Sunday, March 23rd, 2014 – Sermon on John 4:3-42

John 4:3-42

3Jesus left Judea and started back to Galilee.4But he had to go through Samaria. 5 So he came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. 6 Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon. 7 A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” 8 (His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) 9 The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.) 10 Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, “Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” 11 The woman said to him, “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? 12 Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?” 13 Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, 14 but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” 15 The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.” 16 Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come back.” 17 The woman answered him, “I have no husband.” Jesus said to her, “You are right in saying, “I have no husband’; 18 for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!” 19 The woman said to him, “Sir, I see that you are a prophet. 20 Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.” 21 Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. 22 You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. 23 But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. 24 God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” 25 The woman said to him, “I know that Messiah is coming” (who is called Christ). “When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.” 26 Jesus said to her, “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.” 27 Just then his disciples came. They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman, but no one said, “What do you want?” or, “Why are you speaking with her?” 28 Then the woman left her water jar and went back to the city. She said to the people, 29 “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” 30 They left the city and were on their way to him. 31 Meanwhile the disciples were urging him, “Rabbi, eat something.” 32 But he said to them, “I have food to eat that you do not know about.” 33 So the disciples said to one another, “Surely no one has brought him something to eat?” 34 Jesus said to them, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work. 35 Do you not say, “Four months more, then comes the harvest’? But I tell you, look around you, and see how the fields are ripe for harvesting. 36 The reaper is already receiving wages and is gathering fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together. 37 For here the saying holds true, “One sows and another reaps.’ 38 I sent you to reap that for which you did not labor. Others have labored, and you have entered into their labor.” 39 Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, “He told me everything I have ever done.” 40 So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them; and he stayed there two days. 41 And many more believed because of his word. 42 They said to the woman, “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Savior of the world.”

 

I recently heard the story of a man who was raised in a small Presbyterian church in the farm country outside the city of Atlanta. When you drew out the family map of everyone who worshiped there, there was only about 5 different families really. They were called a congregation, but they were more so a clan or a tribe. One day, something rather remarkable happened in worship. In the middle of the worship service, the door of the church opened and a man no one had ever seen entered the sanctuary. He moved up the aisle, staring at everyone. The people stared at him and he stared back. Who was this guy? What did he want? Their church was located near the railroad tracks, and back then, it wasn’t unusual for vagrants to ride on the rods underneath the boxcars. Maybe this man had come on the train. They were also near a highway, so maybe he had hitchhiked. Who was this guy, what did he want?

But they never found out. Something alarming crossed his face and his dashed back down the aisle of the church and out the door and they never saw him again. But for weeks after that, the grownups in the congregation, after every service, would gather under the oaks trees in the church yard and talk about what had happened. They finally arrived at a Georgia Red-Clay Farmers theological consensus. It was not that divine worship had been invaded by a vagrant. But rather that Jesus had come to them in a stranger and they did not recognize him. They had not responded with the hospitality of Christ. After that, this event entered into the story of that congregation and began to define their congregational life.

What none of them knew was that this very situation had already been raised in a church document written 1500 years earlier. It said, What would you do, O Church, if you were gathered for worship and were at the Lord’s table and a stranger enters your assembly and there is not enough food and there is not enough room at the table? What would you do? Answer: You, O (pastor), sit on the floor, that there might be room for the stranger. The logic was that we ourselves were once strangers and God in Jesus welcomed us. Therefore, we should do the same.[1] That congregation began to understand that event as God shattering their understanding of the call of Jesus and transforming them into a community more open and hospitable.

Sometimes Jesus Christ comes to us in the stranger. But not only does Jesus come as the stranger, Jesus comes to welcome the stranger.

We are given witness to this in our gospel story for today. Did you notice that the woman in the story didn’t recognize Jesus right away. Jesus is sitting on the lip of Jacob’s well when she arrives to get some water, and when Jesus asks her for a drink, she does not drop her bucket in astonishment that she is standing in the presence of God, but rather she first notices that which divides them. His complexion, his accent, his gender. “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” The first thing she notices is that he is a stranger. He is not like her. He is a Jew; she is a Samaritan. You see, Jews and Samaritans do not get along. And the primary reason is they disagree on where to worship. Jews said you must worship God in Jerusalem; Samaritans said you must worship God on a mountain. And so for that very reason, Jew and Samaritans were not to interact. But that’s not the only difference between Jesus and this Samaritan by the well. He is male; she is female. Another cultural barrier between them. So often, that is the first thing we notice in people. Our differences. Are you one of us or are you not one of us? Are you part of our clan or did you ride in on the train? And that is who Jesus is to this woman. A stranger. An outsider. He comes as the tired, and thirsty somebody, who is in need. It takes the entire conversation before this woman even begins to wonder, “He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” Jesus comes to this woman like the stranger who entered that rural church, and just like that congregation, it took time and conversation before she realized that perhaps it was Jesus who was standing in front of her.

When you ask a group of people who they would want to meet if they could meet anyone in the world, dead or alive, someone will inevitably say Jesus. But today’s story begs the question of whether we would recognize him if that wish came true.

It is a scary and challenging thought, because one of first things we learn about Jesus in our gospel story today is that Jesus can come to us in the stranger. Sometimes, it is hard to see Jesus in your life. It takes time to recognize the presence of Christ. It takes conversation. For some people I know, that conversation is life long. So if you have a child or a spouse or a family member who struggles with Jesus, support them in that rather than condemn them. Because it can take time, the gospel of John says.

But this isn’t the only thing we learn. What also become apparent in our reading is that Jesus comes to welcome the stranger. Notice what it says at the very beginning of our gospel. It said, 3Jesus left Judea and started back to Galilee.4But he had to go through Samaria. But here is the thing, in order to get to Galilee, Jesus did not have to go through Samaria. There is no geographical reason why he would have had to go there. Sure, it was the quickest and shortest way, but most Jews went around Samaria because, well, they hated each other. So it wasn’t a geographical reason for why Jesus had to go through Samaria, but rather it was a theological reason. John is trying to say something about God. God enters into all places. All territories. Even the ones we would rather not enter.

