August 4, 2019 – Sermon

Pentecost 8 August 4, 2019 (Psalm 107, Isaiah 58:10-12, Colossians 3:1-5) Luke 12:13-31 Life made simple ************************************************************** Jesus is teaching a crowd of people, when a man interrupts, asking Jesus, “tell my brother to share our family inheritance with me.” But rather than offering help (or even answering yes or no) – here’s Jesus, warning against any kind of greed, and telling a story in which a rich man has prospered and plans to build bigger barns to store his wealth, and now he’s talking to himself, saying, “Soul, you’ve got plenty stored up now. Relax! Eat, drink, be merry! And if I didn’t know it was Jesus telling this parable I’d be thinking – what’s wrong with feasting, celebrating, and resting from our labors when we’ve been blessed with success? This guy probably worked hard to get his land to produce bountiful harvests. So what if he’s planning to tear down old barns and build bigger barns to store the abundance? So what if he wants to rest and enjoy life. Maybe he’s earned it? Yet here’s Jesus, telling this story, in which now God comes on the scene, saying “Fool! I’m calling in the loan of the soul you call yours. No matter how big a barn you build – no matter how much wealth you pile up – it will never even begin to cover what you owe me.” (God doesn’t use the word ‘loan’ – that’s translating into language the rich man knows.) But scripture clearly says: everything in heaven and earth belongs to God. We’re God’s servants, entrusted for life’s little while with whatever we have. It’s what the parable says. Still, we might wonder – is this even a little practical? And – how seriously do we need to take Jesus, here? Isn’t he exaggerating a lot to make his point? Does he really understand economic realities? If we don’t keep building bigger barns, houses, and buildings of all kinds – and if we don’t keep filling them with more things of every kind – isn’t our economy going to go down the tubes? Isn’t our culture’s perpetual need for more possessions and bigger buildings what makes our economy tick? But somehow Jesus doesn’t seem concerned about the health of our economy – as he warns – how very dangerous it is – to store up riches for ourselves – without being rich toward God. And if we think Jesus is tough on the rich man in this parable – check-out again Luke chapter sixteen – where we meet the only person in the bible we’re ever told is in hell – a rich man who didn’t share with Lazarus, his impoverished neighbor. Then in Luke 18 a rich man goes away sorrowful when Jesus says ‘sell all, give to the poor, store up treasure in heaven, and follow me….’ And tells disciples, ‘it’s harder for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.’ What Jesus says today is part of a consistent pattern of strong warnings about the dangers of accumulating wealth and having many possessions. All part of Jesus’ campaign to protect us against what Martin Luther 500 years ago called the world’s most popular idol – the...

