About Chris M.

A seminary graduate in Chicago; living the dream and loving people.

Constant

* a funeral sermon preached at New Hope Lutheran Church on September 10, 2017 *

Since sermons are primarily intended to be heard, you can listen along here.

Text: Matthew 25:31-40

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Please pray with me, church:

Holy Comforter,
Our hearts are restless until they rest in you.
Draw us close today,
And send us your peace that soothes our hurt,
And reminds us of your constant love for us.
Amen.

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There’s an image that I’ve been carrying around with me.
I saw it last Saturday, and it’s been in my mind all week.

As I sat with Sam, Samuel, Laura, and Matthew, and Megan, and Cameron last Saturday morning, Sam showed me a picture. It was from 30 years ago.
It was of Sam and Karlyn, standing together. Sam in a tuxedo and Karlyn in a beautiful dress. They were standing in this sanctuary. Standing right there in front of this altar.
It was from their wedding.

The sanctuary looked a little different then. We used to have blue carpet, if you can imagine it.
Sam and Karlyn looked a little different then too. Though I must say, Sam, you both aged really gracefully.

And then I noticed something, just to the right of where Sam was standing in the picture. A drop of green fabric over the altar and a blue wave off the side. And I remember thinking, “I’ve seen that wave before.”

And if your eyes are looking at the parament that’s hanging over our altar now, you’re having the same thought I had.
Actually I had two thoughts. The first was, “Man, I guess it really is time to update our paraments.”

But the second was wondering about this blue wave.
I wonder…what does this blue wave do for you? Where does your mind go when you consider this wave?

I’m pretty simple, I guess; it evokes for me the images of a river.
Flowing… Moving… Meandering… Rolling…
Constant…

A photograph from 30 years ago. And a lifetime of stories since.
And a couple of strands of fabric drawing a thin connecting thread between then and now.
Constant…

It’s a word that is synonymous with the Maultsbys, particularly with the Maultsbys and New Hope. We’ve all changed a great deal in 30 years, and yet, there’s something connecting all these threads and holding all these strands of fabric together.

When I began my call here at New Hope just about a year ago, Karlyn had just received her cancer diagnosis. And we’ve journeyed together a long way since then, haven’t we, Maultsby family?
You’ve had to travel an extremely tough road, but not once did you ever think you were doing it alone.

You approached this diagnosis together, with the same constancy that you approached your life here at New Hope. Karlyn once said, that the Maultsby’s involvement at New Hope was an investment. And what she meant by that is that by being deeply connected to this community of faith, by promising to raise your children here, and by committing to being involved so fully in the life and ministry of New Hope, you were instilling in your family a sense of responsibility, not just to the church, but to the community and neighborhood and people that this faith community serves.
For Karlyn, a high commitment to the life and ministry of New Hope was a given. And that investment has paid return upon return, as we have been and continue to be blessed by your presence and commitment to this community and our neighbors.

From teaching Sunday School and at Southminster Day School, to taking the lead in coordinating New Hope’s involvement with Fort Bend Family Promise all those years, Karlyn embodied service to the least of these.
Karlyn showed us what a life of discipleship—what a life of following Jesus—looks like.
And even this past year, one of the most difficult of your lives, that commitment remained and remains constant.

It’s the same constancy with which Karlyn is loved and cherished by God.
It’s the same continuous threads of the flowing river—of those waters of baptism—which extend all the way back to before the foundations of the earth were laid and all the way forward to God’s reconciliation of all things.
The same constant waters that fell over Karlyn’s head in her baptism, when God came close, and told Karlyn, “My dear, sweet, beloved child…you are mine…forever…”

We live in sure and certain hope of the resurrection because in baptism, God reaches out and names us and claims us as God’s very own.
St. Paul writes in Romans that, “Those of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death. Therefore we have been buried with Christ by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of God, so we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.

If we are united with Christ in a death like his…how much more surely, dear friends, will we be united with Christ in a resurrection like his.

It’s in these constant waters that we return to, that we remember the constancy of God’s great care for God’s children.
That we remember that we are surrounded and supported by the compassionate arms of a God who draws us close, and whose constancy will sustain us in the days to come.
That we remember the constancy of the fierce love with which our wife, mother, daughter, sister, and friend lived.
And that we remember the constancy of God’s immeasurable love for us, and for Karlyn.
Amen.

