Into the World

October 18, 2020

1 Thessalonians 1:1-10, Matthew 22:15-22

Twelve to Thirteen years ago each of our confirmands were baptized in the church and it was then their parents and sponsors accepted the baptismal promises. As parents, you promised

To live with them among God’s faithful people, bring them to the word of God and the holy supper, teach them the Lord’s Prayer, the Creed, and the Ten Commandments, place in their hands the holy scriptures, and nurture them in faith and prayer, so that your children may learn to trust God, proclaim Christ through word and deed, and care for others and the world God made, and work for justice and peace. (Service of Baptism, ELW)

It is in our baptisms that we are sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever. While I am sure that none of you remember your baptism, I pray that you remember God’s promise made to you that day. In your confirmation, you will affirm your faith and be welcomed as full members of this congregation.

Reading your faith statements, I know your faith has been challenged at times already. As you get older and have more life experiences, you will most likely encounter many more struggles with your faith. May we hear the words of Jesus and the Apostle Paul this morning as reassurance in our faith, we walk with the living God.

Jesus had his fair share of struggles and he held firm, even when trying to be trapped as he was in our gospel lesson. The Pharisees and Herodians wanted to get Jesus to implicate himself and make his followers question his motives. In his response, his answer takes the high ground and tells them to give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and give to God what is God’s. The Pharisees and Herodians were amazed at this response and left without having justification to seize Jesus at that moment.

Our faith leads us to the belief that everything we have is a gift from God, therefore, what is not God’s? The Apostle Paul lives out this faith in his actions and it is his hope to imitate Christ so that the communities he teaches follow his example and ultimately Christ.

Thessalonica appears to be the model community to be following in Paul’s example and the words of Jesus. Now, Thessalonica was along the highway across Macedonia, linking Rome with the Eastern provinces. Therefore, Thessalonica would receive a variety of visitors with many different faith practices. The church that Paul writes to use to worship idols, most likely connect to the Roman Empire. There was a tension between the way of Jesus, lifting him up as the savior and providing the way of peace, versus the Pax Romana and the Emperors which were the supreme benefactors. It was a question of where you find your peace, in the Roman Empire or in God. That same question is still relevant today as we ask ourselves, where do we find our peace, in the promises of God, or in the promises of an empire.

The church of Thessalonica has chosen God. They have experienced the living God in Paul and it is in their imitation that they continue to grow and share in the gospel. His letter to them starts out like many of his other letters, by giving thanks to them. Their faith, love, and hope has been fostered by their work, labor, and steadfastness. They have turned from the idols that once garnered their attention to Jesus Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit.

It is today in your Confirmation that you affirm your faith and can be an imitation of Christ for others to follow. Is it always going to be easy? NO

Jesus knows this and I think Paul knows this as well and thus one of his reasons to writing to the church in Thessalonica. He wants to affirm their faith and give them confidence to continue moving forward in the word of God powered by the Holy Spirit.

There are many roads that are competing for our attention. You will see this soon enough when you start receiving information from colleges that want you to attend. The claims on our faith can work in very much the same manner. You will have events in your life that challenge you. Each of you in your faith statement mentioned death as being the one thing that has challenged your faith thus far. You can succumb to peer pressure that will guide you down the wrong path. And it is easy at any time to slip into a sense of complacency. This pandemic has been a great example of it as we have had six months of worshipping differently and interacting differently with one another. We have to be intentional to stay in the Word of God. While you may have felt isolated, remember the living God is present among us and in us as we live out our faith.

You are now going to go out into the world as full members of this congregation, affirming your faith in the Triune God. You have been empowered through the Holy Spirit to share the good news. With that power, we are invited to imitate Christ by bringing love and beauty through the promise of healing and salvation. A healing and salvation that comes through the Lord Jesus Christ.

Who Are You Inviting?

October 11, 2020

Matthew 22:1-14

It was the summer of 2008 and my family and I had just moved to Columbus, Ohio so that I could start seminary. My first foray into the seminary world was going to be taking a seven-week intensive Biblical Greek course. Before that began, we wanted to get acquainted with our new community we were living and started to explore the area. We noticed that the Lutheran Church down the street from the seminary had a Vacation Bible School that was being held the following week. My son was excited about this and wanted to attend.

Therefore, the week I started my summer Greek class, I walked him down to the church in the morning to get him registered for VBS and my plan was to pick him up after my class was done for the day. When we arrived, there were a lot of people, and as he was a kindergartner, we were instructed to go to a designated area of the church. Once we arrived there and they found out that we had not pre-registered, we were turned away because they were full.

WHAT A WELCOME!

