Ninth Sunday after Pentecost, Luke 12:32-40
Certain phrases from the scriptures tend to ring out with clarity and poignancy depending on the changes and chances of life and where we happen to find ourselves on any given occasion. Today such a ringing phrase may well be, “Do not be afraid, little flock,” which are Jesus’ words to his disciples recorded by Luke in today’s gospel reading.
“Do not be afraid, little flock.” Yes, we do know fear. Times of transition and tumult tend to provoke anxieties. This is my last Sunday with you as pastor. Beginning today you as a congregation embark on a new chapter in your life together. I commence a journey to a new call in Phoenix. All of this with plenty of fear-inducing unknowns.
But there’s more. Who knows what’s going to happen with the next twists and turns of the pandemic and inflation and the war in Ukraine and tensions with China and national politics at home and drought and floods and fires and other extremes that seem to be part of the new normal of climate change? Any one of these crises can make for sleepless nights. And yet the list of that which provokes fear goes on and on.
These are troubled times to be sure. But Jesus tells us not to be afraid. This exhortation joins a great heavenly chorus offered by other divine messengers to fear not. Recalling moments in the beginning of Luke’s gospel, an angel of the Lord tells Zechariah, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John.” (Luke 1:13) And then the angel Gabriel announces to Mary, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus.” (Luke 1:30-31) And so the story in Luke goes.
In these biblical passages, the reason for us not to be afraid is always connected to a promise from God. Each announcement has as a focal point on a conjunction, the word “for,” which serves as a fulcrum tipping into the next phrase of promise, in the case of today’s word from Jesus, “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give the dominion [of God] to you.”
Jesus in Luke promises his followers the very dominion of God as the reason for us not to fear. This is good news that serves to relieve our fears.
We see a similar promise made in today’s first reading when the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision: “Do not be afraid, Abram, [for] I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.”
After contesting this promise that he and his wife had not been given their hoped-for heir, the Lord showed Abram the countless stars and offered this further promise: “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them…. So shall your descendants be.”
According to the account in Genesis, “Abram believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.” That is to say, Abram trusted the divine word of promise, and the Lord considered or regarded this trusting response as righteousness, being in right relationship, good standing, with God.
This is another phrase from the scriptures that has echoed importantly in Lutheran history and rings out with divine truth in our ears. “And the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness” became part of the scriptural inspiration for the centrality of the teaching of justification by faith, that our trust in God’s gracious promises unites us to God’s mercy and love and forgiveness and blessing which we simply but profoundly await with confidence and receive with gratitude.
This reality also inspired the author of the letter to the Hebrews who expounds on the nature of faith evidenced in the history of the Jewish people. The author of this letter suggests that “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Faith, trust in the trustworthiness of God, is what propels us into an unknown future without fear, or at least less fear….
The phrase “by faith” is used repeatedly in the passage that is today’s second reading.
“By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance… not knowing where he was going. By faith he stayed for a time… living in tents…. By faith [Abraham] received the power of procreation, even though he was too old…” (Hebrews 11:8-11)
The phrase “by faith” becomes a kind of mantra that describes the nature of the pilgrimage journeys of God’s chosen and faithful people, beginning with Abraham and Sarah, and on until our present day.
So it is that by faith we also venture on, like the people of old, not knowing exactly what will confront us.
In fact, we as individuals may not reach the promised destinations, as the author to the letter to the Hebrews concludes after listing the examples of faithfulness of the greats of the Hebrew tradition: “All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them.” But their heirs did receive the fulfillment of the promises from the God who is faithful and keeps the holy word.
Thus, let us claim and reclaim what is and has been so central to our Lutheran understanding of the gospel, the good news: Sola fide. Faith alone. Faith, not fear.
Let this also be our mantra going forward, even as we part ways.
By faith, you and I now commence journeys apart from each other.
By faith, you enter into the process to call your next pastor.
By faith, I venture Westward to make a new home closer to my son and to take on a new call.
By faith, we endure the craziness of these times in nation and world doing what we can to proclaim in word and deed a different way of God’s justice, mercy, and commonwealth.
By faith, we sell our possessions and give alms, as instructed by Jesus in Luke’s gospel for today, to assist those in need, ravaged by all manner of calamities around us.
Likewise, inspired by Jesus in Luke, by faith, we are dressed for action with lamps lit, ever watchful for the coming of the promised coming one.
And still more, by faith, we make purses that do not wear out, ever focused on the heavenly unfailing treasure which we are called to enjoy even now in this age.
For the dominion of God has in fact been given to us in the inheritance which is the church and its ministries, we who are the body of Christ. Here in this place we are given the very dominion of God, where Jesus is Lord. Christ himself is that dominion. We are given the gift of this dominion, this lordship, when Christ is made known to us in the proclamation of the word, in the waters of baptism, and the breaking of the bread, in the announcement of forgiveness, in the mutual conversation and consolation that occurs among us in community .
Indeed, Christ our master, as in the story from today’s gospel, returns to us week after week and invites us to sit down to eat, and Christ himself serves us with the gift of his very self, such that the dominion of God is so close to us that we can taste it.
Thus, in Christ, and as heirs of Christ’s dominion, by faith and in faith, we have confidence to bid each other adieu and then to continue on our ways by faith to do the work that God continues to entrust to us.
I am moved to conclude with these additional Christ-focused and encouraging words from the author to the letter to the Hebrews: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.” (Hebrews 12:1-2)
May these words ever inspire us, reassure us, encourage us, move us, and propel us into God’s promised future in Christ. Thanks be to God. And thank you. Amen.
Eighth Sunday after Pentecost, Luke 12:13-21
A theme that stands out in today’s readings, both the Gospel and the reading from Ecclesiastes, is that when it comes to human reality, all things come to an end. Endings happen in many ways, with pointed focus finally on death.
The lists of varied endings can be long. We are on the brink of the conclusion of my pastorate here at Resurrection. Decades of relative stability for the privileged in our country seem to be giving way to a new period of chronic instability. We’re all getting older. The pandemic has brought all of this into sharper and poignant relief. And the list goes on concerning the claims of human mortality and finitude.
We see this theme in the parable of Jesus that Luke records that we just heard. The rich man’s land produced an overabundance of crops and goods, so he tore down his barns to build larger ones, and having done so was prepared to sit back, relax, and to eat, drink, and be merry. Except that on that very day, his life would end in death.
Most of us here live with the great privilege of abundance, if not to say overabundance. While this wealth can occasion a life of comparative leisure and opportunity, the work, the toil required to produce and maintain abundance can itself also become a source of great burden for us.
We get a palpable sense of that in today’s first reading from Ecclesiastes where the teacher exclaims: “What do mortals get from all the toil and strain with which they toil under the sun? For all their days are full of pain, and their work is a vexation; even at night their minds do not rest. This also is vanity.” (Ecclesiastes 2:22-23) And a chasing after wind.
And then our lives of overburdened abundance come to an end, sometimes quite abruptly and unexpectedly.
This is the reality of the human condition. We are mortal. We will die. This is the weight of our sinful finitude that can feel so very heavy, and which we go to great lengths to guard against, to keep at bay, even to deny. Here I am reminded of Ernest Becker’s classic work, The Denial of Death, where Becker posits that human society is organized in such a way as to keep the reality of death out of our conscious awareness. Published in 1973, it’s still a classic; because Becker’s insights remain true. No matter how cleverly we try, death catches up with us, and our various worldly possessions and achievements do not change that reality.
Martin Luther summed it up well when on his deathbed his reported last words were these: “We are beggars. This is true.”
Luke reports that Jesus told the parable about the rich man to make the point that life does not consist in the abundance of possessions. This teaching moment came in response to a request by a person in the crowd asking Jesus to convince his brother to divide the family inheritance with him. Luke says that Jesus concluded the parable about the folly of abundance only to lose it all to death with these words: “So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.”
Where does this leave us? So far, both the gospel reading and the passage from Ecclesiastes make for quite the downer that gives us no relief. This bad news is summed up again in the words of the teacher in Ecclesiastes: “Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher, vanity of vanities. All is vanity.” Vanity as in futile, empty, worthless, short-lived, and without meaning.
Is there any good news today? Most certainly, and thanks be to God for three lectionary readings and not just one or two.
Today’s appointed gospel reading leaves us hanging and wondering what it might mean to be rich toward God. Being rich toward God seems to hold the promise of good news. And indeed, we can find that good news in today’s second reading from Paul’s letter to the Colossians where the apostle elaborates on what it might mean for us to be rich toward God.
Here’s what Paul writes: “So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory.” In short, Christ is the source of divine richness.
And we have in fact been raised with Christ, even as we have died with Christ. And for us, it is baptism where this all happens. Drowned in the waters of this life-giving flood, we emerge from the torrent with new life in Christ, having been baptized into his own death and resurrection.
There are lots of veiled references to baptism in Paul’s letter to the Colossians, and we have some of that in today’s reading. Paul exhorts the hearers to “put to death, therefore, whatever in you is earthly,” that is, to be rid of the ways of the old Adam, of sin.
This suggests the renunciations that are integral to our baptismal rites when those to be baptized renounce the forces that defy God and the powers of this world that rebel against God and the ways of sin that draw us from God (cf. Evangelical Lutheran Worship, p. 229).
It's important to note that our struggle is not so much about heavenly things being up there and earthly ways being down here in a clean, cosmic, spatial dichotomy. No, these heavenly and earthly forces contend right here where we live, all the time. Baptismal life is a struggle in the Spirit against the forces of sin and death.
Thus, Paul in Colossians also points also points to baptism when he writes that we have “stripped off the old self with its practices and [our having] clothed [ourselves] with the new self,” which is our new life in Christ. Indeed, at baptism, we are clothed in the brilliance of Christ often symbolized by the white gowns worn by the baptized.
But when it’s all said and done, the only death that ultimately matters has already occurred on the cross of Christ. In that light of Christ’s resurrected new life our own mortal end in death is relativized and pales in comparison, and our own death in the baptismal waters is arguably more significant in the divine, grandest scheme of things than the end that is coming to us all in our own personal deaths.
For, as Paul concludes in today’s passage from Colossians, “Christ is all and in all!” Christ is the cure to that which ails us; Christ is our life beyond mortality, beyond death. Christ is the antidote to the cry of vanity of vanities and Christ is the end of our futile chasing after the wind. Christ imparts to us the richness of God. This is good news indeed.
So, let’s return for a moment to Luther’s dying moments. Reportedly a friend asked Luther when he was stricken ill and was close to death: “Do you want to die standing firm on Christ and the doctrine you have taught?” Luther answered with an emphatic, “Yes!”
And we answer our own “Yes!” whenever we reaffirm and give thanks for our own baptisms into Christ.