And when Jesus this enemy territory, he encounters a woman who is very familiar with being on the outside. She is the on the outside of the outsiders. We first notice that she doesn’t even have a name. She is the woman with no name. And she is a Samaritan woman. Therefore she is known only by what she is – a foreigner and a woman. And it is this woman whom comes to the well at noon, the hottest time of day, when no one else is likely around. Which tells us she is a lonely somebody. She either doesn’t know many people or she has been cast out of her primary circle of people. She is the woman the rest of the town is talking about. And over the years, Biblical interpreters have done a disservice to this woman because they have assumed she was a prostitute. That she was a promiscuous woman, who had gone through five husbands and now is with another man who is not even her husband.

But the text doesn’t say that. The text mentions nothing of her being sinful or immoral. But rather, it is more likely that this is a nameless woman who has been chewed up and spit out of the mouth of a social system that gives little respect and authority to women. It is more likely that this woman was divorced five times, abandoned five times, widowed five times, or a combination of all three. And now she is dependent on another for survival. We don’t’ know. But this isn’t a scandalous story. It is a tragic one.

And when Jesus calls out this woman’s past – her five husbands and the man she is now living with, he doesn’t do it in order to shame her, but rather to say, “I know you. I know who you are. I know what you’ve been through.” The rejection, the loss, the vulnerability and instability. He sees her for who she really is and he knows her. Jesus says, “I know you, but I know you without condemnation. Without judgment. I know you with mercy and grace and compassion.” Jesus has come as the stranger to welcome the stranger.

Jesus had to go through Samaria, to this stranger. Why? Because of John 3:16 – For God so loved the world. Jesus comes as a stranger for the stranger because Jesus is the savior of the world. And notice that at the end of the story, that is exactly what the Samaritans proclaim. Jesus as the savior of the world. They do not say Jesus is my personal Lord and Savior. Or even our savior. But rather, Jesus is the savior of the world.

This is the only time the word savior is used in the gospel of John. And it is on the lips of the outsider. The stranger. Can we proclaim Jesus not as our savior, as if we own him. As if he is privatized to us? But that Jesus belongs to the world.

As some of you may know, this past week, Fred Phelps died. Fred Phelps was the founding pastor of the Westboro Baptist Church. This is the church that has been known to protest the funeral of fallen soldiers because they believe God has killed these American soldiers as punishment for America’s views on abortion and homosexuality. In fact, they even threatened to protest the funeral of Caleb Erickson, last week over in Waseca. Few people have a good word to say about this church. As news leaked out that Fred Phelps was in the dying process, the headline on CNN’s website said, “Most Hated Man in America Nears Death.” And there was a debate going on – ought people to protest his funeral? Give him a taste of his own medicine? One group had another idea. When the Westboro Baptist Church protested at a music concert in Kansas this weekend, a counter-protest group showed up with a sign that read, “We’re sorry for your loss.” Those counter-protestors give witness to the promise that Jesus is the Savior not just of me or of you, but of the world. Jesus comes as the stranger for the stranger. Even Fred Phelps.

Finally, it is significant that Jesus and this woman meet around a water well. A place where the whole community gathers. The whole community needs water and everyone needs the water well. We don’t have many places like that any more. Most of us have our own water sources in our homes. If I need a book, I don’t even have to go to a bookstore, I can just go online. There are few places where we need to gather anymore as a community. And I find it interesting that as our lives become more and more privatized, where we aren’t depend upon each other anymore, church attendance declines. I think it is because it is harder and harder to believe in God when we spend less and less time together. As some of you know, one of our goals this year is for us to get to know each other better. And the reason is because the more we know each other. Really know each other, the easier it will be to recognize the face of God in one another.

Jesus comes as the stranger for the stranger, so that we might no longer be strangers. And so if you want that wish to come true, if you want to meet Jesus, you can. He’s wherever the community gathers together. You will find him there. In the stranger. It may take some time. Some conversation with the people there, but that is where he will be. AMEN

 

[1] Tom Long, sermon preached at Luther Seminary, October 9th, 2013.

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Sunday, March 9th, 2013 – Sermon on Adam and Eve

Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7
15 The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it. 16 And the Lord God commanded the man, “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; 17 but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.” 

1 Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God say, “You shall not eat from any tree in the garden’?” 2 The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; 3 but God said, “You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die.’ ” 4 But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not die; 5 for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” 6 So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate. 7 Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves.

Before I begin, I would like to read just a couple more lines of the text from Genesis this morning. After Adam and Eve at the fruit and discovered their nakedness, the story reads, “They heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden. 9But the Lord God called to the man, and said to him, “Where are you?” And then a few verses later…20The man named his wife Eve, because she was the mother of all living. 21And the Lord God made garments of skins for the man and for his wife, and clothed them.

I heard a story this week about a child who went to school in a classroom where color-coded sticks were given based on good behavior verses poor behavior. If you were attentive and listening, you would get a stick coded for good behavior. But if you were rowdy or disruptive, you would get a stick coded for bad behavior. This particular child was a bit shy and quiet and was rarely one to be disruptive in class. Every once in a while, however, there would be a day (perhaps it was a full moon) when just the right number of kids in the class would be out of sorts, that it tipped the teachers patience over the edge, and the teacher would give the entire class room a stick coded for bad behavior. Every single one of them.

Now, there is a good lesson here. It reminds us that the actions of some can have an impact on the entire community. Just a handful of kids can misbehave enough such that the entire classroom is punished. But when you think about this young, quiet, shy child, there is part of you that wants to cry out – “But that’s not fair! This kid wasn’t misbehaving! Why should he be punished!?”

Sometimes, I think this is how we feel about the story of Adam and Eve and original sin. Most of us have been taught that we are sinful because Eve ate the fruit in the garden. That like a domino affect, or a sexually transmitted disease, or a genetic disorder, Eve’s original sin of not obeying God gets passed down to the rest of us from generation to generation to generation and as a result we all have to suffer through the effects of a sinful world. Every single one of us. And sometimes it seems appropriate to cry out, “But that’s not very fair! Why is it that just because Eve ate some fruit, the rest of us have to suffer through a life of sinfulness? Why should we be punished? Just because Eve ate the apple doesn’t mean I would.”