This was not the reception I was expecting. I was left feeling frustrated. He was upset that they would not let him attend. How could a church be so unwelcome? On top of that, a church in the denomination I had been hoping to be ordained as a pastor.  I vowed from that point that I would never let something like that happen in a church that I pastored.

This morning we heard the third parable in Jesus’ response to the chief priests and elders as to whose authority he is performing the miracles they have heard about and even witnessed themselves. This parable of the wedding feast seems just as absurd as last week’s as the tenants kept killing the landowner’s servants. In the parable of the wedding feast, people are killed or kicked out when they do not meet the expectations of the king. Where is God’s grace in this?

We have all been in a place where we have not felt welcomed or it has been clearly pointed out to us that we are in the wrong place. Maybe, we never received the invitation, or it got lost in the mail. Perhaps you can even think of times when you have done this to other people. Usually not some of our prouder moments. We find that we are more comfortable when we stay in our cliques where we know what to expect. When people do not look like us, we fail to invite them. This reflects our human brokenness and tendency to be afraid of those things that we do not understand.

I was proud of my last congregation as they made difficult decisions to become an ally of the LGBTQ community. It required transformation and a change of heart for some. I thought we were all good and put “All Are Welcome” on our church sign. It was not until we had a gentleman from India show up for worship that I realized the congregation still had some transformation to partake. His skin was brown, and his English was difficult to understand at times. Therefore, people found comfort in having coffee at their tables and not inviting him to join. It took a couple stepping out of their comfort zone to ask him to sit down and even invite him to our weekly bible study.

When we say, “All Are Welcome,” do we truly mean it? Do we withhold our judgements of others? Do we keep an open mind?

When I read the parable of the wedding feast, I hear an open invitation for all. Yes, those that think they are too busy or would rather do this or that, refuse the invitation. One man that does say yes to the invitation is found not wearing the proper wedding attire and is thrown out into the darkness.

A lot of times, we read these parables as allegory where God usually takes place as the king. If that is the case, it is hard to justify following this God. The king does not seem to have little grace and love in him. Jesus wants us to wrestle with his parables so that we can begin to understand our own thoughts and actions. Remember, these parables are not true stories, they are used to make a point. It is in the conclusion that Jesus states “many are called, but few are chosen.”

I believe that we are all called to join Jesus at the feast, and we are given the opportunity to receive the invitation with an open heart and mind. Not only that, God invites us to put on the wedding garment which can represent the righteousness of a life lived in Christ.

I am not sure if we were judged when we tried to go to the VBS because they didn’t know us, but I know that it did not feel welcoming. The truth is that judgement happens every day. More often than not, it is us doing the judging. I believe that what God judges us on is the love and kindness we share with humanity. I am fine by being judged by the gospel of love which invites all to the wedding feast. I desire to sit at the table with the good and the bad, the old and the young, people of every color and people of every language. For I believe that those are the best dinner parties. Who are you inviting?

What is Your Cornerstone?

October 4, 2020

Matthew 21:33-46

What texts to be given as we return to worship in the sanctuary for the first time since March. The last time that we were gathered in this Sanctuary, we were in the middle of Lent and since then we have said goodbye to winter, spring, and now summer. For me, these seasons have blended together as it has been a very odd time, with the end still not in sight.

The one thing that I could count on with the changing of the seasons, was the return of the yardwork that needed to be accomplished around the parsonage. I would love to say that I am one with the earth when it comes to enjoying this type of work, however, I would have to repent of my lie. My in-laws live in a condo association and all their yardwork is completed by a hired company. Now, this is my type of yardwork. Simply put, I do not have the patience and would rather be working on other tasks. Don’t get me wrong, I’ll do the work, because it needs to be done, but it is not something I roll out of bed thinking about in the morning with joy. Gardening is a similar story. Give me a tomato plant in a pot, and that is more my speed.

We have two lessons today that speak of vineyards that require attention. First, in the text from Isaiah, we hear of a farmer that plants a field hoping to produce a bounty of grapes. Yet, his efforts have little to show for when the grapes turn out to be wild. This is a metaphor for the people of Israel as God had already sent several people to set them straight and they still yielded wild grapes. God continued to stand by the people, loving them and speaking through many prophets so that God’s Word would be heard.

Again, in our gospel lesson, Jesus shares another parable, also having to do with a vineyard. This is the second of three parables that Jesus uses to address the question of, “Whose authority is he doing these things?” The Chief Priests and elders are threatened by Jesus healing those that are sick and preaching a gospel of love and inclusion. This is an upsetting parable, resulting in the Son being killed.

This is a story of selfishness and greed. When the tenants think that they can do better on their own they block the landowner out and either kickout or kill anyone that is associated with the landowner.