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July 28, 2019

Pentecost 7 July 28, 2019 Ps 85, Genesis 18:20-32, 1 Thessalonians 5:15-25 Luke 11:1-13        Lord, teach us to pray ************************************************************ Disciples ask Jesus – Lord, teach us to pray…. We’ve heard the saying – “be careful what you pray for.’ You may get more than you expect…. So if we’re cynical we might say: Be careful when you ask Jesus: Lord, teach us to pray. Because yes, for sure – we will always get more than we expect. No matter how much we expect… Jesus will give more… I have been learning over the years – to keep asking Jesus – to keep teaching me and all of us to pray. Because there’s always more to learn about prayer. And I’ve learned – ready or not, whether I understand, appreciate or not – whatever Jesus teaches – is always good – very good – and good beyond words… *** But before we get deeper into the specifics of what Jesus teaches today about prayer – let’s consider what may be the first prayer in the bible. Born of devout Jewish parents, Jesus undoubtedly grew up hearing biblical stories like the story we’ve read today from Genesis of Abraham talking with God – asking God to spare the city of Sodom from the destruction it deserves if God can find even a few righteous people there. Many bible commentaries note the parallels between Abraham’s questions to God and ancient Near Eastern traditions of bartering and bargaining. Professor Bill Arnold says when Abraham asks God to spare the city if 50 righteous persons can be found in it – he expects God to counter with something like “well, Abe, if I could find 100 righteous people, maybe I might spare the city. But you can’t really expect me to pardon a city that wicked for only 50 righteous people.” But here’s God, blowing Abraham’s expectations out of the water – by immediately accepting Abraham’s request. Abe now has to re-figure his strategy. He first over-cautiously asks ‘what if there’s only 45?’ God again immediately says ‘Fine. If there’s 45 I’ll spare the city.’ Now Abe begins to realize he isn’t asking enough. He starts asking in increments of ten, going lower and lower with each ask… Stopping finally at ten. And at each increment, God says ‘Alright. I will spare the city if even ten are found righteous.’ (Abraham could have gone all the way down to one righteous person – it wouldn’t change the outcome. The lesson is in the conversation with God. Not the specifics of the outcome. But that’s another teaching… for another day…) Today, the main take-away from Abraham’s prayer for me is Abraham’s holy chutzpah (sanctified boldness) – as he reminds God of God’s job description – ignoring all the conventional expectations of what’s acceptable to say to God. Abraham prays humbly and reverentially… But he boldly asks God for far more than he can reasonably expect. Yet God says ‘yes’ – again and again. First Testament bible scholar John Goldingay points out this story is also about God choosing to communicate on our human level – as God appears here as one of three angels in the story – speaking face-to-face with God’s people. Abraham’s deeply prayerful conversation with God is a model example...

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July 21, 2019

Pentecost 6   July 21, 2019 Psalm 15, (Colossians 1:3-6,9-10,15-20)  Luke 10:38-42   Listening to Jesus *************************************************************** Mary has chosen the better part– sitting at the feet of Jesus, listening to him –  which will not be taken away from her. Not by Jesus, anyway.  But when you and I try to do like Mary – best be prepared for resistance. It’s like a law of human nature – when we try for more time with Jesus – we inevitably encounter obstacles…. When we try to carve out more time with Jesus, sitting and listening for his word – it’s almost funny – how life and busy schedules conspire to make this more difficult than we imagined… When we try to cut back on part of our routine to make more time for Jesus… any activity we try to cut back on pleads – protests – and argues against giving up even fifteen minutes of our customary routines. It’s like second nature for us to believe what we’re doing is more important – than just sitting and listening. Even listening to Jesus. Who, after all, tells us elsewhere – not to be just listeners to the word of God – but be doers of God’s will. And yes – We know we’re saved by grace, not by works – but we also know the scriptures say good works are the fruit of faith – and we sure don’t want to be found fruitless… So we agree with Jesus in principle… But – I’ve been remembering… A pastor friend sharing a story – of a church she served that took in a big portion of it’s annual budget from one large fund-raising event that raised a quarter of the annual budget. Everyone appreciated the funds that came from the event. But producing it took an enormous amount of time and energy over many months of the year – and the health of the church was suffering. So… My friend, the pastor, developed a bible study based on the story of Martha and Mary… And led her bible study in a church meeting – saying “Jesus said – ‘Martha, Martha – distracted by many things, and missing what’s most important! Mary’s chosen the better part – Jesus says…” And the more pastor Marietta (we’ll call her) got into the story-telling, the more visibly anxious the head of the Fund-raising Team (Marcelle, we’ll call her) was becoming. But – pastor Marietta kept pushing the envelope, saying – “Martha, Martha – you’re worried and distracted by many things. Your sister Mary chose the better part…’ Heading for  her intended conclusion – “Get with Mary – do the one thing necessary – take more time to be with Jesus….” But just as the pastor is reaching the conclusion of her bible study – the project leader exclaims – “I’m sorry! But – this time Jesus is just wrong!” *** Most of us are probably too polite to say Jesus is wrong. But it does seem like most people’s lives – mine included – most of the time – look more like Martha – than like Mary, chilling-with-Jesus. And no wonder – I mean, really – isn’t Martha’s also doing what Jesus says to do? Welcoming visitors – practicing hospitality – making sure Jesus and his disciples...