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Conflict Resolution

* a sermon preached at New Hope Lutheran Church on September 10, 2017 *

Since sermons are primarily intended to be heard, you can listen along here.

Texts for the 14th Sunday after Pentecost:
Ezekiel 33:7-11 + Psalm 119:33-40 + Romans 13:8-14 + Matthew 18:15-20

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Please pray with me this morning, church:

Holy One,
These days our anxieties are high,
Our tensions are elevated, and our spirits are weary.
Give us grace to bear with one another in patience and in love,
And help us bring reconciliation and peace to your world.
Amen.

***************

It’s a question most congregational call committees dread. And if I’m honest, it’s not a question that most pastoral candidates delight in asking either. But the committee’s response to this question can tell a candidate a lot about a congregation.

“How does your faith community deal with conflict?”

We don’t really like it as a congregation because, often, times of conflict weren’t particularly happy times. And we don’t want to present ourselves as a community full of conflict. And we don’t really delight in digging through some of our mucky past. And honestly, we just want to move forward, so…

But I’ve said it before, and it bears repeating here, one of the marks of a healthy congregation is not the absence of conflict, it’s the extent to which we deal with conflict well.
Look, every faith community has conflict; it’s what happens when you put more than one person in a room together. Just before verse 20 when Jesus says, “Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them,” he could have also very well said, “Where two or three are gathered, conflict is a distinct possibility.”
I’m not sure why that is, or why it seems that church conflict is particularly nasty, but I have a theory. Perhaps it what happens when you get a bunch of people together for the sole purpose of engaging that which they hold among the closest of their passions: their faith. The great Lutheran theologian and author Paul Tillich calls God our “ultimate concern.” So it make sense that when we’re talking about and engaging in practices surrounding that which concerns us ultimately, we bring a fair amount of passion to it. And when passions are high, it’s a good bet that the tensions and the stakes are too.

But this is where I’m grateful for the lectionary compilers for the texts that we get paired with each other each week, because I think St. Paul’s words from Romans 13 are a beautiful framework for Jesus’ words in Matthew 18.

Jesus’ words in our gospel this morning feel very legalistic. They are pretty much a textbook definition of the law side of law and gospel. Because the law says, “Do this. Do that. Behave this certain way.”
And with that, we get Paul’s wonderful words from Romans, “The one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments are summed up in this word, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love is the fulfilling of the law.”

So when we frame Jesus’ words with St. Paul’s words, if another member of the church sins against you, go and engage with that member from a place of love.
Which is radical, because I think if we’re honest with ourselves, love is the last thing on our minds, hearts, and lips when we feel like we’ve been wronged.

Matthew 18 makes an appearance in almost every church constitutional document under a heading of Church Discipline. That is, if a member of the church messes up or sins, these are the steps that you should take to confront that person about their mess up. And it’s often used as a way to shame that person for how they acted, or to bully someone into behaving differently, or used with the ultimate goal of removing somebody from the community. But there’s no grace there, and that’s why I think Paul’s words are instructive, because I don’t think Jesus’ goal in our verses this morning is the removal of church members.

No, I think these words in our constitutional documents ought to be more accurately titled, Conflict Resolution, because ultimately, that’s what I think Jesus is getting at. I think Jesus is outlining a way for us to engage well with each other when the inevitable conflict arises between people in the community of faith.
And when understood that way, the goal, then, is not kicking people out of community, but rather the goal is strengthening the community through reconciliation.

And if you’re still not convinced, consider verse 17, if after you’ve gone to that person one-on-one, and then again with one or two others, and then again with the community leadership, and that person still won’t hear you, then let that person be to you as a Gentile or tax collector.
In other words, wipe your feet, wash your hands, and be done with them, right?

Except…except remember how Jesus treats Gentiles and tax collectors… He eats with them, talks with them, engages them in community…
Friends, if you’re looking for proof texts to bully and shame someone, and kick someone out of the church, this is not it.
But if you’re looking for a model for how to deal with conflict well, for the purpose of engaging with someone from a place of love and seeking to truly reconcile with someone who has sinned against you, or even better with someone who you’ve sinned against, then this is it.