Does the story of the son sound familiar to you? Jesus is making his way to the cross and knows that he too will suffer and die a death in the most unimaginable way. Yet, it is in his death and ultimately in his resurrection that we begin our own story. They think that they know better and that all the fruit they are producing is theirs to keep.

Ultimately, what both stories are attempting to address is a refusal to embrace accountability and an arrogant disregard for divine authority. The Israelites and the temple authorities have each turned away from God and placed something else as their cornerstone. They regard their own selfish ambitions as more important. This is sin. Sin is not simply an action, but also an attitude of selfishness that rises above everything else. We fail to learn from these stories of our ancestors and have fallen to the same sins ourselves. At times, the fruit that we produce can be wild grapes and at other times an abundant harvest. Fortunately, for us, the grace of God is also abundant with patience.

Thus, Jesus is the starting point. Jesus is the starting point where we tend the vineyard and learn how to produce good fruit. We are each gifted with our own unique talents and gifts to produce those fruits. They are not our fruits. They are God’s fruits to be given back and shared. It is when we begin to allow the selfishness to overtake us that bad fruits start creeping in.

While I do not look forward to the yardwork that must be done, I have learned to appreciate the patience that is required to maintain it. The patience that is shown by the grace of God as God keeps sending prophets and ultimately the Son to reveal to us what the Reign of God will look like. It is a promise revealed to us in the love poured out on a cross.

It is in God’s promise that the story continues. God builds up what is torn down. In doing so, Jesus becomes the cornerstone of our foundation. As Christians, it is in Jesus we begin, and what all creation is built upon. Fortunately, God has much more patience than I do when it comes to tending the vineyard.

As we examine our own lives and the life of our community, what have we placed as the cornerstone? Have we let our personal motives interject in the way of Christ, or have we started with Jesus and let his good news be our cornerstone? A good news that we are called to share to produce the fruits of the kingdom.

Are You an Impersonator or an Imitator

September 27, 2020

Philippians 2:1-13

Impersonation is an active part of the entertainment industry. Travel to Las Vegas and you can watch countless shows starring Elvis, Cher, and the Rat Pack just to name a few. There are tribute bands that do their best to impersonate the Beatles, Rolling Stones, The Who, and countless others. We laugh at comedians that have a knack for impressions, Robin Williams and Jim Carrey coming to mind for myself. The late-night talk shows and Saturday Night Live are known for their sketches with impersonators of political figures.

These can all be fun to watch, especially when we know that they are not the real deal and often it is being done in jest. There is a difference between impersonating and imitating. When they are on stage, an impersonator genuinely wants you to believe that they are who they are not. They put a lot of work into their act and take great pains to attempt to perfect it. An imitator, on the other hand, strives to live up to the challenge of reflecting the person they are looking up to.

Paul’s letter to the Philippians this morning encourages us to be imitators of Christ. The Message translation begins:

If you’ve gotten anything at all out of following Christ, if his love has made any difference in your life, if being in a community of the Spirit means anything to you, if you have a heart, if you care— 2 then do me a favor: Agree with each other, love each other, be deep-spirited friends. 3 Don’t push your way to the front; don’t sweet-talk your way to the top. Put yourself aside, and help others get ahead. 4 Don’t be obsessed with getting your own advantage. Forget yourselves long enough to lend a helping hand.
5 Think of yourselves the way Christ Jesus thought of himself. 6 He had equal status with God but didn’t think so much of himself that he had to cling to the advantages of that status no matter what. 7 Not at all. When the time came, he set aside the privileges of deity and took on the status of a slave, became human! 8 Having become human, he stayed human. It was an incredibly humbling process. He didn’t claim special privileges. Instead, he lived a selfless, obedient life and then died a selfless, obedient death—and the worst kind of death at that: a crucifixion.
Philippians 2:1-8

It is this Christ that Paul lifts up for the people in Philippi as the metric for them to live by. It is the goal for them to strive for. It is a call for them to bring their community closer together and mend wounds and heal any separations that has occured. This is a tall order and Christians have not always been the best at imitating Christ. When we fail to follow and imitate Christ, we offer false impressions to those around us.

The celebrated pacifist Mohandas Gandhi is reported to have said, “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.” He made this observation in the midst of his struggle for justice for a people in the face of the occupation of his native India.[1] Comments like these can often be divisive and cause us to take up sides. We can get defensive when something speaks so closely to our heart and names the truth, or at least a part of it. We start to make excuses when we do not want to own up to the truth that we know in our hearts.