It does make a pretty good excuse though for anytime you screw up. Uhh…yeah, sorry I did that, but you know…original sin. Not my fault. Talk to Eve.

But is this what this story is about? Is this story about the first sin, which came from Eve, that then spoiled the rest of creation for the rest of time? Is that really what this is about. Some people would have you believe so, but it seems to me that this story has been misinterpreted for a long time now.

Far too often it has been interpreted as “The woman is to blame.” Too often this text has implied that the woman is the weaker sex and more easily tempted by the snake. And the woman has been viewed as the temptress – the one who lures innocent men astray. Imagine for a moment commercials and ads that are geared toward men – let’s say beer and motorcycles. More often than not they involve a woman that is enticing the man into buying the product. Recently, I saw in a men’s bathroom a motorcycle ad with a woman in a bikini sitting on it. I’m not sure what purpose a bikini clad woman has in selling a motorcycle, other than to be used as the temptress and I think it comes back from a misinterpretation of this text. You see, in Genesis chapter 2 and 3, Adam and Eve are viewed as equals. They are connected to each other – they are bone from bone, flesh from flesh. We forget that Adam is there the entire time and Adam eats of the fruit as well, without any tempting language from Eve. “They are also equal in responsibility and judgment, in shame and guilt, in redemption and grace. What the text says about the woman is also said about the man. Both hide from God, and both are punished.”[1] Whatever fault Eve might hold, Adam carries as well.

Another misunderstanding you hear quite often is that the snake is Satan or the devil. There is no mention of this in the story. And notice how Eve shows no fear toward the snake. It just seems to be part of the normal created order. In fact, if we can recall, the snake was just created by God and named by Adam in the previous chapter. And through the creation stories, all that God has made is declared good. So we could presume that the snake is also part of God’s good creation. It is also worth noting that the snake does not use any tempting language either. The snake simply gives the possibilities that are available. You can eat of the tree, the snake says. You won’t die. It is simply the option of choice the snake offers.

God has created a world of choices. A world of possibilities “in which alternatives to the will of God are available. The humans live in a world where choices count and the relationship with God is not a programmed affair.”[2] What we do is not predetermined. The snake is simply the one who points out the possibilities that exist within God’s world. There is no arm-twisting, no enticing by presenting the fruit in a seductive way.

Finally, the third common misunderstanding is the idea of original sin. Original sin is the idea that our flawed nature as humanity is inherited by the first parents of humanity. The idea that everything that is wrong with humanity – our brokenness, our faults and failures, our pain and suffering – can be traced like a genealogy all the way back to Adam and Eve. But first off, we should note that the word sin isn’t even mentioned in the story. Secondly, suffering doesn’t begin after Adam and Eve at the fruit. It was present beforehand.

Do you remember the punishment that God gives Adam and Eve for eating of the fruit? God increases the pain in giving birth. Which means we can presume that even before they ate the fruit, child-birth would be painful.  Which means pain and suffering was a possibility in the garden of Eden. And the man, who was given responsibility over the earth, tending to it and caring for it – God makes that more difficult too. Presumably tilling and tending the earth, even the Garden of Eden, would involve some blood, sweat, and tears. Pain and suffering are part of the paradise known as Eden, even before Adam and Eve eat the fruit.[3]

So if all of this is true. If these misinterpretations are common, how might we reclaim this story of Adam and Eve? Is there another way to understand it that doesn’t devalue and put all the blame on the woman? Is there another understanding that is truer to the text? Preacher Tom Long thinks so.

He says, “Instead of seeing … the sin of Adam (and Eve) as somehow causal of all subsequent human destruction, today most Christian theologians view the story of our first parents as myth.” Not in the sense that it isn’t true, but in the sense that it is our sacred story that is “descriptive of the human condition. We are all Adam and Eve. Like them, all of us are created in freedom. Like them, all of us choose to use our freedom in disobedience to God. We are free to choose the wise, the joyful, the true — and sometimes, of course, we do — but sometimes we don’t. Theoretically, we could always choose the good, but – and here’s the mystery – experientially we don’t. (So often we choose ourselves over what we know God would want.)

“We sin not because Adam and Eve did something eons ago that infects us; instead, the story of Adam and Eve is constantly repeated, reverberating throughout the human saga. We are all (Adam and Eve), each human life is a recapitulation of the Genesis story, a tragic tale of human beings who, in freedom choose nevertheless to infect ourselves and others with sin. The Adam and Eve story is not so much about the way sin got started; rather it is more about what the celebrated television news anchor Walter Cronkite said at the close of each newscast: “And that’s the way it is….”

Christian theologian and pastor Carlyle Marney was once asked by a student where the exact location was of the Garden of Eden. “215 Elm Street, Knoxville, Tennessee,” Marney answered. The student was shocked and scoffed at Marney, saying that everybody knew that the Garden of Eden had to be somewhere in Asia. “Well, you couldn’t prove it by me,” Marney said, “For there, on Elm Street, when I was but a boy, I stole a quarter out of my Mama’s purse and went down to the store and bought me some candy and I ate it and then I was so ashamed that I came back and hid in the closet. It was there that she found me and asked, ‘Where are you? Why are you hiding? What have you done?’” ”[4]

We are all Adam and Eve. This is our story. It tells the truth about who we are. We too often do not trust in who God has made us to be. We too often think we need to be more. We think we need to be like God. And we can mess things us pretty well along the way. This is a story about who we are. We are all Adam and Eve. But it is also a story about who God is. Because, you see, when humanity fails to live up to it’s God-given identity as children of God. When we fail to believe that we and all people are made in the image of God, and when we are tempted to run and hide in the closet because of it, God doesn’t strike us down with a sword of judgment. No, God comes to find us in our hiding place, asking, “Where are you?”, longing to be near us once again. And when we look down, only to see our naked selves, embarrassed and ashamed, God knits together some clothes and wraps them around our fragile and flawed bodies.

The grace of God abounds amidst the messiness of the human condition. Throughout our continued ways that draw us away from God, away from others, away from a love grounded in love, in this story, our story, (we) see a powerful witness of a God who will stop at nothing to remain in relationship with God’s beloved creatures.[5] AMEN.