In Christ, then, we can relax, eat, drink and be merry with faith renewed and with meaning and purpose, not futility. In fact, it’s at this table where we do truly relax, eat, drink, and are merry in thanksgiving to God for Christ’s gracious abundance, the only abundance that really matters.
And in this Spirit, we are freed from bondage to our many possessions and their claims on us. We are freed to give it all away, not storing up riches for ourselves, but using our abundance to help and to feed others because in Christ we are made rich toward God.
When it’s all said and done, the only inheritance of any ultimate significance is that which we inherit from Christ. Thus, our freedom to give it all away, not giving up our hearts to despair, but finding joy and meaning in our loving service to others.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Seventh Sunday after Pentecost, Luke 11:1-13
Luke records that Jesus’ disciples wanted instruction in prayer. I suspect that we could all use some teaching about prayer, especially in a world that so desperately needs it.
So, let’s take a closer look at what we heard just now from the gospel. Luke records that Jesus taught the disciples what to pray when he offered a version of the words that we know as the Lord’s Prayer. So far so good. We can handle that, and in fact pray the words of this prayer weekly, if not daily.
But Luke also reports that Jesus taught the disciples how to pray, that is, in what manner or disposition.
To make this point about the attitude we bring to prayer, Luke records Jesus telling a story about a friend visiting a friend at the midnight hour – precisely when many of our most desperate prayers are offered up – asking for bread to be hospitable to another friend who just showed up for a visit. Luke’s Jesus makes the point that it was not the friendship that got the request for bread fulfilled, but the persistence of the friend’s request is what made the difference.
Jesus in Luke thus advocates for persistence in prayer. What does persistence mean? The New Testament Greek suggests immodesty, or importunity, boldness, pestering, nerve, gall, audacity. That’s the attitude we are instructed to bring to pray.
We get a good sense of such audacity when engaging with God in today’s first reading from Genesis where Abraham negotiates boldly with the Lord concerning the fate of the sinful cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. Abraham’s audacious dealing with the Lord results in the Lord changing the mind in favor of mercy rather than punishment if in fact there are ten remaining righteous persons in Sodom.
Listen again for the audacity in Abraham’s manner – when he rightly acknowledged his proper place with humility but nonetheless forthrightly, boldly bargained with the Lord. Abraham says when addressing the Lord:
- “Far be it from you to do such a thing, to slay the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from you!”
- “Let me take it upon myself to speak to the Lord, I who am but dust and ashes.”
- “Oh do not let the Lord be angry if I speak just once more.”
Thus, the story from Genesis gives us a good sense of what persistence in prayer might look like and feel like.
Yet, such persistence, such nerve, such audacity is often hard for us to do without a sense of guilt or feeling that we’ve done something wrong. Who are we to nudge God? Moreover, we may fear God’s wrath if we step out of line in terms of what we might deem a properly respectful attitude of prayer. That is, don’t pray with an attitude! Lest we incur God’s wrath.
And then there’s the inclination to try to protect God from our insolence. That’s more common when we humans try to vilify others for what we of faith may perceive as blasphemous attitudes toward God.
Friends, such fears are the stuff of the old sinful Adam’s ongoing claims on us in my estimation. In my read of today’s lessons such seeking decorum in prayer is not what Jesus in Luke or Abraham in Genesis seem to call for! Jesus and Abraham call for a spirit of shamelessness.
But how do we overcome our hesitancy to pray shamelessly? Let’s let the Apostle Paul speak to us about the true source of our confidence – our faith, our trust – that allows us to pray boldly. Here are Paul’s words from today’s second reading in Colossians: “As you therefore have received Christ Jesus the Lord, continue to live your lives in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving.”
Paul suggests that it is our rootedness in Christ, which begins at baptism, that establishes our faith, our trust, our living our lives in him, he who is the tree of life from the cross, Christ the vine, we the branches. With such rootedness in him, in word and sacraments, Christ continues to teach us and we abound in thanksgiving. In short, Christ is the source of the faith that is also the source of our shameless persistence in prayer.
In Christ, we need not fear offending God. God does not need to be protected. God in Christ can handle anything we bring. So, just say it; just pray it with boldness. God in Christ will sort it out, even if we feel we’re stepping out of line.
And if we do step out of line, that too God will set aside, nailing it to the cross, our trespasses ever being forgiven again and again for Christ’s sake. The record written against is erased, ever wiped clean. Thus, we can sin boldly, as Luther said, but believe more boldly still.
Moreover, Christ feeds us with his very self when we come to him at this very table begging for bread at our existential midnight hours so that we might be fed to also feed the hungry who are in our midst in our fearful world.
Jesus continued his teaching on prayer in Luke. Jesus said, “Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you.”
But we know that we often do not get receive exactly what we asked for. And we know that when we search, we often discover surprises that we did not intend to find. And we know that when a door is opened to us, we may be quite surprised by what and by who we might find on the other side of the open door.
Luke also reports that Jesus invoked good parenting in relation to the nature of God’s response to God’s children at prayer: “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!”
Every good parent knows that we cannot give to our children everything they ask for. That’s simply not good parenting. But good parents do give good gifts to their children.
And the good gift we receive in answer to our shameless asking, searching, and knocking is the Holy Spirit, the very life and breath of God, ultimately everything we need, our very life in God.
Thus it is that Paul writes in Romans: “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes [for us] with sighs too deep for words.” (Romans 8:26)
The Spirit is always at prayer for us, making possible our own prayers. Which is to say, when the Spirit arrived at Pentecost as recorded in the second chapter of Acts, the Spirit gave all the needed good gifts – namely, proclamation of God’s mighty deeds of power in raising Jesus from the dead, repentance, baptism, devotion to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of the bread and the prayers (cf. Acts 2:37-42).
What more do we need as God’s beloved children when it’s all said and done?
What we experience here each Sunday is ultimately what we are asking and searching for and why we are knocking. It is life itself, the life of Christ and participation in the life of our Trinitarian God.
Meanwhile, the Spirit also gives us our prayers of intercession. And think about it. These, our prayers each Sunday are audacious. Every Sunday we pray sometimes desperately and with lament for the needs of a sorry church and world. We pray for peace, for justice, for the relief of suffering. And so often those prayers don’t seem to result in the peace and justice and relief that we cry out for. And yet we continue to pray without fail, Sunday after Sunday, year after year, decade after decade. That’s persistence in prayer.
Finally, our prayers of intercession lean in to fulfillment when we act on the fact that our prayers set the agenda for the church in mission. What we pray for is what we’re called to do in our ministries in daily life. When we pray for peace, we then seek to work for peace. When we pray for justice, we do our part in working for justice. When we pray for an end to suffering, we offer a helping hand in one way or another to those in need.
The disciples said to Jesus, “Lord, teach us to pray.” I pray that you now have a better sense of what Jesus in Luke taught, and that your life of prayer might be emboldened with a Spirit of shameless persistence in the freedom of the gospel. Amen.
Sixth Sunday after Pentecost, Luke 10:38-42
The gospel writer Luke gives us some of the more beloved, well-known, and provocative accounts of events in Jesus’ life and ministry. One of those, of course, is the story we heard today, the encounter with Mary and Martha.
Martha was distracted by her many tasks. Doesn’t that accurately describe our own age, hitting the nail on the head of what so often ails us? Distracted by many tasks.
With our various devices pinging us constantly with calls, texts, emails, social media notifications and more, how can we help but be chronically distracted by many things? It takes enormous discipline to keep this constant bombardment at bay. More often perhaps we succumb to it. The distractions endemic in our age wear away at our sense of well-being and mental health. It can weigh so heavily.
I have generally read the story of Mary and Martha as an indictment of being overly active or busy. But engaging this passage anew this week, what leaps off the page for me is not Martha the activist, but Martha who was distracted amidst her many tasks. That is to say, it’s not the tasks themselves, but the distraction that’s at issue. And then, too, the worry that accompanies the distraction.
Luke reports what I take as Jesus’ compassionate observation of Martha’s trouble: “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things…”
We know from experience that we can be quite actively engaged in our work without distraction and worry. Artists and other creative people – and anybody really – can discover themselves to be in the flow of active, creative engagement, being so engrossed in their activity that they lose a sense of time. That’s being quite fully present and contentedly so. Creative flow is the opposite of worry and distraction.
But these days worry and distraction seem to be more the order of the day than being fully present to and with what and who is before us. In fact, there are powers that be which capitalize on keeping us worried and distracted.
Who will save us from this plight? Of course, we know the answer. The one who saves us is the very one whom Mary encountered, when she was sitting at his feet, listening to what he had to say, the one who addressed Martha with understanding words and this other message that Luke reports: “Martha…. There is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”
The better part which Mary gravitated to and which was not taken from her is Jesus himself. For as Paul assures us in Romans 8, “nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” We can make our lists of that which distracts and worries us, but just the same, nothing can separate us from God’s love in Christ. That is to say, Christ will not be taken from us.
And here’s further good news for us in our worrisome age of distraction: what Mary enjoyed at Jesus’ feet listening to what he was saying is what we’re doing right now, namely, metaphorically sitting here in this place at Jesus’ feet as we are gathered around him in word and sacrament – listening with rapt attention to Christ’s teaching and the teaching about Christ in gospel proclamation, soaking in the life-giving baptismal waters, reclining, as it were, with our Lord at the table. All in this place comparatively free of distractions in contrast with the usual routines of the other days of our week.
Consider this: what is it that we see and encounter here? The story of Abraham sitting at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day by the oaks of Mamre may help us understand what we see here in this place, especially when we apply the Christian imagination to this story from Genesis, our first reading.
The heat of the day may have been for Abraham of old the midday time of siesta, a sabbath rest within the day. It’s amidst such a pause in the day that Abraham looked up and saw three men standing near him which became for Abraham a holy encounter, centered on a feast for the mysterious guests who then delivered the promise to Abraham and to Sarah that they would have their desired heir, a son, on whom all the promises of God hinge.
Seen through Christian lenses, we might liken Abraham to Mary, sitting for holy encounter. Indeed, this passage from Genesis was the inspiration for one of the most famous and compelling icons of the Orthodox church tradition, Rublev’s the “Hospitality of Abraham,” or of the Trinity. In the Christian imagination, the three men, later described in Genesis as angels, come to represent the three persons of the Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, seated in an arc around a table at which they feast as in the story from Abraham. The oak tree is in the background of the icon.
That tree may be imagined as the tree of life, the cross of Christ. Christ is the central figure of the three in the icon seated at the table, evocative perhaps of our Eucharistic table, where we share in the life of the Trinity. Sarah prepared cakes of choice flour – our sacramental bread. Abraham had sacrificed a calf, tender and good – suggestive of Christ’s own having been offered up on the cross.
