her away and ask what on earth she thought she was doing?

It’s one thing to rub your mom’s feet in the privacy of your own living room, but what if this happened in someone else’s home, at a dinner party they were giving in your honor? Would you be embarrassed for your host? For yourself? Would you be embarrassed for the woman?

I’m sure that Simon the Pharisee and all his other guests were appalled when this party crasher let down her hair and started kissing Jesus’ feet. Her behavior was scandalous. It was shameful. And I have to wonder what prompted her to behave the way she did. Had she known Jesus before? Had he already shown her mercy that others did not show? Had she already met Jesus, talked with him, expressed a desire to be cleansed of her sin, and been forgiven?

I wonder if she had, because later in this story, when Jesus speaks directly to her, he says “Your sins have been forgiven.” The Greek verb here uses the perfect tense, and that means the action has already been completed in the past, with effects that carry forward into the future. So, what had already happened to her that brought her to this room, carrying a jar of ointment? It must have been something amazing, to have prompted this very public and scandalous display of devotion.

But Jesus doesn’t flinch. Instead of condemning this woman for interrupting a meal to which she had not been invited, Jesus asks the host for permission to speak. “Speak, Teacher,” the Pharisee says. And Jesus launches into a parable.

At first, this story about two debtors seems innocent enough. Which one will have more love for the person who forgives a debt, the one who owed fifty, or the one who owed five hundred? “I suppose the one who owed more,” Simon shrugs. “Right,” Jesus answers. And then he asks the real question:

“Simon, do you see this woman?”

Keep in mind that this woman has entered Simon’s house without permission and has behaved in a scandalous manner from the moment she came into the room. Simon would have to be blind not to see her.

Keep in mind that this woman is a known sinner – whatever her sin, it is public knowledge, and Simon has already judged her, just as he has already judged Jesus for not recognizing her obvious sinfulness. Simon has been thinking, “If this guy were a real prophet, he would know who is touching him, making him unclean right here in my own house!”

Keep in mind that this woman, any woman in that time and culture, would have normally gone politely unnoticed, completely invisible to the men reclining around this table. Yet, Jesus asks:

“Simon, do you see this woman?”

“You did not offer me any of the normal signs of hospitality, but she has gone above and beyond normal. She has shown extravagant hospitality, even anointing my feet. At best, you might have put oil on my head after greeting me with a kiss and giving me water to wash my own feet. But this woman, because her many sins have been forgiven, shows greater love than you do.”

It’s easy for us to look back at Simon and smirk a little bit. “Gotcha!” we might be thinking. We see how Simon the Pharisee thinks he is better than others, how he judges another’s worth only in relation to the value he gives himself. We snicker and think, “Obviously he wasn’t paying attention back in chapter 6, when Jesus was preaching the Sermon on the Plain and spoke these words: “Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven.” (Luke 6:37)

But then it hits me. When I judge Simon for judging others, I am no better than Simon. When I look down my nose at someone else’s sin, I am just as guilty as they are, no matter what sin they carry. “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” Paul writes (Romans 3:23). My sin isn’t any nicer or less offensive to God than the sin of someone who steals, or murders, or commits sexual sin. When I judge others for their sins, I am sinning, too. When you judge others for their sins, you are sinning, too. We are all guilty.

But here is the good news: Guilt does not equal shame. Our guilt may make us feel ashamed for our sins, but Jesus does not shame us, and he asks us not to shame each other. Jesus did not shame this woman, who was behaving in an extremely shameful manner. Instead, Jesus offers forgiveness when we repent, and he asks us to forgive much, and to love much.

Jesus reminds this woman that she has already been forgiven, and that her forgiveness extends through all time. Jesus tells her, “Your faith has made you whole; you are no longer broken. So go in peace.”

And then Jesus leaves. But he doesn’t go alone. Just as he called a dozen men to follow him, he also calls women to be his disciples. This is no less scandalous than the woman kissing his feet and wiping them with her hair. Jesus invites women to travel with him, to be with him. They are women from all walks of life. Some have been cured of diseases, some have been released from demons, some are married to influential men, some have come from the lowest rungs of society. All are like this woman, who has just been sent away in peace after Jesus has made her whole by forgiving all her sins.

Jesus offers you the same forgiveness. No matter what you have done or thought about doing, Jesus is ready to forgive you. No matter how you have judged others or thought yourself better than someone else, Jesus is waiting for you to let him speak into your heart in love, to make what is wrong in you right. No matter what guilt you carry, Jesus is ready to take away your shame, and invite you into his presence. You need no longer live in your brokenness. Christ offers you forgiveness that takes away all the sins of the past, and gives you a new future, a future of wholeness and peace in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.

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Gut-Wrenching Hospitality: Sermon on Luke 7:11-17

Third Sunday after Pentecost C
June 3, 2016

We often associate hospitality with luxury. Just think about the hospitality industry for a moment. Have you ever stayed in a really nice hotel? I mean one where the beds are made up with extravagant linens and the towels are thick and the pillows are real down pillows, and there may even be a complimentary robe hanging in the beautifully appointed bathroom. It’s the kind of hotel that doesn’t offer a free breakfast. People who stay in these hotels aren’t looking for a free breakfast. But there might be fresh flowers in your room and a chocolate truffle on your pillow.

Even a modest hotel – the kind that does offer a complimentary breakfast bar with make-your-own waffles – does its best to make guests feel they are being treated to something special. That’s what hospitality has come to mean – being treated to something special, maybe even something luxurious. But no matter how luxurious the accommodations, it’s always good to get home, to sleep in your own bed. That’s where we experience hospitality at its best: at home.

Luke’s gospel describes a completely different kind of hospitality than the hotel industry has in mind. Continue reading

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Be Amazing: Hospitality with Authority – sermon on Luke 7:1-10

 

May 29, 2016

Luke mentions authority more than any of the other gospel writers. Usually, Luke is referring to Jesus and the way he teaches with authority, or heals with authority, amazing the people who gather around him. Sometimes it’s the Jewish leaders who question Jesus about his authority to do these things.

But in today’s story, Luke tells us about someone else who holds authority, and this person is an outsider, a Roman centurion. He’s a mid-level military leader who knows his own place in the chain of command. A Roman centurion is about the last person you might expect to come to Jesus, asking for help, and yet, that’s exactly what happens. Continue reading

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Dangerous Hope – Sermon on Romans 5:1-5

 

May 22, 2016 Trinity C

We viewed this clip from The Hunger Games to introduce the sermon.

Just to be clear, even though he may look sweet snipping roses, President Snow of The Hunger Games is a bad guy. He is evil personified. And while his reasoning may be based on false assumptions about what hope actually is, he does make a good point when he says, “Hope is the only thing stronger than fear.” And a lot of hope – that’s a dangerous thing. President Snow likes his hope in small doses. He uses hope to get people to do exactly what he wants them to do. But he doesn’t really understand what hope is.

At least a dozen times in Paul’s letter to the church at Rome, we find him talking about a particular kind of hope, and today’s passage gives us one of them.

Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance,  and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us. – Romans 5:1-5

The thing about Romans is that you have to hold the entire thesis in your head in order to examine a small chunk of it so it makes sense.[1] This passage is a perfect example. Paul starts off with the word, “Therefore,” and that’s a sure sign we’d better go back and read chapter four, so we’ll know what he’s referring to. Continue reading