Those Christians that Gandhi speaks of are the ones that are impersonating more than they are imitating. Remember, an impersonator tries their hardest to make people believe they are someone that they are not. There is no sign of humbleness in the impersonator. Yet, it is a life of humbleness that Christ calls us, as we encounter our siblings. We are not to tower over anyone and lift ourselves as greater than thou. It is Christ that calls us to love one another and be an imitation of that good news for all to see.

The imitation does not come easily. At times it can require sacrifice and suffering. To be obedient to Christ and our lives as Christians could even lead to death. It is that same good news that reminds us that death is not the end and we be born into new life. For in our baptisms, we die to our old selves and are washed clean as we recognize our part in the Christian community. We are not always going to get the imitation right. We are going to stumble and fall, and Jesus is well aware of the temptations that enter our lives on a daily basis.

There is a word that Archbishop Desmond Tutu is known for when imitating Christ and learning to love each one of our siblings. This word is, Ubuntu. In Ubuntu, we learn to acknowledge that “I am, because we are.” We do not and cannot accomplish anything on our own. We do it in community. We support one another and learn to live with one another. Yes, Jesus wants us to agree on everything as well, and this can be a challenge that we will work on until the Reign of God comes fully to us. It is in ubuntu that we recognize one another’s humanity and that we learn to walk and work alongside one another.

To follow the philosophy of ubuntu draws us much closer to an imitation of Christ. An imitation that lifts up the good news for all to witness. It is this imitation that transforms our hearts and minds and calls us into living as one with not only Christ, who is with us and in us, but also with our siblings that we walk alongside every day. How are you going to be an imitation of Christ this week?


[1] Gilberto Collazo, commentary on Philippians 2:1-13, Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 4.

Unmerited Grace

September 20, 2020

Matthew 20:1-16

I recently received a blast from my past in something new. In the eighties, the movie, The Karate Kid, was released. Starring Ralph Macchio as Daniel LaRusso and William Sabka as Johnny Lawrence, his rival. Johnny appears to have it all in life and Daniel and his mother just have the carload of possessions they brought to California from New Jersey.

Daniel is holding fast that life is not fair after moving from his friends in New Jersey and now finds himself being bullied by Johnny and his group of friends. It is a hero story and you find yourself rooting for Daniel. Now, over 30 years later there is a new series on Netflix titled Cobra Kai.  We return to familiar settings in California to find Daniel and Johnny in midlife and their position in life reversed as Daniel owns a successful car dealership and Johnny is struggling to make ends meet. Johnny now is the one that is examining life as not fair.  

The idea of fairness is quite often determined by those that find their expectations not being met. They are left grumbling on the sidelines because they did not get their way and it is simply not fair! I know that I can point to a few times in my life where I have felt this way, and I am sure that if you think about it, you can name some times as well.

As we listen to our gospel lesson from Matthew today, we find a similar situation happening in the parable that Jesus shares. Over the course of the day, the landowner comes out to hire workers. The landowner has a heart for the people that are patient enough to wait for a job to come their way and most likely cannot find one another way. The first hires agree to a day’s wage, which is one denarius. At the end of the day, the vineyard workers are paid, starting with the last hired and working their way to the first hired. Surely, when the last hired received one denarius, those hired first are going to receive much more. However, they did not agree to anything more. They received what was promised to them. And yet, they grumble. They are not thankful for the money they did make to help provide a meal for their family that evening. Instead, they sound ungrateful and greedy.

The landowner reaffirms that they were paid what was agreed upon and it is simply none of their business what he pays everyone else. I will admit, I was right there with those first hires when it came time to be paid. It’s not fair! Their argument is based upon three things. First, they assumed that they would be getting more, just because those that did not swelter in the heat for the entire day received what was originally promised to those hired first. Second, they are being made equal to those hired last. Come on, how is that fair? Third, they put in the work. Their work should merit a greater pay. The first hired were burdened with working an entire day and had the sun beating down on them.

There are times in our lives when we make the same assumptions. We feel that we have been shortchanged and it is simply not fair. Perhaps, we were born in a blue-collar household and our classmate was born in the million dollar mansion on the other side of town. This may not seem fair, but it is reality. Much like the characters depicted in The Karate Kid. We receive more of the story as we engage the new Cobra Kai series and learn more from the character’s backgrounds.

So, why is Jesus sharing this parable with us?

If we go back to the first verse in chapter 20, Jesus says, “For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner…” These stories are meant to be so radical that it makes the disciples stop in their tracks and think about what they are doing. Remember, the king that forgave a debt as large as a small countries GDP last week?

It has to be radical because the grace of God is radical. It comes to all people, regardless of the time that they entered the vineyard to work. God’s grace comes to us in our sinfulness and even when we are hunkering down and grumbling. The grace of God is simply a gift to those that are open to receiving it. It is not possible to come too late to receive the grace of God. In the actions of the landowner, Jesus reveals the transcending and transforming grace of God, where all should be rejoicing.