Which I think is really important for us to hear when we’re just starting to emerge from the aftermath of a hurricane…and when we’re thinking of our siblings in the Caribbean and Florida and the southeastern US…and when we’re trying to make sense of the incredible amount of injustice in our world, including simply treating other people as human regardless of their sexuality or gender identity or country of origin or immigration status…and when we ourselves are trying to deal with a really significant death in our community.
Because in times like these, times of crisis and devastation and upendedness, passions and tensions are high, tempers are short, and patience is thin. And love seems to be in short supply.

I think our gospel for today is asking us to breathe a little more deeply, to have a little bit more patience with each other, and to bear with one another in love…don’t take a break from confronting injustice or evil or sinfulness in the world, but do so from a place of truly desiring reconciliation, which I think is God’s desire for us.
That we strive, as much as possible, to be agents of reconciliation and builders of bridges in our world.

In your bulletins, you should all have an insert for our “God’s Work. Our Hands.” Sunday. These are some ideas from our Service Commission about how you and your family can be the hands and feet of Christ in our world. This idea comes to us from our churchwide offices of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America as a way that our congregations across the country can embody the life-giving love and grace of God in our world. “God’s Work. Our Hands.” Sunday is a way for us as a denomination, as a church, to live out who we are as Lutheran Christians—a church, saved by grace, through faith, by Christ, for the sake of the world…freed to live lives of love and service to our neighbors.
I hope you’ll take this call seriously, as it is truly the life that we are called to in our baptism, and is the life we are called to as followers of the one who embodied love and service to the world.
Church, our world desperately needs agents of reconciliation, builders of bridges, and resolvers of conflict. You are freed in Christ to be the embodiment of God’s love. Let’s get to work.

Seeing Christ

* a sermon preached at New Hope Lutheran Church on September 3, 2017 *

Since sermons are primarily intended to be heard, you can listen along here.

Texts for the 13th Sunday after Pentecost:
Jeremiah 15:15-21 + Psalm 26:1-8 + Romans 12:9-21 + Matthew 16:21-28

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Please pray with me this morning, church:

Holy God,
We thank you for bringing us together today.
Thank you for being with us this past week.
Give us eyes to see, Lord.
Help us to see you in each other,
And in the acts of love and service toward our neighbors
And toward those we may not know so well.
Help us to show Christ in our world.
Amen.

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Soooooo………that happened………

How are we feeling, church?
Are we hanging in there?

If you’re like me, you’re just now starting to realize that today’s Sunday.
And yesterday was Saturday.
And anything that happened last week…well, it’s basically a gamble on whether or not I could tell you on what day it actually happened.

Y’all sure do disasters on a whole different level down here.

But, for me, as massive as the size and scope of this disaster was, to see Houston, and Missouri City, and Sugar Land, and Richmond, and all of Texas show up like we did afterward, was even more impressive. In the outpouring of love and care and concern and generosity, I watched all of the Gulf Coast start to be transformed by the showing up of Christ this week.

I saw Christ in the rescues, in the sheltering, in the feeding, and in the caring.
I saw Christ in the cleaning up of streets, in the mucking out of carpets, in the cutting up of drywall, and the drying out of houses.
I saw Christ in the outpouring of generosity, in neighbors helping neighbors, strangers helping strangers, in people helping people, and in folks giving whatever they had to help someone else who had lost everything.
And we are just getting started.

Giving to those who had lost.
Losing to gain.

What an absolutely perfect illustration for our Gospel this morning, “If any want to become my followers—my disciples—let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me… Those who lose their life for my sake will find it…”

Church, the life of discipleship, to truly follow Jesus, is a life of giving up. And I don’t have to tell you—you who are gutting your homes, you who have returned to soggy baseboards, you who are pulling up carpet and deciding what’s worth trying to salvage and restore and what we can bear to let go of—I don’t have to tell you what giving up means. I don’t have to explain to you who were and are displaced from your homes for any amount of time what a life of giving up looks like.

And…and…we are here, friends. We are here, and we are worshiping, and yeah, maybe we’re a little worse for wear, but we are here, thanks be to God. So there are some who need what we have. They need our time, they need our energy, they need our muscles, they need our kindness, they need our help, and yes, they need our money. Because when you’ve lost everything, you’re thankful that you have your life, but it takes some resources to get back to place of just surviving.