[1] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1978

[2] Terence Fretheim – http://wordandworld.luthersem.edu/content/pdfs/14-2_Genesis/14-2_Fretheim.pdf

[3] Fretheim, New Interpreter’s Bible: Genesis, pg. 366.

[4] Tom Long, http://cslr.law.emory.edu/fileadmin/media/PDFs/Journal_Articles_and_Book_Chapters/Long_-_Fearful_Before_God.pdf

[5] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1978

Ash Wednesday 2014 – Sermon on Matthew 6:1-6,16-21

Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

1 “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven. 2 “So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 3 But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4 so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. 5 “And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 6 But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. 16 “And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 17 But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 18 so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. 19 “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; 20 but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

Welcome to Ash Wednesday. It is that strange and foreign night where we sit in the dark and talk about death. Where we will be marked with a cross of ashes in the very same place a cross of water was marked just weeks ago. The marking of ashes on our foreheads is not Catholic. It is human. The most human truth we can speak – we are dust. And to dust we shall return. It’s speak of our inevitable death. As the one doing the marking, it can feel like giving a death sentence. Old and young. Every one gets the same stamp on their forehead. The children are the hardest. Which is to be expected, I guess.

Needless to say, it’s kind of a downer of a night. But it also has been called the most honest night of the church year. Because it speaks of the reality of death, which we so often don’t want to speak about.

I’ve been reading a lot about death recently. In particular, I have been reading a lot about funerals. How throughout history humanity has cared for its dead. No reason in particular. I guess there is something about death and dying that has always intrigued me. Not so much in an intellectual, cold-hearted kind of way, but in a deeply visceral, bodily kind of way.

I’ve also been reading a lot about loss and grief. In particular, I’ve been reading memoirs of fathers whose sons have died. One was of a father who lost a son at 4-months to a debilitating birth-defect. Another – a father who lost a 30 year-old son to cancer. I’m clearly living out my greatest fear through literature. Lauren thinks I’m a little crazy.

But there is a common thread throughout all I have read. How undoubtedly important the body is. To those who have loved them. But also to the community in which they lived. Throughout human history, “no human society has ever dealt with their dead as if taking out the trash. Every human society has always recognized this as a sacred task. It is in our human DNA.”[1] Deep in our bones we know that there is something sacred about the human body.

Bodies matter.  Our flesh and bones, so vulnerable and broken, young and old – they matter.  They connect us.  They bind us together.  I don’t think it’s a mistake or a coincidence that God chose to send his son in human skin, in a body that could be broken. In a body that could die. This is why I think it is so important that we bless each other. That we lay hands in blessing upon those leaving us or those in need of prayer. It is one thing to hear blessing and prayer; it is something entirely different to feel it with your body. Deep in our bones we know that there is something sacred about the human body.

I’ll be honest, I don’t know what happens when you die. I don’t know. Does our Spirit escape and go to heaven? I don’t know. Does it stay with the body until the end of days when we all will experience a resurrection like Jesus’? I don’t know. But deep in me, I have this burning of truth that our bodies are more than simply a shell for our soul. More than a vessel that gets us from here to there. Our bodies are inseparable to who we are as children of God made in the image of God.

When we hear those spoken words, remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return, they echo part of our funeral rite. At the graveside, just before the casket is dropped into the ground, the pastor utters the words, “Dust to dust, ashes to ashes.”

Dust to dust. It’s a frightening thing to hear. But it is also quite beautiful. In the story of creation, dust is what God sinks God’s thick fingers into. Dust is what God breaths the spirit of God into. And as a result, creates human kind. You. In God’s very own image.

Us and our bodies – it all may be dust. But there is something sacred about this God-breathed dust.

From time to time, people’s cremated remains are left unclaimed at the funeral home. No one comes to pick them up. Funeral director Thomas Lynch realized that his funeral home had accumulated several dozen boxes of ashes. They sent out letters and made phone calls. Cousins and step-children, widows long since remarried started coming out of the woodwork to claim their loved ones. One person in particular stood out. It was an elderly woman who came to claim the ashes of her younger sister. When she left the funeral home carrying her sister’s ashes to the car, she first went around to the trunk and opened it up. But then she paused. And then closed it up. She went to the back door of the blue sedan, but then closed that up too. She finally walked to the front passenger seat and carefully placed the box there. She paused again for a moment before finally putting the seatbelt around the box, getting into the car, and driving away.[2] There is something inherently valued and respected about the body. About dust. We know it deep in our dusty bones.

A couple of weeks after 9/11, a Port Authority policeman was interviewed on the radio. As he spoke, one could hear the groaning of dump trucks in the background, the hissing and popping of cutting torches turned on steel. Thirty of his friends had died in the attacks, the policeman explained, which was why he could not stay away from the site. When the reporter asked him to describe the scene for those who were listening, he talked about the relief workers who were sifting through the powdered debris on the ground, carrying two handfuls at a time over to a tarp where they searched through it for anything recognizably human. What struck him most, the policeman said, was their utter reverence for what they carried in their hands. “It’s nothing but ashes,” he said, “and yet you should see how they touch it.”[3] There is something inherently valued and respected about the body. About dust. We know it deep in our dusty bones.

Our gospel for tonight, at first, seemed a little out of place. I didn’t know what to do with all of the concern about how we pray, fast, and give money. But then I realized that it asks us to turn our attention to God. To pray and to fast and to give with our focus turned toward God. And that is often what the season of Lent is about. Turning, or returning, our attention to God. And here is the thing, God is always, always, always turning God’s attention toward the world. God so loves this world that God would die for this world. And so in Lent, we turn our attention to God and God turns God’s attention to the world. So when we turn toward God, we turn to the world that God loves so much. Not to impress, but to love as well. To fall in love with the world. To believe and trust that God is hidden within the world. That all of the people here tonight were made in the image of God. And to have faith that in the face of family and friends and strangers, in that face is hidden the image of God. It is there. That is the promise. Now your job is to go and find it. To search and to search until we see the face of God in one another.