In the Christian imagination, this is what we can fancy that Abraham saw in this holy encounter, resting in the heat of the day. And this is what we also see here in this place, when we sit in our version of sabbath rest in the presence of God in Christ, and in the inspiration of the Spirit.
Beyond what we might see in our holy encounter here, what message is it that we hear when we sit as Jesus’ feet in this place? It might include the echoes of the word of the apostle Paul as we heard in today’s second reading from Colossians. Listen again to this wonderful hymn to Christ from the very earliest Christian community, poetry that also sounds like a creed: “Christ is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in Christ all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers – all things have been created through him and for him. Christ himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. Christ is the head of the body, the church; Christ is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in Christ all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through Christ to reconcile to God’s own self all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.” (Colossians 1:15-20)
Abraham resting under the oaks of Mamre. Mary sitting at the feet of Jesus. Paul in a time apart writing a letter to the church extolling the wonders of Christ. We doing likewise here, our sabbath rest gathered around word and sacraments.
All of this is the antidote to our worry and distraction, freeing us to attend to the one needful thing, namely Christ our Lord, who will not be taken from us.
And from this hour of rest at the feet of Jesus, comparatively free of worry and distraction, with our faith here renewed, we return to engagement with the world in the work to which God has called us, namely, to do the tasks of the servant, Martha, in the life-giving, creative flow of the energies of the Spirit.
And what is the work of Martha? To serve our neighbors in need in loving care as Christ loves us. And that we, like Paul, may extend the suffering of Christ through our own suffering for the sake of the world as we also proclaim the gospel in word and deed. Let it be so among us now and always. Amen.
Fifth Sunday after Pentecost, Luke 10:25-37
The question which the lawyer posed to test Jesus is a profound one: “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
Jesus responded by asking the lawyer another question, and the lawyer ends up correctly answering his own question by summarizing the foundational law of the Hebrew people: “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.”
Very straightforward. Not unlike what we heard in today’s first reading from Deuteronomy, which also focuses on keeping the divine law. There it says, “Surely, this commandment that I am commanding you today is not too hard for you, nor is it too far away…”
Returning to the exchange between Jesus and the lawyer recorded in Luke, Jesus’ reply concerning the answer given summarizing the law is straightforward, but it’s also a zinger. Jesus said, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.” Do this, and you will live. Simple, right? Straightforward? Yes. Easy? No.
When it comes to obeying God’s law, it’s easier said than done for us sinful mortals. Undoubtedly knowing this, the lawyer’s defensive reaction is that he wanted to “justify himself.” So do we.
Here, the plot thickens, revealing the sinful dynamics at play in the human heart and mind. The human tendency is to seek loopholes, easy ways out, approaches that help us to see and present ourselves in the best possible light without fully acknowledging our shortcomings.
So it is that the lawyer asks, “And who is my neighbor?” That’s when Jesus tells the story of the Good Samaritan, or perhaps more aptly, the Merciful Samaritan.
In response to the man robbed and left for dead, the religious authorities, the priest and the Levite, do nothing, passing by on the other side. That response of maintaining their safe distance was undoubtedly in keeping with religious laws concerning purity, prohibitions against getting sullied by contact with those who are unclean. And a bloodied man would likely have been religiously unclean for clergy types of the day. So, they kept their safe distance, maintaining religious purity, and went on their way.
But it was the Samaritan, the foreigner, who came to the aid of the gravely wounded man and not only that, this foreigner went far above and beyond the call of duty in response to the wounded, dying man’s needs.
Moved with pity, with compassion, a gut-wrenching compassion in the biblical Greek, the Samaritan drew near, got up close and personal, became vulnerable, and offered first aid, took the victim to an inn where he took further care of him, and then even gave money to the innkeeper to tend to the man, offering to pay whatever it took to nurse the wounded man back to health. In short, the Samaritan was first responder, ambulance driver, nurse, and insurance plan all wrapped up in one person. That’s what it is to go above and beyond the call of duty.
After telling the story, Jesus again questions the lawyer: “Which of these three, [the priest, the Levite, the Samaritan], then, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” The lawyer replied, again rightly and obviously, “The one who showed him mercy.”
Jesus then said, “Go and do likewise.” And of course, we know from the nature of the story of the Good and merciful Samaritan that virtually none of us consistently does what the Samaritan did. More often than not, we commit the sins of omission of the priest and the Levite in passing by on the other side of all sorts and conditions of people in need. Thus, the story indicts the lawyer, and it indicts us by extension.
The over-the-top response of the Samaritan reveals the honest, truthful reality that we simply do not and cannot consistently and convincingly “go and do likewise” in showing life-giving, healing mercy to those most wounded and vulnerable.
Consider the state of our nation and world. Mercy is in short supply almost everywhere we turn, at least with the news stories that command our attention. Vengeance and cruelty and violence are more the spirit of our times. Yes, there are the merciful responses to our crises, but these are overshadowed by the enormity of the power of vengeance and cruelty which seem to be winning the day.
But of course, there’s also good news, because in Christ there always is. The parables of the gospels are almost always stories that point to Jesus, that reveal the nature of Christ and his mission and ministry.
So, considering the story of the Good Samaritan with a view to Christ Jesus, we may see Jesus as the Merciful Samaritan, he whose approaches to religious authority and leadership, religious teaching and practice, were foreign to the stated religious teaching and leaders of Jesus’ day.
Time and again, Luke and the other gospel writers reveal a Jesus who did as the Merciful Samaritan did in going the extra mile to care for the wounded and vulnerable. In short, Jesus did not pass by on the other side. Dying on the cross, ultimately to be raised from the dead, is anything but passing by on the other side!
Normally, we might likely focus on Jesus riding on the donkey as he enters triumphantly the holy city Jerusalem. But here in this story, we see the wounded man on the animal, and Jesus as a Samaritan, whose approach to religion is foreign even to his kindred people, guiding the wounded one to the inn for hospital care. And in this case, unlike Jesus’ birth when there was no place for the holy family to stay, there was room in the inn for the wounded.
Moreover, on the cross we see a wounded God in Christ paying and repaying whatever is needed, ultimately resulting in the healing, the restoration, the eternal life which the lawyer was seeking. In short, in the Good and merciful Samaritan, we see the fullness of Christ.
In Christ, turning again to our first reading in Deuteronomy, we hear the promise addressed not just to the people of old, but to us, the wounded, for whom Christ is merciful: “The Lord your God will make you abundantly prosperous in all your undertakings,” that “the Lord will again take delight in prospering you, delighting in you.” In Christ, these words of promise are for us, too.
For Jesus Christ is the only one who is obedient to the extent of fulfilling the demands of the law. That is at the heart of the gospel, the good news.
In the light of Christ, we hear and see the other words of Deuteronomy in perhaps a different way. Listen again with Christ in mind: “Surely, this commandment that I am commanding you today is not too hard for you, nor is it too far away. It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will go up to heaven for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?’ Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will cross to the other side of the sea for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it’ No, the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe.” (Deuteronomy 30:11-14)
Indeed, Christ came down from heaven to be the word of God made flesh to dwell very near to us, full of grace and truth. In the waters of baptism, which bonds us to the baptism of his own death and resurrection, Christ has taken us to his bosom, carrying us over the stormy abyss of the seas of sin and mortality to the other side.
In the meal at this table, we take the word who is Christ into our very mouths in bread and wine, his body, his blood, that this word would dwell in our hearts for us to observe, in the power of Christ.
In short, it is Christ in us, working through us, and in spite of us, who fulfills for us the law of God’s justice.
Thus it is that Paul can say with confidence to the members of the church in Colossae whom he addresses in today’s second reading: “For we have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love that you have for all the saints, because of the hope laid up for you in heaven. You have heard of this hope before in the word of the truth, the gospel that has come to you. Just as it is bearing fruit and growing in the world, so it has been bearing fruit among yourselves from the day you heard it and truly comprehended the grace of God.” (Colossians 1:4-6) For “God has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the dominion of the beloved Son of God, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sin.” (Colossians 1:13-14)
That is to say, it is Christ, the merciful one, who draws so near to us that he dwells among us in word and sacraments, who makes it possible to bear the fruit of mercy for the wounded and dying of our world full of robbers. It is God’s work in Christ, our hands in ministries of mercy for our neighbors.
Thus, in Christ, here in this place, and in every Christian place, we get to go and do likewise in being merciful neighbor to the wounded ones here and everywhere. Thanks be to God in Christ. Amen.
Fourth Sunday after Pentecost, Luke 10:1-11, 16-20
As the scriptural witness lives on and continues to form and inform our life together, Jesus continues to appoint us – you, and me – and all the baptized children of God to be sent on missionary journeys to the places Jesus intends to go just as he appointed the seventy in the days of old as we heard in today’s gospel from Luke.
You and I have been on such a missionary journey together for two years, and some months, and now we are parting ways – you remaining here, and I venturing westward for the congregational call in Phoenix to be near my son.
When our paths coincided back in 2019, we said in essence to each other, “Peace to this house!” And I believe that we have shared in that peace, the peace of Christ, during our sojourn together.
And you can be sure that in my leave-taking, I will not be wiping off any dust that clings to my feet in protest of you or of this place.
In keeping with the message from today’s gospel reading from Luke and Jesus’ instructions found therein, we have shared this journey with focus on proclamation in word and deed that the “dominion of God has come near to us.” And we have known the nearness of that dominion, I believe, in our life together.
Now there is another sending, me to Phoenix, and you to whatever is in store in the next chapter of your life together as Resurrection Lutheran Church.
To be sure, we enter into anxious times, both you and I. Thus, Jesus’ words recorded in Luke perhaps haunt us: “Go on our way. See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves. Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals….”
This sounds dangerous and quite austere and minimalist. Will there be enough for the journey? Can we rely on others to give us the provisions we need to survive, if not to thrive? Will there be an appropriate interim pastor available to you at this time? Will there be the pastoral candidates you need for such a time as this? I, too, am embarking on a call to a congregation that has its own share of challenges and struggles amidst a time of significant economic uncertainty and plenty of national and international crises to keep us awake at night.
It’s quite the leap of faith that we are undertaking in our different ways. And our provisions for the journey may at first seem scarce.
In these anxious, uncertain times that we share in our own ways, we may take some comfort in Isaiah’s prophetic words of promise and restoration from today’s first reading: “Rejoice with Jerusalem, and be glad for the city, all you love her; rejoice with Jerusalem in joy, all you who mourn over her – that you may nurse and be satisfied from her consoling breast; that you may drink deeply with delight from her glorious bosom. For thus says the Lord: I will extend prosperity to Jerusalem like a river, and the wealth of the nations like an overflowing stream; and you shall nurse and be carried on her arm, and dandled on her knees….”