This grace is unmerited. There is nothing that we must do to receive it. We enter the field when we are ready, and sometimes we may even end up leaving the field and returning later. And this is radical. This does not match the expectation in our earthly world where we are paid for performance and even our higher education.

What would it look like if we were to bring the kingdom of heaven to earth today? There would be many people upset. Because their expectations would not be met. God is not a God that pleases everyone. God is a God of grace and Jesus Christ calls us into action to live out the kingdom in our world today. Even by revealing God’s grace in pieces, they start to add up. And by doing so, we share in the love of God’s unmerited grace for all of creation.

God’s Forgiveness is Priceless

September 13, 2020

Matthew 18:21-35

“Why should I say I am sorry?”

According to my mother, this was the response that I gave to her one time when I was younger and had just hit my older brother. I meant to do it because I was mad at him and therefore why should I apologize.

When we apologize, we quite often have the intent of hopefully receiving forgiveness from the person or peoples we have wronged. Of course, most of us know that this is not always the outcome. To give and to receive forgiveness requires a transformation within oneself. A transformation that I could not comprehend when I was 4.

Corrie ten Boom does share such a story that is both transformative and embraces the fullness of our loving God. Corrie was a Dutch Christian woman that stood up to Nazi Germany and did her part to protect Jewish citizens by hiding them in her house. When she was caught, she was imprisoned at the Ravensbruck concentration camp. At the end of the war, she would travel through Europe sharing her story and at one such engagement, recognized one of the former guards of Ravensbruck in the audience. To her dismay, he approached her at the end and explained to her how he was now a Christian and God had forgiven him, and he was hoping that maybe she could too. She became flush with anger and was reluctant to shake his outstretched hand. She shared the following:

And still I stood there with the coldness clutching my heart. But forgiveness is not an emotion—I knew that too. Forgiveness is an act of the will, and the will can function regardless of the temperature of the heart. “Jesus, help me!” I prayed silently. “I can lift my hand, I can do that much. You supply the feeling.”

And so woodenly, mechanically, I thrust my hand into the one stretched out to me. And as I did, an incredible thing took place. The current started in my shoulder, raced down my arm, sprang into our joined hands. And then this healing warmth seemed to flood my whole being, bringing tears to my eyes.

“I forgive you, brother!” I cried. “With all my heart!”

For a long moment we grasped each other’s hands, the former guard and the former prisoner. I had never known God’s love so intensely as I did then.

To forgive does not come easily. It is not like a medication the doctor gives you and after taking all of it you are better. Forgiveness is a long and difficult process that requires much prayer and meditation to fully meet the person at a place of love. The same place where God meets us.

We have two lessons today that speak to the very heart of forgiveness. We are familiar with the story of Joseph and how he came to serve Pharaoh after his brothers sold him into slavery.  Yet, at the death of their father, Jacob, there must be a reconciliation. The type of reconciliation that we spoke of last week and that Jesus taught his disciples should there ever be an issue that needed to be addressed. When his brothers seek forgiveness, they are quite leery of what Joseph’s response may be. He is overcome with tears and they share in a great forgiveness. Joseph’s grace and mercy comes to them as he tells them he will provide for them and their little ones.

In the parable Jesus shares this morning we have a gracious and merciful king that forgives a servant that owes 10,000 talents. This amount would have caught all by surprise as Jesus shared the parable, because how could an individual accrue so much debt. It is so great that it would be bigger than the amount a small country may have in GDP. Yet, to emphasize the grace and mercy of a forgiving God, the king forgives the entire debt owed by the servant.

Next is when our gospel lesson takes a turn! That same servant has learned nothing about grace and forgiveness even though he just had his exorbitant amount of debt wiped clean. As soon as he leaves the palace, he encounters a servant that owes him 10 denari. Now, this is such a minimal amount that forgiveness should come easy. However, he does not even want to give him time to repay. He wants it now and when he does not receive it, has him jailed. Of course, word gets back to the king and he revokes the forgiveness of the debt he had previously wiped clean.

Perhaps, you have not done this yourself, but I am sure that most of us can point to similar stories of where we have seen an equivalent of this happening.  Even when we receive forgiveness, it can be easy to hold grudges because that grudge is embedded in our heart. Maybe we find it hard to forgive someone because we have not received forgiveness ourselves. Perhaps, we are just so busy naval gazing that we cannot get beyond what is in it for us!

Yet, in both stories, we have grace and mercy. And we have it in abundance. There is a cost to not learning to forgive and that cost is held in our very being. It weighs us down and studies have even shown that it can shorten our lives.