We are blessed, church. We are blessed and we are thankful and we are grateful. We are blessed…to then be a blessing. It is a blessing to get to be Christ to our neighbors and to those we might not know so well. It is a gift to be able to give because we have been given. This is the beautiful transformational work of being and showing Christ to the world. It is a holy privilege to follow Jesus into the places of struggle and devastation, and to be called and entrusted with the incredible gift of showing the love of Christ in those hurting places.

 

What about you, church? Where did you see Christ this week?

*****

 

In our reading from Romans, St. Paul begins laying out the guidelines for what living together in a peaceable community looks like. The Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr. calls this the “beloved community.” It’s a community that lives for the sake of everyone else. It’s a community whose concerns are first and foremost for their neighbor. It’s a community that loves genuinely, that holds fast to what is good, that contributes to the needs of all, and shows hospitality to strangers.
The beloved community is a people who are actually being the hands and feet of Christ in the world.

Living cruciform lives—lives that are cross-shaped—is what we are called to as disciples of Jesus. They are lives that are patterned on the way of the cross. It’s the way of compassion – of suffering with.
It’s the way of losing your life to gain it.
Of giving of yourself, so that others would have.
This is what it means to truly follow Jesus.

Brother Martin Luther, that dear Reformer, described being sinful as living incurvatus in se, or being “turned in on oneself”, literally navel-gazing. So sin, then, is a preoccupation, an infatuation with oneself and one’s own wellness, without any regard for others.
And as I was listening to the radio this week, the reporter relayed a comment he heard earlier, he said, “You know, it feels like it’s been quite a long time since we’ve all been on the same page.”

He was right, of course, but as I think about the past 2 weeks, it’s really been extraordinary how much on the same page we’ve all been.
I mean, it was just 2 weeks ago that our collective eyes were turned toward the skies, as we marveled at the way that a certain celestial alignment could make the noontime look like dusk.
And it was just 1 week ago that those same collective eyes turned toward the southeast and looked on with shock and disbelief as a destructive force slammed into our coast and turned Houston into a swamp.
Extraordinary events, capturing our collective gaze, and forcing our collective eyes first upward, then outward. Gazing at the skies and then at our neighbors, instead of our navels, if only for a moment.

Remember what that gaze feels like, church. Try and keep your eyes fixed outward in the days, weeks, and months to come. Because to follow Jesus, with his gaze fixed on Jerusalem and on the cross…to follow in the way of Christ…is to recognize that when we love and serve one another we are loving and serving God; and when we all give what we can, we’ll find that there is more than enough to share, more than enough for all to live and flourish, more than enough love, food, money, time, energy, and resources; and when we live lives turned outward toward each other, when we truly see each other, we are seeing Christ.

On Our Hearts

* a sermon preached at New Hope Lutheran Church on August 20, 2017 *

Since sermons are primarily intended to be heard, you can listen along here.

Texts for the 11th Sunday after Pentecost:
Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32 + Matthew 15:10-28

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Please pray with me, church:

Holy God,
Break our hearts this morning.
Break open our hearts and fill them
With your extraordinary love and compassion.
Give us courage to change our hearts where change is needed,
And help us to boldly and persistently come to you in our brokenness.
Amen.

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My mom and I will often call each other when either of us is leaving work in the early evenings. Usually that ends up being around 6, which is much later than either of us would say we’d like to be working. But there’s always something to do…
By the way, that also reminds me, call your moms. Or call your kids. Or your dads. Or your step-parents or step-children.
Call your family. They love to hear from you, I promise.

So my mom called me this week after we had been trying to catch each other for a couple of days, and we were having a good conversation about how things were going, what’s the latest family news, stuff like that, and we got to talking about everything happening in Charlottesville, and Barcelona, and our country, and around the world, and then she just…came out with it…
“Chris,” she said…, “what the heck is going on…? What the heck is happening in this country…in this world?”

*Deep breath*
*Sigh…*
“I don’t know, mom. I wish I did…”

Spoiler alert, church…I don’t know.
This is one vexing question that I don’t have a good answer to. I have thoughts and I have responses and ways forward, but I do not know the answer to this question.
As much as I’m not my family’s Pastor, fielding some of the big questions of the universe kind of comes with the gig. And I’m ok with that. I like those sorts of conversations.
But, man, it’s tough to have to be totally honest and say, “You know, I really don’t know about this one.” Especially when what’s behind the question, the things that aren’t said in the question, are feelings of confusion, sadness, uncertainty, and a little bit of hurt.
“Well, I don’t know either,” she says, “but it breaks my heart to see all this stuff.”