What lovely, comforting words: the promise of the restoration of the holy city and with abundance and with a loving embrace as from a mother for her children.
Throughout the many Christian centuries of reading the prophets like Isaiah through Christocentric lenses, seeing Christ in the prophetic word, the church, the body of Christ, has been viewed as a new manifestation of the holy city Jerusalem. This place, this assembly is our holy city.
Thus, when we hear with the ears of faith that we are promised to nurse as at a mother’s breast in this holy city, we may hear overtones of the Holy Supper, the Eucharist, when we eat and drink from the body of our saving mother, Christ.
When we hear that the prosperity of the holy city extends like a river, and that wealth is offered up like an overflowing stream, we might think of the waters of baptism which indeed give us life abundant, grace overflowing without end.
Then, just when we’re overcome with fears of scarcity – will we have what we need? – we come to our senses and realize anew that here in this place is in fact God’s abundance to feed us, to nurse us, to quench our thirst, with plenty left over for us to feed and nourish the nations.
That is good news indeed. Just what we need for times like these.
And if we become overconfident in our own doings as the returning seventy did when they were impressed that the spirits submitted to them in their healing and exorcisms, Christ is here in the word to remind us: “Nevertheless, do not rejoice at this, that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.” Indeed, our names are close to the heart of God ever since we were claimed as God’s children by name, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit in the overflowing waters of grace at the font.
And likewise, if we run into trouble in Christian community and there is conflict in the life together, as there clearly was at the church in Galatia which Paul was addressing in today’s second reading, the Spirit speaks through the words of the apostle to remind us: “May I never boast of anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. For neither circumcision nor uncircumcision [the controversy that captivated the church in Galatia] is anything; but a new creation [in Christ] is everything!”
Thus it is that in Christ, here in this place, Sunday after Sunday without fail, we are given what we need to be sent on our missionary journeys despite the nagging sense of austerity and scarcity and danger that the logic of the world imposes on us. For once again, in Christ, we have absolutely everything we ultimately need for the journey, whether the journey takes us here or there.
Thus, with our sometimes-feeble faith renewed, we go out on our way to feed the world with the same mother’s milk that we receive here from Christ in the word and in the sacraments ever proclaiming that the dominion of God has indeed come near to us in Christ. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Third Sunday after Pentecost, Luke 9:51-62
So many stories in the Bible involve the nomadic nature of human life. The people of Israel spend forty years traveling in the wilderness after their liberation from slavery until at last they reach the promised land.
Jesus’ ministry takes him and his disciples from place to place. The book of Acts and the letters of Paul tell of the missionary journeys of the apostles and their establishing churches in various cities throughout the ancient Near Eastern world.
Indeed, the whole story of humanity is one of migration, of our species’ spread to the farthest points on the planet. Some of this migration has been propelled by curiosity – wanderlust. Most of it has been driven by need, as we continue to see today throughout the world with refugees fleeing war and oppression, famine, and now the ravages of a changing climate.
Ultimately, we are all descended from immigrants. Moreover, our life journeys have taken us from place to place for education, jobs, and more. Many of you have served abroad in your careers in the military or state department and other careers.
I, myself, have lived in eight different states during my six decades. And I will soon make a decision that would result in my journey having taken me to nine states.
Amidst all of this is Jesus’ invitation to us, “Follow me.” Responding to Jesus’ invitation can take us to places that we least expect and on journeys characterized by some itineracy. For as Luke records in today’s gospel, Jesus observed, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.”
Jesus said this in response to someone accompanying Jesus on the road, on a journey, who exclaimed perhaps with some naïve exuberance, Lord “I will follow you wherever you go.”
The other exchanges in today’s gospel reveal how the human condition inevitably interferes with Jesus’ invitation to follow him. In the recounting, Jesus bid others on the road to follow him. One person’s response was this: “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” Then another bargained, “I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.”
Jesus’ response to these folk and their bargaining reveals the uncompromising claims of Jesus’ call to discipleship: “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the dominion of God.” And: “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the dominion of God.”
And yet, on our own, we’re stuck in the ambivalence of competing claims and desires, captive to the reality that we are simultaneously saints and sinners with circumstances that are complicated which make it impossible for us by ourselves to will one thing (the very definition of purity of heart according to Soren Kierkegaard). With our wills in bondage, captive to competing claims, we persist in various forms of ambivalence, again, when we’re left to our own devices.
As for me, it’s the competing claims of my commitments to you as pastor of Resurrection Church and then also the claims of the fatherhood of my son, both of which arguably involve my discipleship of Jesus Christ, my responses to Jesus’ invitation to follow him.
And you have your own stories to tell about difficult junctures in your lives where decisions had to be made, decisions that have great effects on the lives, circumstances, and well-being of others. We tremble at the precipice of making such decisions for good reason, stuck as we are amidst the competing claims of our responsibilities.
But here’s the thing: only Christ, not us, can set his face to Jerusalem, the place of cross and empty tomb, of death and resurrection, without looking back.
And because Christ goes to Jerusalem without ambivalence, hesitancy, or a conflicted will (though he had his moments – “Let this cup pass from me, but not my will, but yours be done, O God”) – because Christ’s face was set to Jerusalem in such a way that resulted in his death and new life, we, then, are liberated by grace, mercy, and forgiveness, and freed from our own bondage to our compromised capacities to follow and to serve. This freedom is ultimately available to us only in Christ Jesus.
So it is that Paul can write in Galatians, today’s second reading, “For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.”
Which is to say that forgiveness, mercy, grace, and all the blessings that flow from Christ’s death and resurrection are available to us, to you, to me, wherever we happen to be and whether we stay or go in our nomadic journeys of both life and discipleship.
And every Sunday, here, there, or the other place, becomes a new occasion for emancipation, for freedom, for release from our various forms of captivity.
At the font we are given the gift of absolution, of forgiveness, of being set free from our captivity to sin. In this place of the proclamation of the gospel, the word emancipates us, breaking through our conflicted wills, to set our face also to the cross of Christ and the empty tomb, our source of freedom. At the table of the Eucharistic feast we hear again and again Jesus’ own words, “given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sin,” and in eating and drinking receive the reality that the words signify.
I’m drawn in particular to today’s reading from 1 Kings in light of our gospel and second readings which gives us the chance to see the story of Elijah’s call to Elisha through Christian lenses. Elisha was engaged in his work of plowing with a dozen oxen when the call came. Unlike Jesus, it seems Elijah let Elisha return home to say goodbye to his father and mother.
But then in response to Elijah’s call and in quite the dramatic act, Elisha slaughtered the oxen and used the plowing implements, the sources of his livelihood, to start a fire to make a feast for the people so that they could all eat and be fed. Only then did Elisha leave to follow Elijah.
So it is that, following the example of Jesus, who made do with what he had, namely his own body dead, slaughtered, on the tree and alive again out of the tomb, we make do with bread and wine, ordinary gifts of creation, that Christ’s body and blood become for us a feast to feed us for the journey, wherever it happens to take us, that we may also feed a hungry world.
In this place, through these means of grace, is our freedom to do the best we can in our attempts to follow Christ, day by day, one step at a time, trusting in the forgiveness and mercy of God, and using our freedom in Christ to serve our neighbors wherever they are and whoever they may be.
Again, here’s Paul in today’s second reading: “For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’”
Thus, journeying in the Spirit, by God’s mercy and grace in Christ, our serving each other and our neighbors beyond these walls, has the possibility of reflecting the features of life in the Spirit, namely, “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.”
May it be so among us as we continue this journey in the coming days, trusting that, whatever the outcomes, Christ’s mercy remains with us, follows us wherever we go, here or there. Thus, we make our way, ever falling into the merciful, loving, forgiving arms of God in Christ, the only source of true freedom. God in Christ help us in the power of the Spirit. Amen.
Holy Trinity Sunday, John 16:12-15
Listen again to how today’s first reading begins. It’s poetry from Proverbs, personifying and extoling the wonders of Wisdom and Understanding: “Does not Wisdom call, and does not Understanding raise her voice? On the heights, beside the way, at the crossroads she takes her stand; beside the gates in front of the town, at the entrance to the portals she cries out: ‘To you, O people, I call, and my cry is to all that live.’”
Tell me. Where is the call and cry of wisdom and understanding today? In my experience of our current culture and the spirit of these times, I can scarcely identify the call and cry of wisdom and understanding. If she is out there calling and raising her voice, it’s drowned out by loud mouths proclaiming anything but wisdom and understanding. On the heights, at the crossroads, beside the gates and entrances to the city, I don’t see her. I don’t hear her.
Can wisdom and understanding really make herself known on Twitter? In sound bytes? On video clips on Instagram or TikTok? Will the algorithms that determine what gets our attention on social media point us in the direction of wisdom and understanding? Do wisdom and understanding garner more clicks and likes and thus more advertising revenue?
Sadly, it seems, no. And we are today impoverished by her absence in the popular imagination and on what appears on our screens and devices. Wisdom and understanding are indeed out there, but we often have to go looking, fighting forever along the way the raging, attention-seeking voices of folly, imprudence, impudence, and thoughtlessness.
This absence of wisdom and understanding takes its toll and weighs heavily on us, individually and collectively as a whole society. I daresay, the absence of wisdom, of understanding surely has a part to play in increasing anxiety and depression. And likewise this absence perpetuates the unwillingness of elected officials effectively to govern. A lack of wisdom and understanding contributes to the unraveling of the whole world, its institutions and organizations. And more and more. It’s a hugely heavy and destructive burden that human beings are forced to carry these days.
The absence of wisdom and understanding in human affairs is nothing new. It’s been part of our broken, sinful, fallen condition all along. And it’s into this foolish human reality that wisdom and understanding personified enters in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, whom we confess as the Christ, God’s anointed one. This is good news!
When we hear the poetry of Proverbs, listening with Christian ears, how can we not but think of Jesus Christ? Here it is again: “I was there when the Lord established the heavens, and drew a circle on the face of the deep, and made firm the skies above, and established the fountains of the deep, and assigned to the sea its limit, so that the waters might not transgress the Lord’s command, when the foundations of the earth were marked out, then I was beside the Lord, like a master worker; and I was daily the Lord’s delight, rejoicing before the Lord always, rejoicing in the Lord’s inhabited world.” (Proverbs 8:27-31a) Doesn’t Christ come to mind in this passage?
When we listen to this poetry, we cannot help but also hear, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him.” (John 1:1-3a) How can we not also hear the voice that came from heaven at Jesus’ baptism in the River Jordan: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” (Luke 3:22b)
The wisdom of God that makes for understanding – along with sacred truth, and divine love – emanates from the divine being. And it’s a wisdom made flesh, personified, in the divine word who is Jesus. In Christ Jesus, as an icon, the window is thrown open to see the fullness of God, the face of God. And in the absence of the manner in which Jesus walked this earth millennia ago, we have been given the gift of the Holy Spirit who continues to guide us into the truth of the wisdom of God, and divine understanding, along with forgiving, gracious love.