The good news of today is not about the weakness and limitedness of our flesh so much as it is about the holiness of ashes. It was God who decided to breathe on them, after all, God who chose to bring them to life. We are certainly dust and to dust we shall return, but our bodies, these dust particles held together by the gluey breathe of God, are how we get around. Our bodies are how lovers embrace and how friends play. Our bodies are how we sense pleasure and pain, love and loss. It is the back of my son’s body that I rub each night to sleep, and it is the hand of one lay dying that I hold to comfort and connect. Our bodies are how we recognize each other. And they are how God gets to us, how God reaches us, at the most intimate and universal level of all people. [4]

Bodies frighten us too, of course—not only when they are sick or dirty but also when they are passionate or demanding—which may be why we are so often tempted to think of ourselves as essential spirits instead. Our bodies are so much more than simply vessels for the spirit. Our bodies are not like a glass jar that contains water, but are more like flour and water mixed together into a doughy mess, that, when breathed into by the warm breath of God, rises to life.

As believers in the Word made flesh are called to resist the temptation that we are just spirits, even as we have ashes pressed into our foreheads. Those ashes are not curses. And while that may sound like a death sentence – it is. But it is also a blessing. A blessing that announces God’s undying love of dust no matter what kind of shape it is in.[5] AMEN


[1] Thomas Long, speaking at Luther Seminary, October 5, 2010.

[2] Thomas Lynch, The Undertaking.

[3] Barbara Brown Taylor, “Dust to Dust,” Christian Century, March 27, 2002.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

Sunday, February 23rd, 2014 – The Longest Sermon I Have Preached (which is on Matthew 5:38-48)

Matthew 5:38-48

38 “You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 39 But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; 40 and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; 41 and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. 42 Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you. 43 “You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. 46 For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 47 And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

We have arrived at our last Sunday on the Sermon on the Mount. And this sermon is like Jesus’ textbook on how to bring heaven to earth. You see as Christians, so often we think that the goal of Christianity is to get to heaven, but really Jesus’ goal for us is not for us to go to heaven, but for us to bring heaven down to earth. We pray this every Sunday in the Lord’s Prayer – thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it already is in heaven. So this isn’t about you being a good person and getting your reward. It is about you partnering with God to bring heaven to earth for the sake of all of creation. For the sake of a better world.  So this is Jesus’ handbook on how to bring heaven to earth.

And Jesus is smart because he knows that before you tells people what to do, it is important that you tell them who they are. The first thing that needs to happen for heaven to come to earth is for all people to know that they are blessed and beloved children of God. Especially those who so often never hear that they are blessed. Blessed are the poor in spirit. Blessed are the gentle, those who mourn, and those who are persecuted. And then Jesus gives the people their identity. He says, “You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world.” He says, you are crucial for the flourishing of this world. The world needs you. The world needs your light. The world needs the flavoring you bring to this life. It is a lovely thing to know that you are needed. It says you are important. It says that you matter to this world and to God.

So that is what Jesus says is the first part of bringing heaven to earth – the people have to know who they are. They have to have their identity. And then Jesus tells them what they need to do to live into that identity. If you think about it, you start to see how backwards this is to our way of life. When I was in high school, in order to get on the varsity soccer team, you had to work your tail off, spend a couple of years on B squad and JV, and then, if you were skilled enough, you got to be on varsity. Here, Jesus is saying, “You are already on the team. You are already on varsity. It’s who you are. It won’t change. Now, let’s go and give you the skills you need for the team to function well together.”

So that is what Jesus says is the first part of bringing heaven to earth – the people have to know who they are. And then Jesus says that if that is who you are – blessed and beloved, salt and light – then we are going to have to live our lives differently. So that others can know themselves as blessed and beloved. So that humanity and creation, as a team, can function well together.

So now we are talking about God’s law. How is it that God asks us to live in order that heaven might come to earth. Remember, Jesus has climbed up a mountain, and, like a new Moses, he begins teaching about God’s law. He is taking the laws from the Old Testament and he is reinterpreting them for his time and place. He is not getting rid of the old law; he is getting to the heart of the God’s law. He takes God’s law and he expands it to include the original purpose of the law. Last week, Jesus took the law of you shall not kill and he expanded it by saying, “Yes, let’s not kill, but let’s also not our anger get in the way of our relationships. Let’s be a community that reconciles our differences, not one that holds grudges. Because it can ruin our relationships.” Jesus takes the law against adultery and he expands it by saying, “Yes let’s not be unfaithful to our spouses, but let’s also not view others as sex objects. It dehumanizes and devalues the other.” So hopefully, we’ve come to see that the central purpose of God’s law is for life to abound. For life to flourish on this earth for all people and creation. And so Jesus says that heaven comes to earth when we seek to choose that which gives and brings life to all people, rather choosing that which drains life and harms relationships.

And now today’s text. In today’s text, Jesus takes two Old Testament laws and he expands them so that they make room for more life within them. The first Old Testament law Jesus takes up is “an eye for an eye.” We’ve heard this one before. Now, most of us think of this as permission to retaliate. Permission to get even. But the original purpose of this law was to limit how you could respond to someone who had done you harm. This was a compassionate law, because it meant you can’t do more harm than the harm done to you. You can’t kill someone for stealing your car. So that is the law. Now watch as Jesus expands it. We hear Jesus’ famous teachings: do not even resist an evil doer. If they strike you on the right cheek, turn the other cheek. If they take your coat, give your cloak too. If they force you to go one mile, go a second.”

Now, we have to be careful here, because these teachings are ripe for misunderstanding. I fear that too many women have stayed in unhealthy and abusive relationships because of this text. That people think Jesus is saying if your spouse hits you, you should simply take it and let them hit the other cheek too.

Let me be very clear: these texts are not about you being a doormat for someone else to walk on. This is not about passively taking a beating because it is what you think God wants. This is not about being a victim of abuse and staying a victim of abuse.

This is about non-violent resistance that seeks to love your enemy, rather than retaliate against ones enemy. In order to see this, we need to understand the context. When Jesus says, “Do not resist your enemy,” the greek word there for “resist” is a military word for warefare.[1] Jesus is saying when faced with your enemy, or someone who has done evil to you, do not make war against them. Do not respond in violence, but rather when they strike you on the right cheek, turn the other cheek. Notice that Jesus says when someone strikes you on the right cheek. Back then, people didn’t hit with their left hand because their left hand was used for other unclean tasks. They hit with their right. Now if you turn to someone near you and pretend to strike them with your right hand on their right cheek, what do you notice? It is a backhanded slap. And a backhanded slap is an insult. It implies an imbalance of power. That the two are not equals. The one striking is superior to the other. Now, if the one who has been hit turns the other cheek, it forces them to hit with their fist. Which was a sign of hitting an equal. To turn the other cheek is not to be a doormat or a victim. It is to change the structure of power. It is to make you their equal.