 

Mine too, mom. Mine too.

sun heart leaf

I totally get my empathy from my mom, by the way.
It does hurt. It hurts my heart to see and read and hear about these things. I’m certain it hurts your heart, church.
At least, I hope it does. I hope that seeing displays of hatred and violence and bigotry and racism hurt.
It’s tough to hear people say hateful, violent, and ugly things. Things like Nazi slogans, like “Blood and soil” and “Jews will not replace us.”
These are not things one reasonably expects to hear in 2017.

And I think of Jesus’ words in our Gospel this morning, “It’s not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of the mouth that defiles. And what comes out of the mouth comes from the heart, and this is what defiles.”
Well, if what comes out of the mouth comes from the heart, then what we saw and heard in Charlottesvile is most certainly profane and most certainly defiled.

Like I said last week white nationalism, white supremacy, racism, bigotry, and hatred are rooted in a place of fear, I think. And I believe that fundamentally, they are symptomatic of the failure to see the image of God in someone else, in the other.

Which is also how I feel about Jesus’ words and actions in these verses from Matthew. A lot of scholars have a lot of different thoughts about what’s happening between Jesus, the disciples, and this woman.
I happen to not think very highly of Jesus in these verses. I don’t give Jesus a pass here.

The author of Matthew uses a term that really hasn’t been in use for hundreds of years by the time this gospel was written, the author calls this woman a “Canaanite.” It’s an anachronistic term, and not something one reasonably expects to hear in the 1st century.
But the implication is clear: this woman is an outsider, not Jewish…she is an “other.”
So Jesus dismisses her.
Which breaks my heart, honestly, to hear Jesus being so un-Jesus-y…

But here’s the thing, the entirety of the book of Matthew is an unfolding of Jesus’ own understanding of who he is and who is called to be as the Son of God and as the Messiah. It’s one of the unique characteristics to the Gospel of Matthew, we get to see the maturation of a Messiah, and follow along with Jesus as he grows in his understanding. Up to this point in the gospel, Jesus has understood his mission and ministry as being strictly to Jewish believers, “the house of Israel” as the author calls them.
And this woman, not only would it not be appropriate for a woman to be so forward with a man in 1st century culture, and it certainly wouldn’t be appropriate for her to address a Rabbi like that, but to pile even more scandal on to the whole encounter, the writer of Matthew tells us that she’s a Gentile, a Canaanite, an outsider…an “other”…

But she presses Jesus. She resists. And she persists.
And Jesus doubles down, “It would not be fair—more accurately translated, “appropriate”—to take the children’s food and give it to the dogs.” It wouldn’t be appropriate to take what is meant for the house of Israel, for God’s chosen children, and give it to those for whom it is not meant for.

But she resists further. And she persists.
“You just fed thousands of people and had 12 baskets of leftovers, there is certainly more than enough of God to go around.”
And here, I think, Jesus has a change of heart. I think that this outsider woman changes God’s mind, and Jesus realizes just how expansive the role of Messiah is.
“How great is your faith, daughter! Let your child be healed of what is ailing her!”

 

So who is “other” to you, church? Who is outsider? Who is someone for you for whom the lavish love and gifts of God are not meant? Who do you need a change of mind and change of heart about? Is it someone of a different gender, a different nationality, a different sexuality, a different racial experience, a different religious belief, a different political affiliation…?

I think this particular story this morning is full of the Gospel. Because if God can change God’s mind, and even Jesus can have a change of heart, then there is certainly hope for the rest of us.

I think it’s very apparent to us here this morning that our world is very broken. What we say and how we say it matters a great deal. Even spending just 15 minutes on social media gives me heartburn. Watching the evening news breaks my heart. Spending time with and listening to my friends who have been further marginalized by the way things are in our world, in our country, and in our city makes my heart ache.
I hear and see a common refrain from people as they reflect on the current state of things; people will often say, “The United States, or the world, has a heart problem.” Seeming to say that if we could just get our hearts right, the world would be better. Seeming to echo Jesus that it’s what comes out of the mouth that defiles, and what comes out of the mouth comes from the heart, and this is what defiles.
So we have a heart problem.