These are the mysterious holy realities that we celebrate on this festival of the Holy Trinity on this first Sunday after Pentecost. Thanks be to God.
And, as I keep on saying, because it keeps on being true Sunday after Sunday, here in this place we participate and share in the wise, truthful, loving realities of the three-personed Godhead, whom we confess as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
We are baptized into this three-fold name of God and come to share in the life and love of our Trinitarian God through water, word, and Spirit. We take the bread and the cup and give thanks over each, and then come to eat and to drink of the very wisdom of God, Christ’s real presence, sharing thereby also in the life of the Trinity.
We share in divine wisdom and love in words of absolution and in sharing the peace of God in Christ. The wisdom of God is carried from the pages of scripture to our ears and our hearts and minds through proclamation of the word.
And all of this is such good news for us and for our wider world with its voids of wisdom and understanding, truth and love.
These emanations from our Trinitarian God which echo and reverberate in this hall and in our ears and in our bodies continue when we leave this place to return to the world, sent as we are to nurture wisdom and understanding beyond this house in the other places where we engage our ministries in daily life.
But our being sent into a world which clearly is hostile to wisdom and understanding will make for our suffering.
Paul acknowledges as much in today’s second reading from Romans. Paul writes about our having been made at peace with God in Christ through our being justified by faith in this God. We thus stand firm in divine grace. But suffering comes along with all of this, a suffering about which Paul actually confidently boasts: “We boast in our sufferings,” he says, “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 5:3-5) Endurance, character, hope – all fruit and corollaries of God’s wisdom and understanding.
In fact, our share in the suffering of God in Christ is what makes for our wisdom. Here’s what Paul says in 1 Corinthians: “For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved, it is the power of God…. Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? …For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.” (cf. 1 Corinthians 2:18-25) God’s wisdom is foolish by worldly standards. But I’ll take God’s cruciform wisdom any day.
When we’re out in the thick of things in a world hostile to God’s wisdom and understanding, God’s truth and love, we may wonder how in the world we’ll rise to the occasion to offer a countervailing witness.
But then with faith renewed weekly here in this place, we find ourselves moving in the flow of the loving energies proceeding from our Trinitarian God in Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit, who has been active here in our midst in our assemblies guiding us into all truth by teaching us and reminding us of Jesus’ words.
And we discover that we can go with that sacred flow, and that we’ll be given the word of wisdom and understanding that we need. According to Luke, Jesus said: “When they bring you before… the rulers, and the authorities, do not worry about how you are to defend yourselves or what you are to say; for the Holy Spirit will teach you at that very hour what you ought to say.” (Luke 12:11-12)
In that light, think of the Christian martyrs, who faced death if they did not renounce their faith in Christ, and yet they remained steadfast in their confession of faith. I have a hard time imagining that I would respond so courageously. And yet, that’s when the power of God in the Spirit steps in to give the word, and the courage to speak it.
So, take heart. Be of good courage. We are not left orphaned, for the Holy Spirit proceeding from the Father and the Son gives us the needed gifts to make our witness, that through us our Trinitarian God would fill the voids in our hungry, thirsty world with God’s own wisdom and understanding, truth and love – all for the healing of the nations and God’s shalom, and well-being.
All of this and more is what we celebrate on this day, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Day of Pentecost, John 14:8-27
Ancient people, including the ancient Hebrews, had to have wondered about how it came to be that human beings were located all over the place and spoke very different languages. So it is that we have a mythic accounting of this in Genesis, today’s first reading.
Did the Lord in fact come down to confuse the people’s language and to scatter them abroad over the face of all the earth? Probably not. But just because this story is mythic doesn’t mean it doesn’t convey important truths.
The truth was then and is now that human beings inhabit all manner of lands, and they live together in tribal or national or other units with distinctive cultures and languages.
It’s also true that when human beings unite for a common cause, we are capable of great and wondrous things, like figuring out how to live together in cities and to make bricks and use other technologies to construct towers with tops in the heavens.
It’s also true that the same forces which bring us together for good can tear us apart. Notice that it was fear and overstated pride that motivated the building of the city and the erection of the tower. As it’s written in Genesis: “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves [there’s the pride or hubris]; otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth [there’s the fear].”
What the people feared – being scattered, a fear which pridefully motivated their coming together to build the city and tower – came to pass. They were in fact scattered and more, their languages were confused. Hence the designation, Babel, which in Hebrew means to confuse or confound.
Being scattered and confused is the human truth we know today with our own unique permutations of all of this. More and more humans live in major cities. Our towers ever increase in height and they do literally, in fact, have their tops in the heavens.
Yet even within our cities, there is a sense of being scattered and confused. Even when we speak the same language, we find ourselves divided and confused. Just think of “fake news” and “alternative facts.” We increasingly live in separate cocoons or virtual bubbles with different sets and sources of and criteria for information and truth – even in one nation.
Such scattered confusion has been true for so much of human history. And it’s certainly painfully true of our condition today. And scattered confusion among peoples in society does not make for a sense of well-being. No. It’s full of the weight of sin, and can even lead to death. Some of the murderous rage we’re seeing in massacres is the bitter fruit of our being divided from each other and confused about what it means to live together in community with common cause and shared values.
But it is into this very reality of being scattered and confused that the Holy Spirit was sent on the ancient Day of Pentecost described in the book of Acts. And it’s into this same scattered confusion on this our Day of Pentecost even now in 2022 that the Spirit is sent to us yet again.
The coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost is the exact opposite of what happened in the mythic story of Babel. The result at Babel was that people were scattered abroad in confusion, unable to understand others who spoke different languages – a centrifugal force of outward motion. The Holy Spirit’s coming results in bringing people together where the languages of the nations, though diverse and different, nonetheless bring about intelligibility and understanding – a centripetal force of movement to the center. Pentecost is a corrective to Babel.
Bringing people together in greater unity and in mutual understanding makes for peace and well-being. It’s full of gospel grace. It’s good news. Here again are the salient moments in the account in Acts which speaks to unity and understanding:
“When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place…. [a sign of unity among Jesus’ followers]
All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability. Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, ‘Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? …in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” (cf. Acts 2:1, 4-9) [Clearly the gift of speaking in foreign tongues, given by the Spirit, nurtured understanding on the part of the hearers from all nations who had come together because of all of the commotion.]
What is it about the Holy Spirit that makes for uniting rather than scattering, and understanding rather than confusion? To gain clarity about this question, let’s turn to the gospel reading for today from John.
There we learn that God, the one whom Jesus calls Father, promises send the Spirit as another Advocate, the Spirit of truth. And this Spirit abides with the ones to whom the Spirit is sent. Moreover, this Spirit, this Advocate “will teach [us] everything, and remind [us] of all that [Jesus had] said to [us].” And this results in peace, Christ’s peace, not the world’s peace, and calms troubled hearts and lays fears to rest.
In these ways, teaching and reminding, imparting Christ’s peace, calming fears, the Holy Spirit does the work of uniting us in mutual understanding. Again, this is a corrective and antidote to scattered confusion.
And as I say repeatedly in my sermons, it’s precisely here in this place that the Holy Spirit visits again and again each week and is active teaching us and reminding us of all that Jesus said. It’s here that we proclaim Christ crucified and risen from the dead. It’s all here in word and sacraments where Christ is present through the invocation of the Spirit over water and bread and wine, not to mention the proclamation of the word.
It’s here in this place that the death and resurrection, the ascension and the coming of the Holy Spirit blend together into one magnificent fabric, woven together in intimate inter-relatedness, a whole sacred tapestry enacted in human history that reveals the fullness of the presence of our God in Christ Jesus.
In this place, we share in the very Trinitarian life of God. It’s here where we recognize the truth of what Jesus is reported by John to have said to Philip: “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father…. Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me…. And I will ask the Father, who will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever.” (John 14:9b, 11a, 16) Here in this passage and in this place we see the persons of the Godhead, Father, Son, Spirit, seeds planted toward what would become our Trinitarian understanding of one God in three persons.
It's here in this place that our faith is generated and regenerated for the work that God has entrusted to us. Which is to say, in so far as we who follow Jesus in these latter days are given the gifts of uniting for mutual understanding, we are called and sent to the scattered and confused world to nurture the coming together of disparate peoples toward common understandings.
This mission seems to be an impossibly tall order in our bitterly divided world which is ever more confounded and confused. But our God-given mission is thus all the more crucial as we seek unity and common understanding in our scattered world.
And here’s the wondrous thing: Jesus promises in John that we will end up doing greater works than even he did during his three-year earthly ministry. Here’s what John reported that Jesus said: “Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son.” (John 14:12-13)
We might be tempted to think that we’ll do these greater works on our own. No, that’s not the case. Rather, the greater works remain the result of Christ’s action made possible by his returning to the right hand of God which ushers in a ubiquitous and universal rule throughout time and space, a reign in heaven and on earth, the whole cosmos, for all eternity. And it is the Holy Spirit who proceeds from the Father and the Son who calls together the church as the body of Christ, incarnate throughout the world. The greater works we end up doing as church, as the body of Christ, have everything to do with the universality of the church’s impact in the power of the Spirit acting throughout the world and throughout the ages.
Thus, we pray, veni sancte spiritus, come, Holy Spirit, enliven us for the work you’ve entrusted to us in nurturing greater unity and mutual understanding for healing, that the world would know less Babel, and more the loving, forgiving, gracious truth imparted at Pentecost. For Christ is risen. Christ is risen indeed, alleluia. Amen.
Seventh Sunday of Easter, John 17:20-26
Have you ever read through the book of Acts, going from story to story, chapter after chapter? It’s quite the wild ride and offers a good bit of reality therapy, not only pertaining to the things of God, but also showing for sordid, sinful human realities. Specifically what I have in mind today is that Acts reveals the extent to which human sin and brokenness compromise even our human attempts at being religious. Today’s first reading from Acts depicts well our mortal plight in seeking to have religious themes and energies serve our greedy ends.
A slave girl has a spirit of divinization which made her a gifted fortune teller, and which in turn made her lucrative in garnering a great deal of money for her owners. There were religious charlatans then. And we know, oh too well, there are such charlatans today seeking to exploit and bend spiritual impulses to sinful ends.
The New York Times and Washington Post have had some compelling columns of late talking about new apps that seek to commodify and monetize people’s spiritual hunger, exploiting natural desires when people these days are not seeking to have these hungers satisfied in churches or other faith communities.