To come to forgiveness is not easy and it may take several years. God’s desire is for us to be transformed and our hearts made anew. To be forgiven and learn to forgive ourselves is a transformation that opens our hearts up to the even greater possibilities that God has for us in life. To open our hearts means that we are flushing away all the anger, resentment, and desire for revenge.

As we pray the Lord’s prayer, we ask that God forgive us as we forgive others. Do you truly live this out? Sometimes this forgiveness looks radical and when we do so, we may get questioned by others. Yet, this is where our Christian faith leads us. It leads us to those places in our society where love lacks and calls us to share the Good News of Jesus Christ. Good News that reveals God’s forgiveness is priceless.

Caste by Isabel Wilkerson

Shopping at an independent book store about a month ago, this book was placed in a pile of recommendations they had for me based on previous purchases. Now, I know about the Caste system in India, but to relate it to how our society in America is structured? I was skeptical and did not purchase it. Yet, something kept pulling me back to it.

It did not take long for Wilkerson to quickly change my mind. I will admit that it was probably more difficult for me to see through my own whiteness. This is an extremely relevant book for today as Wilkerson addresses current race relations and a pandemic that has clearly defined the haves and have nots, usually along the lines of race.

The comparisons of the Caste system in India to slavery and the created Caste system in America and to Nazi-era Germany is eye-opening. The presentation of the facts that Nazi-era Germany learned from the structure of the Caste system in America, especially in regards to people of color, to establish their own arguments for the dominance of the Aryan race should make us open not only our eyes but encourage us to open our mouths to be a part of the Black Lives Matter movement and ensure that all people are treated equal and not singled out for the color of their skin. The Caste system goes way beyond race and only the abolishment of it will bring everyone to a level field.

I am sure this book will be downplayed by many. It will be downplayed because it takes away their privilege, and this is the reason why we find ourselves in such upheaval today. There is the fear of losing control. If we truly want to be a democracy, as Wilkerson notes, we have to come to terms with who we are and addressing the Caste system that we so easily ignore. If the current administration were to remain in power, we will have a long way to haul and even more protests ahead of us.

Reconciled in Love

September 6, 2020

Matthew 18:15-20

As we peruse the Hebrew Bible, or Old Testament, there are many sections that sound like me may be reading a script from Game of Thrones or a similar story that may come out of the Medieval Era. This highlights the fact that as humanity, we have always had that desire to conquer and claim. For instance, the Babylonians and Egyptians did everything in their power to conquer the Jewish people and bar them from their land and/or hold them in slavery.

It is no wonder that as we look back through history and the stories of conquering in the Bible, that humanity has always tried to fulfill that desire. Much of it stems back through history as one tribe has tried to conquer other tribes. Jesus brings a message of hope and grace that has the intention to end this mentality. Yet, we are still a broken people awaiting the Kindom of heaven here on earth.  

We have been far from upholding the ideals of Christ as we reach out to or fail to reach out to our sisters and brothers that we deem different from ourselves, yet are seen the same in the eyes of God. It is poignant as we look at our relationship with the Indigenous peoples of America. The first settlers from Europe used their concept of Doctrine of Discovery to take the land that they had newly discovered and conquer the people already living on it. Unfortunately, the Bible was quite often used for justification of their actions.

That is not the gospel of Jesus Christ. Our gospel lesson for today from Matthew speaks strongly to our need as humanity to be reconciled with one another. Jesus encourages us to confront each other in a healthy manner and not through the premise of conquering or proving that we are right.

Jesus shares with the disciples the parable of the lost sheep immediately preceding our lesson for this morning. The point that Jesus is attempting to make is that everyone matters. That one lost sheep is just as important as the 99 that are safe on the mountain. It is that one lost sheep that Jesus is concerned with at this moment.

He then turns to how we live into that relationship with one another. Living into that relationship and creating community involves confronting one another. Jesus encourages it. Jesus encourages us to bring our conflicts to conversation and dialogue and not sweep them under the rug. He discusses the steps and who is involved in each step along the way. To be reconciled with one another is part of Jesus’ mission. We look to the relationship of the Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as an example of the relationship we are called into with our sisters and brothers. The relationship of the Trinity has been referred to as a divine dance. To dance requires give and take and some grace does not hurt. Jesus provides plenty of grace for us.

What does it mean to be reconciled? First, as Jesus tells the disciples this morning, it is to listen to one another. This is where we seem to be falling short as humanity. Yes, there are many different ideas out in the world as to why things are happening regarding race relations, the Coronavirus, and politics. Yet, we have left little room for conversation as we pick the ground we want to stand on, and come hell or high water, we are not going to budge from it. To be reconciled as people of God and a nation, listening needs to happen and we need to stop polarizing every topic imaginable. This divisiveness has split friends and families. Jesus holds us accountable to learn to listen and be reconciled with one another.