Now, Jesus says if someone wants to sue you and take your coat, then give them your cloak as well. Here is the thing, your cloak was your underwear. So, Jesus is saying, if someone is suing you for everything you have and takes your coat, then strip naked and give them your underwear too. To be naked in Ancient Israel was a shameful thing, but it was shameful to the person who saw the nakedness. To give them your cloak is to show the whole world what the system, what this imbalance of power, is doing to you.

In Jesus’ third example, he says that if someone forces you to walk one mile, go a second mile. Part of Roman law allowed the soldiers to force civilians to carry their gear for them up to one mile. So, if a Roman soldier forces you to carry their gear for a mile, Jesus says to go a second mile. Because it changes the power structure. It either forces them to break the law or it forces them to wrestle their gear back from you.

The Old Testament law allowed for equally violent retaliation, but Jesus expands the law by saying no violent retaliation against those who harm you. Why? Because all people are blessed and beloved by God. Non-violent because Jesus calls us to be peacemakers and Jesus calls us to love our enemies. This is about non-violent resistance to enemies of injustice. So we don’t respond passively by letting ourselves to  be mistreated, but we also don’t respond violently, so as to mistreat them. It is a non-violent resistance that changes the power dynamic for the sake of more life in the world.  Think Ghandi. Think Martin Luther King Jr. We’ve got wonderful models out there of it.

And then, to make the point perfectly clear, Jesus takes up a second Old Testament law. We see this law in our Leviticus text, right at the end: love your neighbor as yourself. And Jesus expands this law to make neighbors include even our enemies. Love your enemies, Jesus says. And pray for them. For Jesus, to love is not about having kind feelings towards another. It is about taking actions that benefits the other. Jesus wants our actions to benefit our enemies, not harm them. Which is why he calls us to non-violent resistance to our enemies. Resistance that prevents them from harming us but does not harm them in return.

Jesus is bringing about an entire revolution regarding the rules of this world. Jesus is saying you can’t kill your enemy. You can’t be violent toward them, no matter how violent they are toward you. Because it only perpetuates the violence. As Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.”

Parents and children get this. Parents will say that two wrongs don’t make a right. Just because someone hit you on the playground doesn’t mean that you can hit them back. But when we get into more adult settings and situations (and often more violent), we seem to change our tune: fair is fair. An eye for an eye. In fact, just this past week, I listened as a person celebrated at the struggle of another person whom had done them harm. “Good!” they said, “Serves them right!”

Friends, if we are going to help bring heaven to earth, Jesus says it is not going to involve violent retaliation. But rather it is going to involve active, radical love that seeks the best for our neighbor, and that includes our enemies. God is concerned about how we treat all people, Jesus says. And this should keep us awake at night, folks.

If bringing about the kingdom of heaven involved expanding our laws to make room for more life and light, I want to bring this closer to home and to suggest just one way in which we might take Jesus’ words seriously this week. Some of you might have seen it in the paper last week, but Janet Simon, Jeanne Pichner’s sister, wrote a letter to the editor about her son, Darrin. Darrin lives with many physical and mental disabilities. And the people who care for him need extensive training in how to care for Darrin and his roommates. They bathe and feed Darrin. They teach him safety and life skills, and they are available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. The problem is that Darrin’s staff have not received a raise in 6 years. And when wages remain low, there is high turnover and lower motivation to do the job well. And then, the people who end up suffering are people like Darrin. We’ve recently learned that there is a similar problem among our elderly population that rely on nursing home care. I have heard stories of some of our beloved mothers, grandmothers, and great-grandmothers, not being well cared for in their care facility. Not being turned enough, resulting in bedsores. They are not receiving care that is life-giving, they are receiving care that is life-draining. And some of us reflected on this in our Bible study group, on why this was happening in our community. They were so gracious and thoughtful about it. Because it would be easy to just blame it on the staff. Saying they’re lazy. Or they have no work ethic. Or they don’t care enough. But, after thinking about it, people said, “Maybe it is because they don’t get paid enough. Or maybe it is because they aren’t receiving the proper training.”

What does it say about us when the people who care for our brothers and sisters, who live with disabilities, haven’t received a raise in 6 years? What does it say when our care facilities staff are not adequately paid for caring for our elderly? What does it say about our values?

So we are invited to expand the law, like Jesus. To use that non-violent resistant power that Jesus calls us to use. Janet Simon invites us to contact our Minnesota Legislator to the 5% Campaign, which would give a 5% raise to her son Darrin’s staff. And I would invite you to reflect on whether an increase to Minnesota’s minimum wage might be how we show our love and support for the elderly in our community.

Jesus says that the kingdom of heaven comes near when we respond peacefully to those who do us harm. And when we seek to love our neighbors as ourselves. Even when that neighbor is our enemy. It won’t be easy. But it is the window for God’s kingdom to come, Jesus says. May we have the courage to do so. Amen.

Sunday, February 16th, 2014 – Sermon on Matthew 5:21-37 and Deuteronomy 30:15-20

Matthew 5:21-37

21 “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, “You shall not murder’; and “whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ 22 But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, “You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire. 23 So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, 24 leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. 25 Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. 26 Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny. 27 “You have heard that it was said, “You shall not commit adultery.’ 28 But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29 If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. 30 And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell. 31 “It was also said, “Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ 32 But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery. 33 “Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, “You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.’ 34 But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, 35 or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. 36 And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. 37 Let your word be “Yes, Yes’ or “No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one.

 

Deuteronomy 30:15-20

15 See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. 16 If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the Lord your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess. 17 But if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, 18 I declare to you today that you shall perish; you shall not live long in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess. 19 I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, 20 loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days, so that you may live in the land that the Lord swore to give to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.