Then there are companies which seek to spiritualize work along the lines of a holy calling, such that the firm becomes church and their products their god. Look at the May 24th edition of the New York Times and the column, “When Your Job Fills in for Your Faith, That’s a Problem.”
Provoked by the massacre of children in Texas this week, the May 25th edition of the Washington Post published a column exploring our tolerance of young children being shot and killed in their schools in connection with child sacrifice, a perverting of religious impulses to appease man-made gods. The author draws parallels between what we allow to happen to children today with ancient cultures that practiced child sacrifice.
And we’ve been reading of late about Kyrll, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, who profits because of his relationship with Vladimir Putin. Then there’s the revelations about the Southern Baptist Convention which sought to hide evidence of sexual abuse and predation in that denomination in part to seek to protect itself from litigation, thus preserving their institutional bottom lines.
On go the lists about how religious impulses are corrupted and exploited for profitable ends of one sort or another.
But back now to the story in Acts: The spirit in the slave girl repeatedly cried out over the course of many days, irritating Paul and his companions. Finally annoyed beyond his capacities to endure, Paul exorcised the spirit from the girl: “I order you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her.”
This ended the slave girl’s owners’ source of extra income. That loss provoked them to bring Paul and Silas before the authorities who threw them in jail. And on the story goes as we heard it read earlier.
Such is the nature of the messes we get ourselves into as humans in conflicts about religious expression in relation to our own greedy ends. There’s all manner of permutations of how human sin interferes with the integrity of religious expression. It was true in Paul’s time. It’s true today.
But here’s the thing: God works with all of this stuff. In the Acts story for today, God performs a feat that reminds us of Christ’s resurrection. Paul and Silas are in the innermost cell of the jail – like a tomb. An earthquake opens the locked door – not unlike the earthquake recorded in Matthew in connection with the appearance of an angel who rolled away the stone from the tomb. Paul and Silas are thus freed as Christ was freed from bondage and the grip of death.
The story ends up with the jailer of Paul and Silas being given the gift of faith, of belief, in the Lord Jesus through Paul and Silas’ proclamation. And this proclamation results in the jailer being baptized along with his whole household. That’s the kind of thing God does with the messes we create.
Turning to the gospel story for today from John, we find Jesus prayerfully interceding for his followers who were to be sent into the corrupt thick of things in the world. I wonder if the wondrous deeds recorded throughout the book of Acts were the result, in part, of the intercession of Jesus, having ascended to the Father, where Christ continues to pray for his followers. We see the nature of Jesus’ intercessory prayer in today’s gospel reading from John. I trust in faith that Christ continues to pray for us, current day disciples of the Lord, perhaps this same prayer.
And what Jesus prays for is the exact opposite of the kind of thing recorded in today’s reading from Acts with its exploitation of religiosity for sinful ends. Jesus’ prayer is the exact opposite of our ongoing, greedy, profit and power-seeking religious strife.
And Jesus’ words of prayerful intercession still echo through the centuries and across the borders of the nations to our ears this very day. Jesus’ prayer throws open the window on profound divine realities:
Jesus prays in essence that we, his followers, would share in the Trinitarian life of God. And in so doing, that we would discover and embody our essential unity with each other and with God. And that this divine reality is all about God’s agape, unconditional love. And Jesus prays that we would have a share in God’s glory, the kind of glory revealed fully on the cross. And all of this bears the fruit of faith, of belief, on the part of those in the world who come to believe because of our sacred unity with God and each other. Listen to it again: “As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe…”
In short, what Jesus prays for is exactly what our sorry world needs. And we in fact are given a foretaste of what Jesus prays for when we gather in Jesus’ name here around word and sacraments. Here in this place, God answers or fulfills in part Jesus’ prayer for his followers. We do in fact share in the Trinitarian life of God and know essential unity in the waters of baptism. We know our oneness as we are gathered around God’s holy word and its proclamation. We eat of one bread and drink from one cup in the meal of Christ around this table.
When we gather in this place, we hear Jesus’ words recorded in the book of Revelation also echoing through the centuries in our ears and made real in what we do here: “See, I am coming soon…” [Coming here I might add] “Blessed are those who wash their robes, so that they will have the right to the tree of life and may enter the city gates…” We, having been washed in the waters of the font, enter the gates of the holy city here in this nave as we fix our eyes on the tree of life, the cross, as it moves in procession to the holy place where the word is proclaimed and the meal eaten.
The passage in Revelation goes on: “The Spirit and the bride say, ‘Come.’ And let everyone who hears say, ‘Come.’ And let everyone who is thirsty come. Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift.’” (cf. Revelation 22:12-19) So it is that we come, to eat and to drink in fulfillment of Jesus’ gracious invitation.
And all of this that we partake in is an antidote to the corruption of human religious impulses. All of this is given us in the service of our healing so that we may be sent as healers into an increasingly desperate world, made ever more despairing with each new incident of murderous madness taking place throughout our land.
Our essential unity in Christ, cultivated right here, is all for the sake of the missionary work to which God sends us in the world. This work, God’s work, our hands, has a purpose: “so that the world may know and believe” that Christ was sent by the Father and is known now among us, the followers of Christ, who are gathered around the tree of life that heals the nations “so that the love with which [God] loved [Jesus] may also be in us and Christ in us” (cf. John 17:26b, adapted).
In faith, hoping against hope, we trust that divine love in Christ will end up having the last word when it’s all said and done. But may it be lovingly so even now when things seem increasingly and ever more maddingly hopeless, for Christ is risen. Christ is risen indeed, alleluia. Amen.
Sixth Sunday of Easter, John 14:23-29
In the early months of the pandemic, when we were more or less in full shut down mode, perhaps one of the silver linings for some of us in that upheaval was the gift of a slower pace of life. The comparative absence of activity revealed to many just how busy and complicated our lives were.
But as the months and now years have worn on in the pandemic, the voids have become filled again with activity. For many, in the absence of commuting but now working from home, we have perhaps discovered that there’s more time for more work! There are fewer of the life-giving interruptions of pleasant conversations with colleagues or lunches out and more. In my New York days, I claimed the down time of riding trains to and from work events as the occasion to mentally recharge. That’s no more. What’s left for many is the grind of work and more work as we give in to the craze of workaholism.
I have to confess to you that ministry in the pandemic is not as fun as it used to be because of the comparative absence of regularly and casually seeing people as a natural feature of daily rhythms – in the office at church, in people’s homes, in visits to hospitals and nursing homes. So many of those occasions have been limited because of the pandemic. That remains true today as we continue precautions in relation to ever new, ever more transmissible variants of the virus.
Many, thus, live in exacerbated ways with the tyranny of productivity, of doing, and doing, and more doing. These conditions may also be true for many of you who are retired. Retirees often tell me you’re busier in retirement than you were in your working days!
In reaction to this, many are chronically in fight or flight mode, especially as we confront social horizons continually filled with new crises. The weight of such burdens can become unbearable, and all of this erodes our mental health and quality of life.
In response to such burdens we carry, listen again to Jesus’ good word, Jesus’ gospel word, recorded in today’s reading from John: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.”
What lovely, compelling gospel words. And there’s more gospel to be heard when we feel that we cannot easily go on with business – or busyness – as usual. Listen again to this: “Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.” God with Christ in the Spirit – that is, our Trinitarian God – will come to make a home with us! Magnificent!
With still more gospel consolation, John records Jesus as having said this, too: “I have said these things to you while I am still with you. But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.” In other words, as Jesus says in John just prior to today’s passage, that he will not leave us orphaned (cf. John 14:18) because of the Spirit’s promised coming.
The long and the short of these gospel words of promise is that Jesus invites us to slow down. To do less. To be more. To be at home with the one who makes a home with us. To discover Christ’s peace, not as the world gives. Trusting all the while there is much blessing to be had by God’s grace and initiative and God’s actions, and not in our own doing and productivity. Focusing on our efforts, for us Lutherans, is works righteousness – when we conclude that it’s up to us and our busy, frantic efforts to concoct blessing for ourselves. That’s not the gospel.
To do less, to be more – that’s what it means to keep Jesus’ word in love. Lovingly keeping Jesus’ word suggests less activity and more sitting there in leisure before Christ in wondrous adoration.
If Jesus promises that he and the Father will come to us to make their home with us, we do well simply to receive this gift in confidence and with gratitude. We are beckoned to be like Mary, sitting at Jesus’ feet, listening to his every word, and not like Martha, busy in the kitchen.
The biblical Greek for making a home suggests that God will craft an abode with us, that is to say, God will abide with us in leisure, 24/7, day after day, week after week, year after year, decade after decade, century after century.
It is in this existential and mental state of abiding where the Holy Spirit, our Advocate, is present to continue to teach us, reminding us of everything that Jesus said to us. And where does the Spirit do this teaching and reminding. Right here, right now in our weekly Sunday assemblies ever since the Spirit was unleashed centuries ago on the Day of Pentecost.
Given the great gift of our gatherings, we do well not to rush through this holy hour. Rather, we take our time, because Jesus Christ takes his time with us.
So it is that we hear in today’s first reading that Paul took his time once he and his companions arrived in Philippi. “We remained in this city for some days,” it says in Acts. Enough time to linger on the Sabbath for prayer outside the city gate by the river. Enough time for holy conversation with the likes of Lydia who ended up being baptized along with her whole household.
Lydia had this to say to Paul and the others: “If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home.” And she prevailed upon them. The leisure of staying at Lydia’s home no doubt produced many other fruits of the Spirit.
Which is to say that the fruit of the proclamation of the good news ripens for the harvest in God’s good time. Thus, we are beckoned to slow down, to dwell with the word and with each other in our Sunday assemblies and other times we gather.
When we dwell with each other around the sacred word and the sacraments as we do each Sunday, keeping Christ’s word in love, receiving the ongoing instruction of and reminding by the Spirit, then we come to realize that we are given here a foretaste of the promise we heard in today’s second reading, the vision of the holy city of Jerusalem, an eternal dwelling place even in the here and now, made possible by Christ’s death and resurrection.
There is no temple in the holy city, because God and Christ are the very temple we need. And there is no need for sun and moon because God and Christ are all the light we need. The gates are never shut – it’s that safe and secure. It is a city of truth, of purity, without abomination. And there is water aplenty, the water of life flowing from God’s throne through the city streets, and through the ages onto our heads and bodies in baptism. There is in the city the tree of life – Christ’s cross – giving fruit for the nations which we eat and drink in the eucharist. And we’ll see God’s face. And God’s name is written on our foreheads, as when we are sealed with the anointing of the Spirit at baptism.
We enjoy participation in such a reality every Sunday. And if we rush through things, we might just miss it. These blessings are objectively present every time we gather. That’s the truth that we can trust. But if we rush through it all, we may not apprehend in our awareness the full extent of the great gifts given to us week after week.