It is difficult to admit the error of one’s way. And yet, this is what Jesus is calling us to do when we enter conflict with one another and sit down to listen. We are not all correct, all the time. We are human. We are broken. We are going to stumble and fall. It is Jesus’ invitation for us to be reconciled with not only God, but also with our sisters and brothers. Jesus does not tell us we must agree with one another, but to be restored to right relationship. It does no one good to hold grudges.

Reconciliation at work is a beautiful thing. I recently heard of Reconciliation Canada, which is an Indigenous-led organization, began in September 2012 with a bold vision to promote reconciliation by engaging Canadians in dialogue that revitalizes the relationships between Indigenous peoples and all Canadians in order to build vibrant, resilient and sustainable communities. Through various initiatives, they have shown a commitment to humanity by seeking diverse perspectives and experiences to build resilience.

This is the community that Jesus encourages the church in the world to be. It is a community that nurtures honest dialogue in the face of behavior that harms others. It fulfills Jesus’ mission of restoration, re-creation, and transformation of all people. It is in reconciliation that we learn to love our neighbors and in the words of Paul, “…any other commandment is summed up in this word, ‘love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no wrong to a neighbor, therefore, love is its fulfilling of the law.”

For what or whom, is Jesus calling you to be reconciled today? Where will you carry the gospel in your words and actions?

Are You Following?

August 30, 2020

Matthew 16:21-28

My first career in management could be very exciting at times as I never knew what I would come into on a daily basis. Was the delivery scattered about on the sales floor? Were there some customer complaints that I had to address? Were there employee concerns that needed to be dealt with properly? Would there be a visit from one of the district or regional managers?

Being a young manager of employees nearly twice my age was difficult at times, especially when it came to discipline or even laying them off, as I unfortunately have had to do.  Being young and not too far removed from a college classroom, I thought I knew everything. Let me tell you, this does not go over well when you present this image in front of one of your bosses, or even one of the presidents of the company. I would be lying to you if I told you I was never rebuked by one, if not a couple of my bosses.

I feel for Peter in this week’s gospel. He was riding on top of the world after his proclamation that Jesus was the Messiah in last week’s lesson. Jesus called him the rock and promised that the church would be built upon that rock. Peter was even promised the keys to the kingdom of heaven. How quickly the mood changes! I cannot imagine what the other disciples had to be thinking during the exchange that happens in today’s gospel lesson. Where Peter was the rock last week, he is not better described as the stumbling block today.

Where does he go wrong? When Jesus speaks of undergoing suffering in Jerusalem, Peter’s understanding of what it meant to be the Messiah was shaken. Nobody said anything about suffering and sacrifice. Jesus was the Messiah, and he had to start making everything alright at this very moment. Wasn’t that what all the healing and preaching was about? I don’t blame Peter. This is the first time that any of them are hearing Jesus’ passion prediction and just like any of the other teachings, it has to take a little while to sink into their understanding. Even up to the point of Jesus’ actual death on the cross.

We too struggle with sacrifice. Yes, we know we must make some sacrifices to make progress in certain areas of our lives. That does not mean that we like it. Some will refuse to make needed sacrifices and will continue to troll along with the status quo. If you are happy, then this is not necessarily a bad thing. Yet, a majority of people will tell you that they wish they could do something else or struggle to reach certain goals.  Sacrifice requires us to step out of our comfort zone. When it comes to race relations, I believe that is where we struggle as a community. To work with and alongside our black and indigenous sisters and brothers means that we have to make sacrifices and have empathy for what they have encountered for the last 400 years. They are no stranger to sacrifice, and yet we have become comfortable and complacent.

When Peter rebukes Jesus, he is instructed that he is setting his sights on human things and not divine things. To be in relationship with everyone is a divine thing and for Jesus to lead the way requires him going to the cross. Jesus tells him, “Get behind me Satan.” This is reminiscent of the time Jesus spent in the desert after his baptism and the devil tempts him and he tells him to “Go away!”

Now, I don’t believe Jesus is calling Peter, himself, Satan but calling his thinking misled. And he does not tell him to go away. He says get behind me. Follow me and you will learn and come to know what I am talking about. You too, will learn how to pick up your cross to follow me and carry out the Good News I share with you today.