So. We kind of have our work cut out for us today, don’t we? We have some heavy lifting to do. Last week in the sermon on the mount, Jesus says to his disciples, and to us, “You are the salt of the earth, you are the light of the world.” Now, salt and light are necessary for life to flourish on this earth. So for Jesus to say, “You are the salt of the earth, you are the light of the world” is to say, “You are crucial for the flourishing of life. You are the givers of life.” I mean, it is like a Valentine from God. God is saying, “The earth cannot live without you.” If this is true, it means you have power. Remember, we learned in the creation story that God has shared power with creation. With you. What you do matters in this life. And you are partners with God in it.

But then Jesus immediately follows those words up with today’s text. What are we going to do with this reading? With just three simple sayings, Jesus has pretty much cornered all of us. Jesus says, “If you are angry with your brother or your sister, you will be judged. If you men even look at a woman lustfully, you’ve already committed adultery with her in your heart, and therefore you should tear out your eyes.” And then particularly personal one, “Anyone who divorces his wife has caused her to commit adultery. Anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” In the words of one of our congregation members, we all should be tearing out our eyes. We should all be chopping off our limbs. Suddenly, I am not feeling very salty. I’m not feeling like the little night-light that Jesus says I am.

Perhaps it might help for us to pay attention to where Jesus is speaking these hard words. It is the Sermon on the Mount. In Luke, Jesus speaks these famous words on a plain. A flat land. But not in Matthew. In Matthew, he is has climbed a mountain, much like Moses climbed Mount Sinai to get receive the 10 Commandments. And Matthew’s original readers would have thought of just that – Moses. In fact listen to Jesus’ words again, ” You have heard it said you shall not murder…you have heard it said you shall not commit adultery…you shall not swear falsely…” Jesus is referencing the 10 Commandments. While standing on a mountain.

To anyone listening, the connection would be clear – Jesus is like the new Moses. Jesus is delivering a revised edition of the 10 commandments.

So, if Jesus is like a new Moses in the gospel of Matthew, perhaps having a better understanding of Moses will help us to have a better understanding of what Jesus is saying here. And isn’t it convenient that in our Deuteronomy text, Moses is giving his final sermon.

The Israelites are just about to enter the promised land, but Moses can’t go in. It is the end of his road. And he knows that. So these words in Deuteronomy are his final words for his people. It is like there is 10 seconds left in the game, the team has taken their last time out, and this is it. One last chance for him to teach his people. And listen to the words Moses speaks – I have set before you life and death. Choose life.

You’ve seen it in magazines` or on Facebook, things like – 7 steps to Financial Freedom, or 5 steps to a better marriage, or 9 steps to being more productive at work. Well this is Moses’ steps for better decision making. It is a simple one step process – choose life. Choose life. You have two choices before you – choose the one that brings and celebrates life, not the one that drains life. Not the one that brings death. Whatever choice you are making, ask yourself – does this give me life? Or does this seem to take life?

Now, this isn’t morality 101. This isn’t about doing what’s good and doing what’s bad. This is about a way of life. One of my professors in seminary uses this terminology in raising his children. Rather than talking about what is right and what is wrong behavior, they talk about what brings life and brings death. And so, all the time they are talking about what is life-giving and what is life-taking. What brings life and what brings death. Well, one day, his son, Owen, was riding his bike and he fell down and skinned his knee pretty good. When his dad got to him and ask if he was okay, Owen said, “Yeah, but death really got me this time.”

It’s not about morality – being good or bad. It’s about a way of life. Moses says, I’ve set before you life and death. Choose life. This is Moses summary of God’s law: choose life.

So, if Moses summarizes God’s law as choosing life, now lets take this back to Jesus’ words for us today. If Jesus is the new Moses, then perhaps at the heart of Jesus’ words is choosing life. And Jesus does what he always does so well, he expands the law and makes it more personal by making it about our relationships. He is saying, “Yes, you shall not murder, but also tend to your anger. Your anger. Your hurtful words. They’re killing people. They’re ruining your relationships.” He saying, “Don’t live an angry life. Because it is like living a murderous life. It’s like being dead rather than being alive.” Jesus says the same thing about lust.  To be clear, “lust is not the same thing as feeling desire and pleasure in your body. Lust is when desire becomes compulsion. Lust is not the blossoming of love and respect into pleasure and celebration in the human body. Lust is when you would destroy a relationship in order to get (it).[1] So Jesus is saying, “Don’t look at someone as the vehicle to fulfill your own pleasure. Don’t dehumanize them.” And with divorce, in that context, divorce meant terrible, terrible things for the wife and the children. So Jesus made it more difficult for divorce to happen, for the sake of life for all. We live in a different context today. And today, sometimes the best way for life for all to flourish is for there to be a divorce. Please know, I do not think Jesus is condemning modern-day divorce. He is simply asking that our decisions as disciples of Jesus be oriented around what brings about the flourishing of life to our relationships.

Look again at what Jesus says at the beginning of the text. For Jesus, it is more important for you to reconcile your relationship with your brother or your sister than it is for you to go to worship. Jesus is saying that if the offering plate is coming around, and you realize that you have some unresolved issues with any family or friends (and maybe they are sitting right next to you), then you ought to leave worship in order to resolve the issue rather than remain unreconciled. Why else do we pass the peace right before the offering if not to be in loving relationship with one another before we make any offering to God. Your relationship with your brother or your family is directly related to your relationship with God. What Jesus is saying is life flourishes when we strive for reconciliation. We know this. If our relationships, with it is family or friends, is out of sync, a part of us feels dead.

Are you in a life situation that is taking away life? Is it making your life better or is it making it worse? Sometimes we try to live by the law of the land and often the law of the land is – look out for yourself. Get even. If someone hurts you, hurt them back. But that is not God’s law. God’s law is that of loving relationships. God’s law is about choosing that which brings about more and more life in you.

And sometimes choosing life doesn’t mean choosing what is best for your life, but what is best for future lives. Sometimes choosing life means risking your life. That what Jesus did. Jesus risked life for the sake of life. Jesus was killed for loving too much. Jesus chose life by being willing to die for love.