The call to slow down, to abide in Christ as Christ abides with us is why the Benedictine monks take their time in doing liturgy. That’s why extended periods of silence are embraced in monastic settings. That’s why Benedictine monks are asked to make a vow of stability, a promise to remain in the same community for the duration of their lives.
Maybe we’re called to be a bit more monastic in church. Thus, I invite you to slow down. But I also acknowledge in all honesty: Physician, heal thyself….
In this divine dwelling place week after week, this sanctuary beloved by us where we know and enjoy Christ with each other, the Holy Spirit continues her teaching ministry and that of reminding us of Jesus’ words, renewing and strengthening our faith. Thus, we come not only to recall the words of Jesus, but perhaps also to know and experience the fulfillment in our midst of Jesus’ promise: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.”
What a gift to our troubled world. What a gift we bring to that world when we leave this place. Or to adapt a quote from St. Seraphim of Serov, “Acquire inner peace [I would say, receive the gift of Christ’s peace] and thousands around you will find their salvation.” May it be so among us for the healing of the nations, for Christ is risen. Christ is risen indeed, alleluia. Amen.
Fifth Sunday of Easter, John 13:31-35
Let’s do a little thought experiment, a little free association. If I say the word “glory” or the word “glorious,” what images immediately pop into your heads? Take a moment to review what comes to mind.
Maybe some of these images appeared on your mental horizons: Spectacular sunsets. Mountain vistas. Maybe opulent houses, mansions, palaces. Skyscrapers. Other great architecture. Great movies or theatrical productions and concerts. Huge crowds. People with big personalities. Celebrities. And more.
Or let’s try this: what words come to mind that are synonymous with “glory” and “glorious?” Again, take a moment to let those words emerge.
Maybe these words appeared in your mind: Renown, fame, prestige, honor, distinction, kudos, magnificence, splendor, resplendence, grandeur, spectacular. More.
Here’s the thing when it comes to our sinful, human condition: It may well be that some of the images of and words related to glory, and the things and people we associate with these qualities, can turn out to be inglorious, burdensome, death-dealing, the fruit of sin, of pride, greed, of hubris, arrogance, unbridled power and domination…
I can’t help but think of supertall buildings being built in many places in the world today – in New York City, Dubai, Shanghai – symbols and incarnations of extreme wealth inequality and sometimes corruption, of human achievement, but also arrogance and pride and raw power. And then I can’t help but think of the Tower of Babel in the Bible. Towers have a tendency to exacerbate confusion, and they are prone to come tumbling down….
Then there’s Jesus’ way of glory and being glorious. Today’s reading from John’s Gospel is part of Jesus’ so-called farewell discourse with his disciples in which he teaches and prays in their presence in the last hours of his earthly life before his death and resurrection. This discourse recorded by John tries to make sense of Jesus’ ways of being and doing that confound worldly logic.
For the sake of beginning to understand Jesus’ way of glory, listen again to this day’s reading from John: “When Judas had gone out, Jesus said, ‘Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in God’s own self and will glorify him at once.”
John connects Judas’ departure with Jesus being glorified. What did Judas go out to do? Judas went out to betray his teacher, his Lord, his friend, the action of which would put into motion all of the horrible things that would lead to a horrible death, but also to a mysterious resurrection to new life beyond death. At first glance, how can any of this in any way be connected with common views of glory?
What Judas intends for death, God intends for and uses to give new life. The bad news becomes good news. And it is, in fact, glorious in the logic of God’s intent.
Jesus on the cross: this is what it is for Jesus to be glorified according to John’s gospel. It’s all very inglorious by human standards when you recall some of the words and images that came to mind in the first moments of this sermon.
But I see this kind of cruciform glory that confounds human logic and sensibilities in each of the readings for today. Let’s take another look for the sake of deepening our understandings of our glorious crucified and risen Lord and Savior.
In the reading from Revelation, we hear about a new heaven and new earth, and a holy city, a new Jerusalem. Quite glorious sounding on the face of it.
But this new holy city comes down to us, to our human level, where God will make a home among us mortals that we may dwell with God, and mere mortals will be God’s people. Tears will be wiped from our eyes. Death and mourning and crying and pain will be no more. And there will be water aplenty to quench our thirst.
In popular imagination, glory tends to be up there in the clouds, not down in the lowly and humble places where we have known death and mourning and crying and pain. That God makes a home with us down here is glorious, but in its own cruciform ways.
Then there’s the vision of reconciling inclusion in the reading from Acts in the reported emerging reproachment between Jewish and Gentile believers in Christ. The vision had Peter eating that which was traditionally, religiously unclean. But the voice from heaven proclaimed: “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.”
This led to the Spirit’s intervention with this instruction which Peter reports: “The Spirit told me… [to] not make a distinction between [the Gentile believers] and the [Jewish believers]. So it was that Gentiles came to be included in what was emerging as the Christian fold. The new way in Christ finds glory in that which had been considered profane, unclean, outcast. Thus, another example of cruciform glory.
Then there’s also Jesus’ new commandment given to his disciples before Jesus’ departure recorded in today’s gospel: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
Remember the context for giving this new commandment to love. It was when Jesus stripped himself of his outer garments, and got down on his knees to wash his disciples’ feet – not at all an image of glory from a human point of view. But glorious nonetheless, again, in cruciform ways.
Each example from today’s readings reveals aspects of Jesus’ cross-shaped glory that turns our logic on its head. When we look up for glory, Christ bids us to look down to the lowly places to find that which is truly glorious from God’s point of view.
And the lowly becomes glorious because in Christ God turned the whole world upside by transforming death into resurrected life, by converting bad news into good news, when the law leads to gospel, and by working with sin to make for forgiveness and salvation.
In Christ, by his death and resurrection, the deal is sealed. It’s done. It is finished. Complete. Perfect. Then the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end, gives “water as a gift from the spring of the water of life.” This water washes over us in baptism at this very font, a humble point of origin for our participation in the glory of God.
Then also, in Christ coming down from heaven, we are invited to the marriage feast as “a bride adorned for her husband.” This glorious reality we know at the eucharistic table, in a humble meal of bread and wine, where metaphorically we recline in lowliness to eat with Christ, he who also ate with those inglorious by worldly standards, namely, outcasts and sinners, widows and orphans.
Through our sacramental participation in Christ, through baptism and eucharist, and the power of the en-Spirited word, we, too, become glorious in cruciform ways.
And leaving this place, having basked in God’s humble, cruciform glory in Christ, we show forth this same glory in our works of loving mercy for and with those deemed most inglorious by worldly standards, loving these our neighbors with the love that Christ loved us, and we offer the gift of inclusion, of welcome, making no distinction between us and them as is so common in the pretenses of our inglorious world.
In this, we share in God’s work of making old things new. And it’s all glorious indeed in the way of the cross.
Our sorry world needs a sense of God’s humble, cross-shaped glory apart from the false and seductive ways of worldly glory that in the end are idolatrous and ruinous of the lives of people and indeed all of creation.
May the way of Christ’s glory shine forth in all that we say and do, for Christ is risen. Christ is risen indeed, alleluia. Amen.
Fourth Sunday of Easter, John 10:22-30
I don’t need to remind you that we are in the midst of and enduring an age of extreme divisiveness in our nation and in our world. As has been the case for so much of human history, these divisions occur in relation to all manner of issues and they have many causes and sources. In the past several days, abortion has again risen to the forefront of our divisions, a painful coincidence on Mother’s Day. But notable and related is also the division among people because of religion.
Take the case of religiously motivated hatred of Judaism and Jewish people. Reported cases of antisemitism have increased dramatically in recent months according to reporting in the New York Times.
So it is that John’s reporting of what Jesus said in the gospel of John about the Jewish people, some of which we heard in today’s reading, lands with an unnerving thud in our midst today. In today’s gospel reading, John reports the Jewish religious leaders enquired of Jesus about whether or not he was the expected Messiah. Jesus answered, according to John, “I have told you, and you do not believe.”
Then John reports that Jesus elaborated in this way – and these are the words that sting: “You do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep.”
You don’t belong are some of the worst words a human being can hear. Despite our individualistic bents, particularly in Western societies, human beings are social animals and we long to belong.
To be told that you don’t belong is horrible. Moreover, excluding others has historically been the excuse to vilify, dehumanize, enslave and kill others. Exclusion is a source of genocide.
In the first century, there was significant religious controversy when John’s gospel was compiled, a controversy between leaders of Judaism and what was emerging as Christianity. Alas, John’s gospel is filled with polemical references to this controversy. Today’s gospel passage gives expression to that controversy.
And given the divisiveness of our age and the re-emergence of both anti-Judaism and racial antisemitism in our day, I simply cannot pass over the difficulties with today’s texts. Nor do I wish to get hung up on them.
We, in our day, are called to fight against texts like those from John from being misused and abused in the service of antisemitism. Indeed, our Evangelical Lutheran Church in America has worked hard at limiting such negative effects in the Christian scriptures even as we have repudiated Martin Luther’s own anti-Jewish writings.
So, in service of seeking greater harmony among religions and among peoples, but also in the service of actually preaching the gospel, let me explore with you what it might mean to belong to Jesus’ sheep, especially on this Fourth Sunday after Easter which is traditionally known as Good Shepherd Sunday.
What Jesus promises to those who belong is lovely and compelling. Listen again to how John gives voice to Jesus’ words: “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand….” How beautiful.
And we as tolerant, loving people want this blessing for everyone, don’t we? Perhaps especially those of Jesus’ own religious heritage. We don’t want the Jewish people excluded from the benefits and blessings which come with belonging to Christ.
But a sense of belonging to Christ that focuses only on privileged blessing to the exclusion of those who don’t belong is driven by what I believe are some problematic theological preoccupations common among popular appropriations of the Christian tradition.
It’s common, for example, to view passages such as today’s through the lenses of the saved vs. the damned, those going to heaven and those going to hell. While there is biblical material to promote this kind of dichotomizing thinking, preoccupations with heaven and hell, those saved and those damned, are arguably more the ruminations of medieval theology and Dante’s Inferno than they are of rigorous and faithful biblical and theological scholarship.
While we cannot get too deeply into all of this today in a sermon, we can take a look at the other readings appointed for today for what they might suggest about what it means to belong to Jesus’ sheep.
In short, what is revealed, I believe, is that belonging to Jesus’ sheep is less about privilege and more about responsibility. It’s less about being part of a select, elite in-group and more about a group forgiven and redeemed and called to engage the wider world in the spirit of Jesus’ sacrificial, servanthood ministry.
Look at today’s reading from Revelation, which focuses on a vision of a “multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages.” These throngs were crying out and singing praises to God. In the vision, the author wonders who these people are. The answer is this: “These are they who have come out of the great ordeal.”