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July 14, 2019

Pentecost 5  July 14, 2019  Psalm 82, Deuteronomy 30;11-16, Leviticus 19:17-18,33-37; Luke 10:25-37   How to inherit eternal life ***************************************************************** An expert in the religious law asks “What do I need to do to inherit eternal life?” And Jesus asks back –“What’s written in the law? What do you read there?” (Like – ‘How do you hear the law speak to your question?’) The man says immediately “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind” – giving the short version of a passage from Deuteronomy (6) that observant Jews say several times a day every day – adding from Leviticus (19:18) “and love your neighbor as yourself.” Rabbis and teachers of Israel were used to combining the commandments to love God and neighbor. The lawyer’s answer was pretty much conventional wisdom. Conventional wisdom isn’t always a bad thing. Even Jesus starts off with conventional counsel – as he tells the man “Good answer – do this and you will live.” A condensed version of our reading from Deuteronomy 30 today where we’ve heard, “If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God… loving the Lord your God… walking in his ways… then you shall live…” Love the Lord your God – love your neighbor – you will live… is pretty much the theme of the whole book of Deuteronomy. (The part about living forever might be implied…I don’t know. But the lawyer who asked doesn’t have a follow up question about eternal life…) Both the lawyer and Jesus quote familiar scripture. We’re told, first, that the lawyer is testing Jesus, then that he wants to justify himself. But we never hear the lawyer or Jesus disagree with the other. If there’s a dispute, it’s unspoken. But we have been told the religious leader is testing Jesus. So we often assume he’s trying to out-debate or find fault with Jesus. But – what if the lawyer just wants to test and see– is this Jesus guy as good as people say? Or – what if something in his life is making him question what he’s doing or what he believes – and he’s testing to see if Jesus might be able to help him find a better way. What if this lawyer, who, yes, is testing Jesus – actually wants to learn from Jesus? So, remembering the advice of Rabbis of old who said – always give the other person the benefit of the doubt – and considering the advice of some contemporary scholars – who remind us the students of the Rabbis of old were expected to test their teachers with hard questions, and be tested back – I’m wondering if when we also hear that this lawyer testing Jesus wants to justify himself – maybe we should consider the possibility that he wants to justify his now slightly shaky faith against his own doubts and fears. What if he’s asking Jesus “who is my neighbor?” because he used to know – but now he’s not so  sure? So – I’ve been trying this week to see our lawyer friend in the story as an honest seeker –someone who’s heard people say Jesus is a prophet from God –  and also heard people...

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July 7, 2019

Pentecost 4 July 7, 2019 (Ps 30, Galatians 6:1-5,14-15) 2 Kings 5:1-19a Practice Grace **************************************************************** Naaman is a powerful general, highly respected by his employer, the king of Aram. (Aram is an ancient name for Syria). Naaman has led the Syrian army in many a battle and won many military victories. He’s got slaves and lots of money at his disposal. And – he’s also got leprosy. (The term leprosy in those days covered a wide range of diseases and skin disorders, and seldom meant the Hansen’s disease we now call leprosy. Naaman’s leprosy’s probably not life-threatening, but it’s at least causing great discomfort, anxiety, and social adjustment problems.)… An Israelite slave girl, taken captive on a Syrian army raid, serves Naaman’s wife. This girl tells her mistress “there’s a prophet in Samaria (another name for Israel) who can cure your husband’s leprosy.” His wife tells Naaman, who tells the king, who assumes this Israelite prophet must work for the king of Israel. He sends a letter with Naaman to his counterpart in Israel, asking him to heal Naaman. The Israelite king, like nearly all the kings of Israel, is a flagrant idol worshiper. He knows of Elisha, who has accompanied his troops and saved his armies from major disaster through his wonder-working powers, yet – the king fails to even think of Elisha now, as he interprets the Syrian king’s letter as an act of aggression. (‘There he goes again – trying to start another war with me.’) The kings of Israel and of Syria and Naaman are all portrayed by the biblical narrator as darkly humorous characters – idolatrous, ambitious, and clueless. And Elisha, knowing all these characters all-too-well – nonetheless still tells the king of Israel – “send him to me, so he’ll know there is a prophet in Israel.” And Naaman pulls up at the house of Elisha, with his entourage of horses, chariots, and servants, hauling a huge amount of silver, gold and expensive clothing. Expecting to have to pay handsomely for his healing. And expecting to be treated as visiting royalty. But Elisha won’t even come to the door. He just sends a servant with instructions – “go wash in the river Jordan seven times and you’ll be cured.” Naaman is outraged. Feeling dishonored and disrespected, he’s ready to go home and wash in a Syrian river – much bigger and far-better-looking than this pitiful muddy Jordan stream. But his servants reason with him – “father, if the prophet told you to do something difficult, wouldn’t you do it?” Finally convincing him to take the dip in the river as instructed. And when he does, Naaman comes out of the waters, cleansed and healed…. If this was the end of the story we’d have yet another classic biblical healing narrative. The kind of miraculous healing Elisha and his teacher Elijah have both done for widows and children. But we know this is not a typical healing story – as we remember – this story is referred to by Jesus in Luke’s gospel (800 years later) as a precedent for his own ministry to the Gentiles – people outside of Israel. But – what’s up with this enemy general with Israelite slaves – getting healed from leprosy by an Israelite prophet? While there were,...