So it stands to reason that if our hearts are changed, then what comes out of our mouths, which proceeds from our hearts, will be uplifting and building up and good and wonderful.
And I think that’s true, church, but let’s be honest, heart work is tough work. It takes a lot to change a heart.
It’s difficult work to soften a hardened heart.
It’s difficult work to break open a heart that is closed off from the world and others.
It’s difficult work to turn an inwardly-focused heart out toward world, neighbor, stranger, and other.
It’s difficult work to breathe life into and resurrect a heart that has shut itself out and died to the possibility of change and transformation.

But praise God that the God we worship is a God who is intimately familiar with matters of the heart, who has a long history of transforming things, and whose signature work is resurrection—of bringing life from death.

It gives me such hope for the world, for the world that we’re teaching these young people that we just blessed about, for the world that we’re sending these young people out into.
I desperately want us to be the world and people that these young people dream we can be.

My heart is breaking a lot recently, but to borrow from St. Leonard Cohen, cracks are how the light gets in. And a cracked and enlightened heart is a heart being transformed, a heart being filled with the knowledge of the extravagance and expansiveness of God’s immense love for all of God’s creation.
Thanks be to God.

Confronting Fear

* a sermon preached at New Hope Lutheran Church on August 13, 2017 *

Since sermons are primarily intended to be heard, you can listen along here.

Texts for the 10th Sunday after Pentecost:
Romans 10:5-15 + Matthew 14:22-33

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Pray with me this morning, church:

Speak to us this morning, God.
By your Spirit, speak to us, in spite of me.
Let your Gospel take root in our hearts,
And may it begin to completely transform our lives.
Amen.

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As my plane landed in Houston on Thursday, as we were taxing to our gate, the fight attendant came on overhead as they often do. And she thanked us for, “Choosing Southwest Airlines to hurtle us through the air at 600 miles per hour tens of thousands of feet above the surface of the earth in a 75-ton aluminum tube………oh, and by the way, welcome to Houston.”

I let that sit with me for a minute… She was right, of course. What the heck was I thinking?
People aren’t made for flying, at least without some help. And yet we do. Every day over 2 million people take to the skies.
We put a lot of trust in those 75-ton tubes of aluminum.

In the same way, we put a lot of trust in the hunks of steel and aluminum that we go floating in, cruising over the depths of the world’s oceans. People aren’t made for floating on top of water, at least without some help.

Hurtling thousands of feet above the earth… Perilously perched atop the depths of the sea… Pretty frightening stuff.

There’s a lot in our world that we should rationally be afraid of. Natural phenomena and weather patterns, in my opinion, are chief among them. They’re just so unpredictable.
So it’s no wonder the disciples were terrified when a storm popped up while they were out to sea. By the way, the Greek there translates as about half a mile out to sea, so not exactly close to safety.

And then Jesus has the audacity to tell them, “Do not be afraid.”
Yeah, right. Easy for Jesus to say, he gets to walk on top of the water.

Fear is paralyzing. Fear prevents us from engaging and interacting in certain ways and with certain people. Fear causes us to behave irrationally.
Fear…is the root of hatred and evil.

We’re suspicious of things that we’re afraid of. We might not understand them. We treat things and people as less than when we’re afraid of them.
Fear, in and of itself, isn’t sinful. But it’s a short walk from being fearful to acting with hatred, bigotry, violence, and evil.
Because when you’re suspicious of someone and you treat them as less than, you begin to believe, internalize, and display all sorts of sinful and evil things…like you’re the better race, the better gender, the better sexuality, the better religious belief, the better nationality, the better political party…insert any other determining and dividing factor here… And more than just believing that you’re better, when that sin starts to grow, you start to believe that there’s a preferred gender, race, sexuality, nationality, religion, political party…and that all others are wrong.

Yes, it is true that we have a long way to go to heal some of the deep wounds between us, and there are inroads to be made on all sides, but let’s be absolutely clear, there was only one group of people in Charlottesville, Virginia this weekend who were telling people who didn’t look like them that they didn’t belong, beating them, hurling slurs and objects at them, and driving cars at them. There was only one group of people in Charlottesville, Virginia this weekend using torches, slogans, and insignia, that many of us may have thought were buried to the dark pits of history, from decades ago, using them to incite fear into the hearts and minds of anyone who doesn’t think like them.

