Sunday, September 15th, 2013 – Sermon on Luke 15:1-10

Luke 15:1-10
1 Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. 2 And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” 3 So he told them this parable: 4 “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? 5 When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. 6 And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, “Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ 7 Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance. 8 “Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? 9 When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, “Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’ 10 Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”

Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

Friends, the first thing we learn today from our gospel text is that Jesus eats with bad people. Jesus eats with the kind of people parents don’t want their children eating with. And not only does Jesus eat with them, he actually welcomes them. He invites them to dinners where he is the host. Which is a sign of acceptance. We know this. To have a meal with someone, to invite someone to your home is to invite them into your life. To accept them in someway as a human being. And so the first thing we learn today is that Jesus eats with and accepts bad people.

I wonder, who would you get in trouble for eating a meal with? Who would your parents or your friends not want you to sit down with at the lunch table? Or what person would get the town talking if you were seen having lunch with them at Wags? Because chances are, according to our text, whoever that person is… that’s exactly who Jesus would be eating lunch with.
When I asked this question to the confirmation students at our retreat a couple of weeks ago, one person said, “Miley Cyrus.” And then another said, “Osama bin Laden.”

That last one is a hard one, isn’t it?

It’s hard to imagine Jesus spending time with someone we love to hate. Someone that, in our minds, is so filled with evil that there is nothing of value and nothing redeemable.

And that’s how it was for the Pharisees and scribes who saw Jesus eating with the tax collectors and sinners. They hated the idea of it. Because to them the tax collectors and sinners were the worst sort of folks. This isn’t just minor sins we are talking about. The people who did wrong over and over and over again.

And so that’s the second thing we learn today from our gospel – that religious people hate the idea of Jesus hanging out with people who aren’t like them. But here’s the thing – there is no way around that. Jesus is a defiant, radical, trouble maker who loves to love the unlovable. Jesus loves to love the unlovable. And so often that is the last thing religious people expect him to do. So, if you consider yourself religious, you might want to be careful. Because at least according to this text, being religious and being a follower of Jesus are not always the same thing.

I hate to say it this way but I really do believe that Jesus’ favorite people to hang out with are the people our parents spent most of their time trying to keep us away from. And I am sorry to you parent’s out there for whom this sermon will make your job harder, but nobody said this Christian thing would be easy.

Jesus stands alongside those we think are the last person in the world Jesus would want to stand beside. And that can be really hard to hear and to think about but here is the thing, if we are honest with ourselves, sometimes the last person in the world we think Jesus would want to be with is ourselves. And that is when this text becomes really, really good news.

You see, as Christians, as those religious people, most of us are aware that we all are sinners. We can admit that. And I hear people say that all the time, “Well, none of us are perfect. We’re all sinners.” The problem is that whenever I hear people say that, it always sounds like they don’t actually believe it. It sounds like we’re all sinners in the same way that we all steal pens from work. It’s not really a big deal, but we still know we should probably not do it. And so it sounds like God is the business of forgiving misdemeanor sins – you know, the stuff we are all guilty of. Like stealing pens. Or losing our temper. Or telling a white lie. Or speeding. And we are all okay with Jesus hanging out with those kinds of sinners, but any time the topic of a big, juicy sin comes up, we suddenly seem to get uncomfortable with the idea that Jesus forgives those sinners too. Sometimes, it seems like the more obvious or public a person’s sin is, the less we want them to be forgiven. You know, people like murderers, or drug dealers and drug addicts, or sex offenders. Their sin is so public and so visible that so often we can’t ever imagine it being forgiven.

But then if we are being honest, there are those things about our own lives. Things that have a hold on us, that we can’t get away from that are not public, that are not visible, that are not obvious to the person sitting next to you in the pew. Sins that we would never want to be made public, and yet that we are desperate for God to forgive. Maybe it has something to do with the way your first marriage ended, or the way you treated your child that one time, or that thing you did when no one else was around. Whatever it is, we all have something, some part of us that begs for acceptance and forgiveness.