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June 30, 2019

Pentecost 3   June 30,2019 Psalm 77, 2 Kings 2:1-2,6-14; Luke 9:51-62, Galatians 5:1,13-25   For freedom Christ has set us free ***************************************************************** For freedom Christ has set us free… stand firm, therefore, and don’t submit again to a yoke of slavery – the apostle says. Then, just a few verses later he says – you were called to freedom, only don’t use your freedom for self-indulgence – but through love become slaves to one another. Stay free. Don’t submit again to a yoke of slavery. And – Become slaves to one another through love. Isn’t this a bit of a contradiction? Let’s do a little very quick review of the background context of this letter to the Galatians – which has been a tremendously influential letter, especially in Protestant theology. Our doctrine of God’s free grace as the source of our salvation flows straight from Galatians (and it’s cousin, the letter to the Romans). Salvation by grace and faith is a huge theme in Galatians – but Christian freedom is actually the main theme of the letter, and our first verse today (Galatians 5:1) works as a theme statement: For freedom Christ has set us free. But – Free from what? What kind of freedom? Exactly how much freedom? Bible scholars are still discussing and debating virtually every line of Galatians, still trying to figure out what was going on when Paul wrote this letter – addressed to a cluster of churches in the region of Galatia in Western Asia, to the North and West of Israel. What we’re most nearly sure of is – some Jewish Christians with some connection to the Jerusalem church (how much of a connection is debated) have come to the Galatian churches saying non-Jewish church members must be circumcised – and obey all or some of the law of Moses, including Jewish food laws – if they are to be considered Christians. Some, perhaps many, in the Galatian churches have now believed these missionaries. And Paul is furious. He’s absolutely sure adding any non-essential-to-the-gospel requirements to the gospel of Jesus Christ risks damaging or even destroying the faith of people whose faith is still fragile or shaky.  He argues angrily, creatively, strenuously – that freedom for non-Jewish Christians absolutely non-negotiably includes being free from the law of Moses. The law is for Israel, not for Gentiles. Non-Jewish believers need to know the law but they are not subject to the details of the law… And here we need to know or remember – this is the same religious law that Paul used to teach, as a member of the strictest Jewish sect, the Pharisees, and a persecutor of the Christian church in his former life. But now here’s Paul, calling  the law a yoke that binds allwho attempt to live by it in slavery. Insisting that the law not only cannot bring salvation – trying to obey it will enslave us in fruitless effort…like running on a treadmill… going nowhere. And we need to know the issue really isn’t about circumcision (elsewhere in the letter he’ll say twice “neither circumcision nor un-circumcision matters) nor about dietary laws – the issue is making anything other than the gospel itself an issue. Contrary to what we may have heard elsewhere, the bible tells us – the...

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