In this proclamation, we too hear Jesus’ call to take up our cross and follow him. It is going to require sacrifice and we will, more times than not, feel like we are fighting an uphill battle. In Jesus we not only hear the call to follow him, but a promise that is made to all of humanity. Jesus does not simply tell us to get lost, but to follow him and learn what it means to walk in his footsteps. Learning what it means to follow Jesus and boldly taking up our own cross.  

With the shooting of Jacob Blake earlier this week, we witnessed entire teams willing to bear the cross. The Detroit Lions cancelled practice to address racism. The Milwaukee Bucks boycotted their Wednesday night playoff game in response to the shooting and in turn the NBA cancelled all games. It is movements like this and voices that need to be raised for us to begin to truly witness change and the end of systemic racism. More than anything else, we need to listen to our sisters and brothers.

Like Peter, we are not always going to get it right and will rebuke some of the wrong people. We will become a stumbling block for others, or probably more often for ourselves. Yet, Jesus is there to pick us up, dust the dirt off our knees, and once again invite us to follow him. What are you doing to follow Jesus today?

Jesus Helps us Find the Way

August 23, 2020

Matthew 16:13-20

How many of you have set out on a journey or destination only to have plans upended and everything not go according to the itinerary that you had compiled? Perhaps the journey you have set out on is a destination unknown, not know why you are going, other than there is something within you that is guiding you.

If we went back 2000 years ago and asked the disciples about their experience with Jesus, they would tell us that they had no idea where they were going, but knew that Jesus was leading the way and they were eager to follow.  

I recently watched a movie, titled The Way. It stars Martin Sheen as Tom and his real life son, Emilio Estevez playing his on-screen son, Daniel. The movie begins with heartbreak as Tom learns of his son’s death in France, just as he is setting off to begin the Camino de Santiago. The Camino de Santiago is a roughly 500-mile walk that begins in France and ends in Spain at the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela and the Shrine of St. James the Great. This is believed to be the route that James traveled to spread the good news through Europe after Jesus’ death and resurrection. People have been making this trek for centuries and it can be a very personal journey.

Before Tom departs for France to retrieve Daniel’s body, he goes to his local parish where the priest asks if he would like him to pray with him. Tom’s response is, “What for?” And this pretty much sums up where his faith currently resides. When he finds out what Daniel was planning to do, he makes the decision to begin and finish the walk for him. People walk the Camino de Santiago for various reasons and when Tom began, it was not for spiritual reasons. Tom is Catholic, but as he tells an American priest he meets on the route, he is one of those Christmas and Easter people.

The walk on the Camino de Santiago, also known as The Way, is a life transforming event and as Tom nears the end of the walk you can see him being transformed and in his own way, coming to know Jesus on a much deeper level that opens up his heart.

Our gospel lesson this morning explores who Jesus is. Actually, more like, Jesus wants to know who people are saying he is. The significance of this taking place in Caesarea Philippi cannot be overlooked. In Caesarea Philippi, one could find a Temple to the Greek god, Pan and other pagan gods, and not to mention Herod’s son had built a temple in honor of Caesar Augustus. For the proclamation of Jesus being named the Messiah in this spot, carried much weight and highlights the divinity found within his human being.

For many, it could be easy to reject Jesus among the other possible gods to be worshipped in Caesarea Philippi. It can be easy to get misled by those that are false idols and self-made gods. It can be easy to focus on oneself and completely disregard the message that Jesus is trying to spread throughout the Galilean countryside. In our own brokenness, we too can fall into these traps and lose sight of Jesus the Christ.

In Jesus asking the disciples who do they say he is, he is inviting them to truly look deep into their hearts and comprehend who Jesus is at this time and place. They have listened and observed him enough now, and Peter is the one bold enough to proclaim him the Messiah. As much as he can stick his foot in his mouth, for this day, Peter gets the gold star! It is in Jesus, that the disciples begin to encounter their true selves. It is in Jesus that we can begin to know our true selves.

It is a journey. It was not a mistake that those first followers referring to Christianity as The Way. They knew it was the way to the truth, the light, and freedom. Somewhere along the way, we have lost the importance of this and there is no time better than now to regain that truth that Jesus asks us to look for within our own beings. Who do you say Jesus is?

You must explore that question for yourself, with the help of Jesus and the Holy Spirit. As Martin Luther says in the explanation of the Third Article of the Creed in the Small Catechism:

I believe that I cannot by my own understanding or effort
believe in Jesus Christ my Lord, or come to him.
But the Holy Spirit has called me through the Gospel,
enlightened me with his gifts,
and sanctified and kept me in true faith.

You may not be able to walk the Camino de Santiago to search within to find Jesus, but as you continue on in your own faith journey, because none of us can say we have reached the ultimate end, may the Holy Spirit work up within you all that is good and loving in the eyes of Jesus Christ our Lord.