But you know, we can avoid that thing inside us for just a little bit longer, when we can look at and judge the wrong and the failure inside someone else. The Pharisees do that. The Pharisees would just as soon rather Jesus discard the tax collectors and the sinners. To get rid of them. You see, I think our natural tendency is to throw away that which seems lost and hopeless. To let the lost be lost.

And the truth is, sometimes that seems like a completely sensible thing to do. I mean, listen to the parables Jesus then shares. If you are a shepherd and you have a 100 sheep that you are leading in the wilderness, and one of those sheep wanders off, who in their right mind is going to leave all their other 99 sheep out in the wilderness, just to find that one sheep. I mean, if you leave the 99, then who knows, they might scatter too, or even worse they might be attacked and eaten by other wild animals. It makes perfect sense to let the lost be lost. Or if you are a woman who has worked and worked to earn 10 silver coins and suddenly you realize you’ve lost one, who in their right mind would spend all of their time (presumably missing even more work) just to search for that one coin. Who would do that? Sometimes, it makes perfect sense for the lost to just stay lost.

But here’s the thing: in Jesus’ parable, the lost don’t stay lost. That shepherd does leave the 99 sheep, just to find that one sheep lost in the wilderness. And that old woman spends all of her time sweeping the floor until she can find that one silver coin.

You see it’s easy to throw something away that you have no relationship with. But when you desperately need it, it’s a different story. When I was growing up, there was a boy who went missing. You probably remember him by his name, Jacob Wetterling. And I’ll be honest, it’s easy for me to forget about Jacob. It’s easy for me to just let the lost be lost. Because I have no relationship with him. But I guarantee you that not a day goes by that Jacob’s mother, Patty, and father, Jerry, don’t search the faces of everyone they pass in the grocery store, or at the mall, or at a restaurant desperately hoping to find the face of their beloved child staring back at them. They’ll never stop searching for their son.

And that’s how it is with God. It is easy for us to think something or someone is beyond forgiveness. That someone is irredeemable…because we often have no relationship with them. But not so with God. God has this desperate and unashamed love for that beloved child of God, and when that person is lost. Lost in their own self-destruction; lost in their own deep well of brokenness. God will stop at nothing – nothing – until God has found that lost sheep. That precious coin. God will stop at nothing until they have been found.

A professor of mine tells the story about when his mentor was coming close to the time of death. And when my professor went to visit him, the man said, “Tell me the promise again. I’ve forgotten it. Tell me the promise.” Before I tell you what he said, I invite you to close your eyes. Close your eyes and listen to this promise being said to you. But also listen to this promise that is also for that person who in your eyes is unlovable, unredeemable. Close your eyes and listen.

My professor leaned over to his mentor and he whispered: you are the one. You are the one that God went looking for. Leaving behind all the other 99 sheep, God came looking for you. You are the one God spent hours and hours on hands and knees sweeping and searching for. And when God found you, God called together all the saints in heaven, saying to them, “Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep, my precious coin that was once lost.” Amen.

Sunday, September 8th, 2013 – Sermon on Luke 14:25-33

Luke 14:25-33
25 Now large crowds were traveling with him; and he turned and said to them, 26 “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. 27 Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. 28 For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it? 29 Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it will begin to ridicule him, 30 saying, “This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.’ 31 Or what king, going out to wage war against another king, will not sit down first and consider whether he is able with ten thousand to oppose the one who comes against him with twenty thousand? 32 If he cannot, then, while the other is still far away, he sends a delegation and asks for the terms of peace. 33 So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.

So, happy rally day! Happy beginning of the fall! Happy 25th anniversary of ELCA! And you know, nothing says, “Let’s celebrate and have a great start to the year!” like our gospel text for today. Jesus says, “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple….none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.”