Sometimes fear is rational. For example, when someone believes that your life, that who you are as a beloved child of God, exactly who God created you to be, is any less valuable than any other life.
Sometimes fear is quite irrational. For example, fear that comes from suspicion of someone because they’re different. The irrational fear that manifests itself as hatred, racism, white supremacy, bigotry, and violence.
The irrational fear that causes some to feel more upset that I just said “white supremacy,” rather than because a 32-year old woman was murdered.
That fear is sinful. And it is evil.sunrise cross

So, what to do, church?
What are we, called as followers and disciples of the one who rejects violence…who rejects the oppression and marginalization of people…who consistently aligns his ministry with the poor, the outcast, the despised, the hated, the afflicted, the racial minority, the gender minority, the orphaned, the widowed, the sick, the hungry, the imprisoned—the less-thans…the one in whom, as St. Paul tells us in Romans this morning, there is no distinction, no Jewish believer or Gentile believer, no male or female, no superior race, no preferred sexuality, no better-than, no distinction, no hierarchy…what are we supposed to do in a time such as this?

You know, I had a great sermon planned out about trusting in the midst of rough waves and where we place our trust…but sometimes certain events demand a rewrite.

But maybe all is not lost.
Maybe we can still begin to learn to trust in the midst of fear.

I had a great line about Jesus’ words, “Do not be afraid” earlier this year. Maybe you remember it from the beginning of February.
It goes like this: God does not say don’t be afraid because there’s nothing to be afraid of. God says do not fear, but rather trust that in all things God is with you. That God is with you in the midst of your fears and worries.
God says do not fear, because in the death and resurrection of Christ, God has taken away and freed you from the power of sin and death. God has overcome death and is actively at work redeeming the world, and does so through you, so you are free to live out your identity as children of God. To speak God’s peace and God’s justice to a world that desperately needs to hear it.
In that way, then, I think “Do not be afraid” are some of the most comforting words I could hear.

They’re also some of the most challenging. Because they mean that rather than living a life of fear, I actually have to trust—I have to have faith—that God’s going to do what God says God’s going to do. That God does work for the good of God’s people. That God is at work actively redeeming the world and making it holy. That God is working to bring about God’s kingdom—God’s vision for the world—the reign of God where righteousness, justice, equity, and peace are the laws we live by, the slogans we chant, and the causes we march for.

“Do not be afraid” is a challenge and a comfort because while it calls me to live in spite of my fears, it also gives me hope and helps me to trust…to have faith…that I can live beyond those fears.

In our Gospel this morning Jesus calls Peter out of the boat into the raging storm and perilous waves, and Jesus is there to catch Peter, and to hold him when his fears overtake him. And then while Jesus does calm the waves in our Gospel this morning, first he climbs in the boat with his disciples.
Church, Jesus is with us in our fears; God is with us, in our fears and calling us beyond our fears, calling us to live in spite of our fears.
Jesus is calling us out of our places of relative safety, out into a world where storms and waves rage, to confront some things that are absolutely tough, but so necessary.
And Jesus is there to hold us in the midst of those storms, getting into the boat with us, and calming those storms.
And that is indeed good news, because when we trust that that’s true, we can live boldly into the future God is calling us into, daring greatly to embrace those things that might have felt out of reach or impossible or far too idealistic.

When we have faith, however much or little, that God is with us in the midst of our fears, we can begin to live beyond our fears, into lives full of possibility and promise.

Abundant Leftovers

* a sermon preached at New Hope Lutheran Church on August 6, 2017 *

Since sermons are primarily intended to be heard, you can listen along here.

Texts for the 9th Sunday after Pentecost:
Romans 9:1-5 + Matthew 14:13-21

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Please pray with me this morning:

Holy Abundant God,
You have generously blessed us,
And call us to be generous with our lives.
Open our hearts and hands beyond our selves,
That through you, our generosity might be multiplied.
Amen.