Sometime we have to choose for the sake of future lives. When the Native American tribe from Northwest Wisconsin, called the Ojibwe,  decides to makes any decision, it has been said that they always consider what the impact of the decision will be 7 generations in the future. Wouldn’t it be nice if we all made decisions that ways. It just might be closer to God’s way.

So if we can choose life or death, it means we have a choice. We are partners with God in bring about life in this earth. And it means we can have a pulse and not really be living. Let me say it again, you are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world. And now, if we are going to accept that, to believe that we are indeed salt and light the light of the earth, it will change the way we live our life, for the sake of other people’s lives. You have before you two paths. Choose life. Amen.

Sunday, February 9th, 2014 – Sermon on Matthew 5:13-20

Matthew 5:13-20

13 “You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot. 14 “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. 15 No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven. 17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. 18 For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. 19 Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

We continue today with more of Jesus’ sermon on the mount. It isn’t so much of a sermon as it is a collection of Jesus’ teachings. Matthew is known as Jesus’ teaching Gospel. Jesus is teaching his followers. Now, as our mission theme for this next year is Feeding Minds with the Love of Jesus, it is only appropriate that Jesus and his sermon on the mount be our teacher. Perhaps Jesus’ words can feed our minds in a way that will impact that rest of our year. Last week, we heard Jesus giving the beatitudes and we learned that maybe Jesus wasn’t telling us what we had to do in order to be blessed, but rather Jesus was simply giving a blessing. A blessing in particular, for those who so often don’t seem themselves as blessed. The outcasts. The marginalized. Jesus refers to them as the poor in spirit. The meek. The persecuted. According to the people in our Gospel of Matthew Bible study, today’s marginalized, today’s people who don’t often receive blessing might be the immigrants in our country. Or our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters. Or the homeless. Or perhaps our aging parents and grandparents who aren’t receiving proper care in their nursing homes. Might those groups be where Jesus’ sermon on the mount blessing extends to today?

Well, if Jesus was performing blessing last week, not a lot has changed this week. Our gospel begins with these words, ‘You are the salt of the earth.’ Notice the present tense. You are the salt of the earth. Not you will be or you could be, as long as do enough acts of kindness in your life. It is simply a blessing – you are the salt of the earth. Jesus continues, ‘You are the light of the world.’ You are the light of the world. It’s who you are to God. And Jesus emphasizes this point by talking about salt losing its saltiness or lamp hiding under a basket. Salt can’t lose its saltiness. Or else it is no longer salt. And a lamp can’t hide under a basket, because the flame will go out. What Jesus is saying is that you cannot not be salt and light of the world. It’s who you are. It’s who you will be.

And here’s the thing about salt and light. You don’t need a lot of it for it to have a big impact. A little bit of salt has the power to add flavor to an entire pot of stew. One candle, one little light, can illuminate an entire room. You are part of the way in which God changes the world. Now the trap door in this is that this can lead us to thinking that we better go out and be salt and light of the world, or else…That if we don’t become these things in the world, then God will some how punish us or love us less. And the last line of our gospel doesn’t do us any favors.

For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

Unless you exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. The problem here is that we likely hear this as Jesus talking about what happens to you when you die. But that’s not what the kingdom of heaven means for the Gospel of Matthew. Remember, earlier in Matthew, Jesus (and John the Baptist) proclaims that the kingdom of heaven has come near. That realm of God, that God’s dwelling place has come close to us. That God’s home is right here and all around us. Not some far off place, off in heaven, but here. So when Jesus says, “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven,” he isn’t saying that you won’t go to heaven you pass from this life. What he is saying is you’ll never encounter or experience the fullness of God’s intention for you and for this life. You’ll never encounter God here and now.

When I was in Colorado a couple of weeks ago, people were giving their big idea for the future of Christianity. Kent Dobson, a pastor out in Michigan, gave an idea that has stuck with me. He said, “I think we should leave behind the afterlife for awhile.” He said, “As Christians, let’s act as if there is no afterlife, because then maybe we will make the most of this life.” Let me be clear. He is not saying there isn’t an afterlife. But so often our Christian faith has been so focused on making it into heaven, that everything we do here on this earth becomes simply about that. Trying to be good enough to deserve heaven when we die. Like the big reward at the end of the game. And that can too often lead to one of two things. Either feeling like you can never be good enough, so who cares and why try. Or trying, trying, trying, trying, trying to make yourself worthy of God’s love and acceptance by doing, doing, doing, doing.

When the MOPS (Mothers of Pre-Schoolers) group in Owatonna hosted a pastor from the Cities a couple of months ago, this pastor looked around at the MOPS group and the topics they’ve had in previous months and she said, “It seems like you all are feeling the need to do more. And what I want you to know is that what you are doing as mothers already is enough.” And perhaps that is a message we all need to hear.

You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world. You are the great flavoring agent for this life; you illuminate the room. You already are doing things that care for your neighbor. This isn’t about you leaving here thinking about how awesome you are. “Alright, I am the light of the world. I am going to shine, shine, shine. Watch out world!” But rather to leave here knowing that you are light, you are salt, but that light and salt never exist simply for themselves. They exist for the sake of the other. You exist, you matter for the sake of other people in this world. Your life has an impact on this world. And it’s why the church exists – not for the sake of itself but for the sake of others. And it’s because of Jesus, not because of our big ideas. It’s Jesus who transforms and changes the world. He just happens to use the likes of us!

You are the salt of the earth when you pack your child’s lunch each day. You are the light of the world when you advocate for your elderly loved one’s well-being. You are the salt of the earth when you watch your grandkids so that the parents can have a break. You are the light of the world when you wake up early to heat the church. You are the salt of the earth when you reach out to your gay family member who feels rejected and scared. You are the light of the world when you teach Sunday school. You are the salt of the earth when you faithfully go to work day after day to provide for your family. You are the light of the world when you make fake telephone calls with your niece who is across the room from you. You are the salt of the earth when you sit through your 15th basketball tournament just to support your child or grandchild. You are the light of the world when you bring a bouquet of flowers to a congregation member who broke her hip. You are the salt of the earth… you are the light of the world.

This isn’t about heaven. It’s about who you are. It is about the light and life of God breaking out in visible ways through you. For the sake of your neighbor. Thanks be to God. Amen.