That’s like the most depressing Rally Sunday message….ever. Every year there are a handful of Sundays where preach feel like we need to really knock it out of the park. To really hit a homerun with our message. That would be Christmas, Easter, and Rally Day. And so all week, I have been like, “Arrgh! It’s Rally Day. What on earth am I supposed to say about this?!”

And I’ll be honest, while I’m not a big fan of this text in general, I find this text particularly ridiculous in light of the past week I have had. Really, Jesus, in order to be your disciple, am I supposed to hate my father the week after his brain randomly started bleeding? I’m supposed to hate life itself when I am so glad that there is still life inside my father’s body? I’m supposed to worry about giving up all of my possessions and grabbing my cross and following you, when that small elephant of grief and fear and anxiety over my dad’s well-being has just finally decided to stop sitting on my chest?

Honestly, I’d much rather preach on the Deuteronomy or Philemon texts.

But while I would like to preach on those two texts, I have always been taught that if there is a biblical text that you want to avoid. One that you would rather not have read in church on Sunday. One that you would rather act as if it does not exist, then it is probably the one you should be preaching on.

So what are we supposed to do with a passage like this? Because my temptation is to try and soften it up a bit. To tell you that Jesus doesn’t really mean we are supposed to hate our family members, but that it really means “turn away.” So he doesn’t mean that you need to hate your parents or brothers or sisters, but just that you are to turn away from them. But whether this is true or not, it does not change the fact that you are still being asked to give up your family. To turn away from them. To leave them behind so that you can follow Jesus.

Part of me wants to be snarky and say that because the texts references people hating their wives and children, then Jesus must only be talking to the men in the room, and everyone else is off the hook.

But in the end, I can’t. I can’t smooth this one over. I can’t make it say what it doesn’t say. In the end, Jesus actually demands something of us. Expects something of us as his disciples.

But maybe that’s actually good news. That Jesus is trying to tell us that our faith actually demands something of us. That God actually invites to have a role to play in this beautifully, messed up world. That God actually trusts us to be a partner in bringing about a love so divine that reaches into all our stone-like hearts. That it truly is God’s work and our hands. That God accomplishes more with us than without us. No, none of this works is so that we can get into heaven or so we can earn God’s love for us. Jesus doesn’t ask us to do good thing so that we can win a reward in the end. But that Jesus asks us to do hard things so that others might flourish in this world. And in the words of a friend of mine, we can do hard things.

So what hard thing might Jesus be asking of you today? What might Jesus be asking you to give up or sacrifice for the sake of a better world? What that looks like for you, I don’t know. You’ll have to figure that out on your own.

But as I think about Jesus asking his disciples to turn from the families and leave behind all their stuff to follow him, all I can think about is the millions of people in Syria who have fled their country in order to find safety and refuge in their surrounding countries. People who have left behind every single thing they own, people who have maybe even left behind family members who are fighting in a war that has become much to chaotic, in order that they might find a safer and better life.

Sometimes what God asks of us is really hard. But we can do hard things.

Yesterday, God asked something of me. And while it was hard, the message was simple: Jon – get over yourself. You see last night after coming home from our Confirmation retreat, I got caught in that downward spiral of insecurity where all I could think about was this tiny, insignificant thing about me. And like a virus, it just spread into everything I was doing. I was distracted during dinner about it, I was distracted while giving Elliot a bath (and then he slips a falls while I supposed watching him), and I was distracted by it while trying to read books with Elliot and the whole time there was this voice that I can only attribute to the Spirit saying, “Jon – get over yourself. It’s not all about you. This thing that your insecure about does not matter.” And I’ll tell you, I fought God for a long time on that one last night. But God won, in the end. I got over it. But it was still hard.

Sometimes, what God asks of us is really hard. But, you know what, we can do hard things.

So, again, what hard thing might Jesus be asking of you? Maybe Jesus is asking you to get over yourself and to quit worry about yourself all the time. Or maybe Jesus is asking to get out of whatever dangerous and chaotic life you’ve been living in for far too long. Or maybe Jesus is asking you to heal a relationship that’s been broken far too long. Or maybe Jesus is asking you open up your home to someone who doesn’t have one. Whatever it is, you’ll have to figure that out.