And while they will no longer hunger and thirst and while their tears will be wiped from their faces, presumably in the great ordeal they knew such hunger and thirst along with scorching heat and many, many tears.
In short, having been washed in the blood of the Lamb, they took up their crosses and followed the Lamb who was also paradoxically their shepherd, and they followed the Shepherd Lamb in the way of suffering for the sake of the world.
Such suffering is not the stuff of belonging to a privileged, elite club which excludes everyone else and relishes their privileged status at the expense of the damned.
Then consider today’s reading from Acts, where Peter raises Tabitha who had fallen ill and then died. Tabitha was known for her devotion to good works and acts of charity in Jesus’ name.
The widows were there weeping – widows being the very ones who were on the receiving end of Tabitha’s goodness and kindness in giving them needed clothing which she had made.
Peter was called upon to kneel and pray and then to raise Tabitha up again. To what end? To be returned to the very widows that Tabitha had cared for and thus to continue her good works and acts of charity in Jesus’ name. In short, Tabitha was raised to continue her loving service of those in need.
Here again, the story is not about the privileges of salvation and restored life, about who belongs and who doesn’t, about who is damned and who is saved. No, not at all.
Belonging to Jesus’ sheep means enduring various versions of slaughter in loving service of our risen Lord. It means going through great ordeals for the sake of such loving service. Being saved for service involves shedding many, many tears. It means being raised by Christ again and again to return to the mission fields to care for the widows and those most vulnerable to being excluded by religious elites.
Given that such ordeals are in store for those who follow Jesus, we may not wish such privileged belonging on just anybody! We ourselves might think twice about belonging to such a sheepfold!
Yes, to be sure, there is great privilege in belonging to Christ, who is our Good Shepherd, who leads us beside still waters, baptizing us into himself through these same waters, and raising us up like Tabitha to share in the victory over death. Christ the shepherd, who is at the same time the sacrificial lamb, restores us, his rod and staff comforting us in the deathly places of the longest fearsome shadows. Christ bids us dine at a sumptuous feast at this sacramental table, where our cups overflow with his grace and mercy even in the presence of any our enemies.
Moreover, Christ is not only our shepherd, but our temple – he who walked in the temple in the portico of Solomon has himself become the temple, the holy of holies in whom we abide like branches to the vine, we who also become temples of the Holy Spirit. More still, Christ’s red blood washes us into brilliant, dazzling cleanliness. And in Christ, who is one with Father, we share in the dance of the Holy Trinity. All of these gifts and blessings generate and regenerate our faith and give us eternal life such that no one can snatch us from the loving, wounded hands of our Good Shepherd.
But all of this blessing is in the service of our offering sacrifices of thanksgiving in love for our neighbors, including perhaps especially those, like the Jewish people, who are persecuted for their own religious convictions, for example, in not claiming Jesus as their promised Messiah. We are called to protect them and their convictions of faith and certainly not to relegate them to the damned.
All of this brings us back to Lutheran ethical sensibilities, and Luther and his great paradox, expressed yet again in his treatise, “Freedom of a Christian.” Yes, by God’s grace in Christ, we are perfectly free, privileged, chosen, belonging sovereigns of all, subject to none – and at the same time in thanksgiving for graced privileges given, we are perfectly dutiful servants of all, subject to all. That’s what it means to belong to Jesus’ sheep. It’s being blessed to be a blessing, and shedding many tears in suffering for the sake of others not so privileged and blessed.
Belonging to Christ is not us vs. them, the saved vs. the damned, but a belonging that calls us to serve our neighbors with the same love and mercy that made us to belong to Christ in the first place.
Such belonging to the Good Shepherd is that which leads to our loving service in Jesus’ name, a loving service that will go a long, long way toward healing the sad and dangerous divisions of our day. God in Christ help us. Amen.
Second Sunday of Easter, John 20:19-31
On Good Friday, when our choir was singing the Passion according to John by the late Lutheran composer, Richard Hillert, I was struck by how the drama of the music, at least in my experience, brought out and gave expression to the wrenching conflict that was integral to Jesus’ last hours – when he was betrayed, arrested, and brought before both religious and secular authorities and ultimately was executed at the hands of officials of the Roman empire.
The tension of the conflict was palpable to me, and evoked in me a range of emotions – anger and fear and sadness, all evident in a sense of physical agitation.
On this Second Sunday of Easter, on this side of the resurrection, we’re beyond all of that tension and conflict, right? Wrong. Alas. Today’s reading from Acts describes a time very much after Jesus’ resurrection, “when the temple police… brought the apostles…. [to] stand before the council… to be questioned by the high priest” because of their teaching about Christ’s resurrection (cf. Acts 5:27-30).
The temple police? Really? Was that necessary? Why should a holy place require a police force to maintain peace and security?
Such a reality is far from our common experience here and now, at least in this congregation. The closest thing we have to temple police here at Resurrection is our team of ushers who do tell people where to go – but as a gesture of hospitality!
On the other hand, tragically, temple police are not far from contemporary experience. When I visited the temple mount in Jerusalem years ago, with its mosque and Western Wall, a place sacred to both Jews and Muslims, the tension was palpable. Armed Israeli soldiers were everywhere to be seen.
After 9/11 in New York City, it was discovered that the CitiGroup tower under which sat Saint Peter Lutheran Church, where I was a member, was among terrorists’ identified targets. And the church was to have been the soft spot for an attack to bring down the skyscraper. As a result, in those many weeks following 9/11, officers with machine guns were a regular presence in my church on Sunday mornings.
And so it continues to go in our sad, sorry, bitterly divided, and dangerous world.
Think of and pray for the Orthodox Churches in Ukraine, celebrating their Easter today, where hundreds of those churches under the authority of Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and All Russia, who has been outspoken in his support of Russia’s invasion of and war on Ukraine – a holy war, he suggests, which is a cosmic battle against the perceived forces of evil in the West. Needless to say, this violent conflict is tearing apart the communion among Orthodox Christians and churches. Many churches are now severing ties with the Russian Orthodox Church. This has been and continues to be our sin-filled, captive human reality.
Today’s gospel reading from John finds Jesus’ followers behind locked doors for fear of the Judeans. Older translations say it more starkly and stridently – for fear of the Jews. Such references to the Jews throughout John’s gospel have contributed to centuries of Christian anti-Judaism and in recent centuries, racial antisemitism. John’s gospel has been used through the Christian era to justify attacks on Jewish people – as part of Good Friday observances, and in pogroms, and most tragically, in the Holocaust of the mid-20th Century.
In short, the resurrection of Christ has not miraculously cured the fever in our human hearts and minds. In fact, proclamation of the resurrection of Christ, as we saw in today’s first reading from Acts, has created further divisions among religious people.
This divisiveness weighs heavily on us, especially in the current climate in our nation and world. Don’t you feel torn by it all? I know I do, and on a daily basis.
And yet, it is into these very realities – when we are fearfully behind our versions of locked doors, and in our virtual bubbles and cocoons of the like-minded – where the risen Christ appears again and again, even as Christ appeared to the disciples in that locked room two millennia ago.
And the risen Christ appears again and again with this simple, but profound message: “Peace be with you.” Peace be with you. Peace. Just what we want and need to hear amidst all the fear and conflict and violence and warfare, cold and hot. Peace be with you.
This is a peace offered amidst fear, and resentment and conflict, a peace in fact born of violence and death. That is to say, it’s a peace that is conveyed via Jesus’ wounded hands and side and feet.
Indeed, Jesus revealing his wounds to the disciples is precisely that which authenticated Jesus’ embodied presence as that of the resurrected Christ. Jesus’ wounds made for genuine presence. In the wounds, they recognized their Lord.
So-called doubting Thomas only wanted the same thing that his compatriot disciples got – namely, a presence made genuine by the mark of the nails in his hands and his pierced, wounded side. That’s how Jesus showed himself to the eleven. Thomas simply wanted the same benefit – to see for himself the wounds, but also and at the same time, the embodied, living Christ.
The peace which Jesus offers is intimately connected with these wounds. This peace flows from his wounds. It’s real presence.
Thus, in the connection of Christ’s peace with Christ’s wounds, it’s no naïve, Pollyanna version of peace that Jesus gives. It’s not a peace that glosses over the terrible conflicts and warring violence of our world. Rather, it’s a message of peace that is offered right in the thick of the worst of our fearsome conflicts and divisions and warfare.
And again, to reiterate, this is not a peace that was given only once some two thousand years ago. No, the risen Christ appears again and again behind our varied formats of locked doors – each and every Sunday, here in this place, and other places of Christian assembly throughout the world. In Ukraine. And Sudan. And Syria. And every wounded, warring place that Christians gather on the Lord’s Day.
In fact, we re-enact the scenes with the eleven disciples and Thomas every Sunday. We, too, gather on the first day of the week. We are often locked in our fears, captive, paralyzed, speechless. But Jesus appears in the word, he who is the word of God made flesh, with the same eternal message: “Peace be with you.” These words were written down as signs recorded, according to John, so that we might believe in our messianic risen Christ and enjoy life in his name.
Moreover, when we share the Peace on Sunday mornings – even if now it’s only a bow, or wave, or eye contact, not a handshake or a hug – it is still the very Peace of Christ being made known among us, reverberating through the centuries when we convey the sacramental, sacred peace to each other in simple but profound gestures.
And then we come to the table to eat and drink of Jesus’ wounds, touching them in our very selves, our own bodies, taking them into ourselves that our own wounds may be embraced by Christ’s life-giving wounds. Jesus in the flesh via bread and wine being incorporated into our very flesh for life and healing and reconciliation – that is to say, for peace.
Then, like Thomas, our faith awakened and renewed, we exclaim, “My Lord and my God!”
Jesus then breathes on us through his word and sacraments imparting to us his Holy Spirit and giving us the same charge that he gave to the original disciples:
“Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you…. Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” (John 20:21-23)
And then we are sent on our way, full of faith, full of the Holy Spirit, to enter again into a world at war in oh so many ways with Jesus’ eternal message of Peace. We also go as church with Christ’s authority to forgive sins and make for reconciliation, for God’s shalom – not just the absence of war, but holistic, comprehensive well-being for all of creation.
In such sending, Christ, who loves us and frees us from our sins by his blood, and makes us to be a dominion, and makes us priests also to serve God (cf. Revelation 1:5b-6a) by proclaiming – albeit imperfectly – in word and deed that Christ is raised from the dead. We give expression to our priesthood in Christ by proclaiming in word and deed, to friend and foe alike, those near and those far away, those on both sides of our many divides, “The Peace of Christ be with you,” for Christ is risen. Christ is risen indeed. Alleluia. Amen.