But what I do know is that as disciples of Jesus, he actually expects something from us. And that is the most beautiful part. That God actually calls you by name and asks something of you. God needs you. And sometimes God needs you to do hard things.

I’ll be honest, no matter what hard thing I might think Jesus is calling me to, the odds are pretty high that I’m not going to go home today and start hating my family. And I’m not going to sell all of my possessions either. And if that counts as failure in Jesus’ eyes, then so be it. But I think there is good news in failure too. You see, there was a large crowd there that day when Jesus laid out these great expectations. And we never learn how it turns out. The story doesn’t say what the crowd decided to do. Well, it doesn’t say it explicitly what they decided. But we can assume it. You see, later on in Luke’s gospel, Jesus’ travels lead him all the way to Jerusalem and to the top of a cross. And when we look around, his friends and the crowd are nowhere to be found. They have scattered and are standing at a distance. And yet God still used those same people, like Peter who denied Jesus, to build God’s church. A church thousands of years ago that lead to the building of this very church.

Jesus’ closest friends failed him. And so will we. But God remained faithful to them, continuing to call them into partnership in creating a better world. And God will remain faithful to us. Even if we go home today and nothing changes, it doesn’t mean that God won’t continue to invite you use your hands for God’s work tomorrow. And the next day. And the next day. And the next day. Amen.

Sunday, September 1st, 2013 – Sermon on Luke 14:1,7-14

Luke 14:1, 7-14

1 On one occasion when Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the sabbath, they were watching him closely. 

7 When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, he told them a parable. 8 “When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; 9 and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, “Give this person your place,’ and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. 10 But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, “Friend, move up higher’; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. 11 For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” 12 He said also to the one who had invited him, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. 13 But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. 14 And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”

In our gospel lesson for today, Jesus has been invited over for a dinner party. And  what he first notices and then comments on is how people are choosing the places of honor to sit. You see, Jesus lives in an honor and shame culture. Status was everything. People always sought being honored and always avoided being shamed. And this often played out at mealtimes. “Guests of honor were seated close to the host, while those of lesser importance sat further away.”[1] And Jesus watched as people chose their seats based on their level of honor.

When I first read this gospel reading and what other people were saying about it, I was reminded that it is the perfect time of the year for a text like this.

School starts on Tuesday. And is there a better example of seats of honor and seats of shame then the school bus? Or the lunchroom? You see, I am certain that beginning on Tuesday morning, school buses and lunchrooms all around Owatonna and Blooming Prairie will become those very places of honor and shame.

On the bus, there will be seats where only the older and cooler kids can sit. In my day, it was the back of the bus, especially on field trips, because that was the furthest away from the driver and the bus monitor. And you could always tell if you had gone too far to the back based on the looks of unwelcome that others gave you.

In the lunchrooms, there will be a cool-kids table and a not-so-cool-kids table. When I was in school, it was like a web or a scale of coolness that was centered around that one table. The closer you were to that cool table, the cooler you were. The further away you were…well….

And every single day, it was like walking into an evaluation room. You would look to see if your seat was still open or if someone had moved up the ladder and taken your place, pushing you further down the food chain.

And as I was remembering that time in my life, all I could think about was how glad I was to be out of that world and to have grown up and out that cruel time of measuring your status based on where you sat at a meal. But then there was this small voice in my head, and it started laughing, and it said “Yeah, you just keep telling yourself that.”

All of a sudden, I was immediately flooded with images of where I still live that out on a day-to-day basis. When I was in Pittsburgh at the ELCA churchwide assembly, every day we would have to find a seat in our section, and everyday, I secretly hoped I would get to sit near one of our bishops. You know, so as to somehow make me feel more important or special or noticeable to others. But then when the middle-aged stranger would come and sit next to me, or when I would come in late and the only seat left was next to someone who didn’t seem all that interesting, my first thought would be, “Oh great, this going to be a long day…”

Or whenever we would break for lunch, they offered a lunch buffet with all of these tables we could sit at (not unlike a lunchroom), and each day I would scan the room for my friends – who of course were cool enough to sit by. I mean, c’mon… they were my friends. Or I was looking for someone with a little bit of status.

Try as I might, that hierarchy of honor and shame culture still lives within me even though I no longer ride the bus or go to school. And the truth is, I think it still lives within all of us. And so often it is when we gather around a meal.

I don’t know about you, but I couldn’t wait until I graduated from the kid’s table at thanksgiving dinner to the adult’s table. It’s like you were welcomed into a place of honor. Or go to any wedding and the significance of your relationship to the wedding couple will be determined on where you are seated at the reception, right? The closer you are to the head table, the wedding party, the closer your relationship is to the couple. And I am willing to bet that all of us have been to a wedding where we were surprised by our place in the seating arrangements. I mean, if you are in the corner by the bathrooms, with a table full of strangers who have nothing in common, then you know you were on the B list of invites, right?

Or think about the party the neighbors are having. We have the sense that if we are invited, then we matter. Then we are important. But if we are not invited and other people we know are…then there is that overwhelming sense that we must not fit in. We must not matter.

These situations are all around us and I couldn’t help but wonder if the same hierarchy exists around the more ordinary meals I witnessed this week. Maybe there is a hierarchy and places of honor in the break room at Viracon or even at the Friday morning Exchange club meeting.

And because we are so familiar with this world of measuring ourselves against other people, the advice that Jesus gives can sound just ridiculous. Jesus gives this advice for those of us who are going back to school and other places where status and hierarchy, honor and shame are present – don’t place yourself higher than others. Don’t seek the place of honor but be modest and humble seeking a place of lower status. And not only that but Jesus tells those who are hosting such meals not to invite the most honorable or respectable, not to invite the coolest, or the wealthy, to not even invite the people we like the most, but rather to turn the tables up-side down and invite the poor and the lame. The forgotten. The people who are a burden. The people who are of no social benefit.

This is God’s dream for the world. God’s dream for the world is for no one to be placed above anyone else. For us not to be valued on what we have to offer but to be valued for who we already are: children of God. But truth be told, that is so much easier said than done. Especially when you are headed back to school.

Which is why I am always so glad when we get the chance to gather at this meal table here. Because here there is no place of honor. Because you see, the host of this table is not me or those serving communion. The host of this table is Jesus. And that is exactly what Jesus does when he hosts a banquet. He invites the poor, the blind, the lame. People like you and me. People who get caught up in measuring ourselves against others and seeking higher and higher status over others. People who, in the end, cannot in any way pay Jesus back for the unconditional grace and love that he gives.

For not only is this the place where we receive God’s grace, it is also the place where we practice living it out.  This is not a bus seat or a lunch table where only some are welcome. This is a table where all are welcome. A table where we don’t get to pick who we sit by and who we don’t. This isn’t a table where we get to decide who is worthy of more or less. But rather this is a place where we all come with hands stretched out like beggars looking for a morsel of God’s grace that given freely and with no strings attached to us all. And it’s only when we’ve witnessed and participated in and practiced such grace that we then can have the courage and the assurance to live out God’s grace in the rest of our lives.

So I leave you with an invitation.

  • When you are at school or at work, what would it be like to invite someone who seems always to be alone to sit with your group?
  • What would it be like to reach out to someone who is very different from you?
  • What would it be like to give up your seat on the bus to someone who got on late?
  • What would it be like to post on Facebook something kind about someone who rarely gets noticed?
  • What would it be like to sit next to someone you’ve never sat next to in church next week?

As I said, this won’t come easy. But when you do it, the kingdom of God, God’s dream for this world, comes true. Thanks be to God. AMEN.