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One of the greatest privileges of my life was spending a semester abroad, living in Sevilla, Spain. During my 6 months there, I was obviously immersed in Spanish culture, everything from language to customs to food. And one of the things I discovered almost immediately, was a sense of genuine generosity in how I was treated. Whether it was a native Spaniard being patient with me as I struggled through what I was trying to communicate; or waiters letting us probar, or try, a lot of different things when we weren’t sure if we’d like a certain food; or simply giving their time and attention and offering their hospitality to a foreigner who was trying his best to learn and learn from another culture, the Spanish people are incredibly generous.

I’ve heard similar stories from people in this community who’ve visited our friends in El Salvador. That even though they don’t have much, the Salvadoran people are so, so generous and hospitable: inviting folks into their homes, feeding them, giving them gifts, everything.
It’s the same generosity and hospitality that I hope they experienced when they were here a couple of weeks ago.

I’ve also heard that the same commitment to generosity and hospitality holds true in most, if not all, of the global south. These wonderful people who, compared to the resources we enjoy here in the United States, have much less than we do, share anything and everything they have simply because being generous is inherent to their identity.

I wonder if people from other parts of the world would say that about us in the United States?

What about you, church? Do you think people would say that New Hope is a generous community?

And this is when a Gospel story becomes more than just a Gospel story. Remember when I said that you’re going to need your bibles? Everyone got Matthew 14? Great.
Our Gospel this morning picks up at Matthew chapter 14, verse 13 and started with, “Now when Jesus heard about this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place.” The “this” being referred to here is everything that’s happened up to this point in chapter 14. Check out those first 12 verses of Matthew 14.
The “this” is the beheading of John the baptizer. A beheading that took place at a banquet that Herod was hosting. This first 21 verses of Matthew 14 might well be called ‘A Tale of Two Banquets’ because if we read carefully, Jesus’ feast in this deserted place is a play on the banquet that Herod held at his place.

Herod’s banquet is at the palace, likely very lavish. There is plenty for the wealthy and powerful few, but no regard for the many, for the hungry and the poor. At Herod’s party, a powerless prisoner is executed for entertainment. The leftovers of Herod’s banquet are violence and death.

Jesus’ feeding of the multitudes is the subversive inverse of Herod’s banquet and is a diametrically opposed example to how the empire works. Jesus’ feast happens in a deserted place of no particular importance, simply a place that he and his disciples withdrew to get away and have some quiet. The explicitly invited group to Jesus’ banquet are those that the entirety of Jesus’ ministry is fixated upon—the poor, the hungry, the blind, the sick, the dis-eased, and the outcast, exactly those that Herod’s banquet kept out.
Herod consumes, Jesus multiplies.
Herod takes a lot and leaves behind only death and violence. Jesus takes a little and creates abundance.

And it’s this continuing inversion that we come together to celebrate every week. That rather than wantonly overconsuming and squeezing every ounce of life out things until they are more than dead as the empire does, God takes things that are dead and raises them to new, thriving, and abundant lives.
It’s the simple, straightforward truth we proclaim about the cross. That God brings life in spite of, instead of, death.

And so what are we doing with this incredible gift?
God has overcome death and given you life, and life abundant. You’ve been given a gift, and so what?

I think Jesus’ directive is pretty clear, “You give them something to eat.” The call of Jesus is one on our lives, how we live as disciples of the one who feeds a multitude with hardly anything. The point of the Gospel reading is not how Jesus literally took 5 dinner rolls and some trout and somehow fed 5,000 people by breaking them into tiny pieces and asking people to share. The point is that there was enough.
There is enough.
There is more than enough, it’s just that you’ve been told for your entire life that there’s not, and so you’ve been told that you have to stock up and hoard what you can.
Friends, that is a theology and a worldview of scarcity.
The God we worship, the kingdom that God is bringing about, operates on an economy of enough.

breadJesus transforms the economy by blessing it and breaking it beyond self-interest. Jesus’ question isn’t “How much do you need?” but rather “How much does your neighbor need?” When we start from a place of care and concern first and foremost for our neighbor, I think you’ll find that there’s always enough.

I’ve gotten a handful of funny looks from folks when I give them a big chunk of bread at communion. But when the gifts of God are so abundant, so extravagant, and so, so good and tasty, how can I not share them with the same lavishness with which God has shared them with us?
baptismYou’ve noticed that I do this with the waters of baptism as well, I think. Not only is it just fun to fling water everywhere and soak little foreheads, in my mind, my joy and excitement is simply mirroring the same extravagance and abundance that God has shown to us in giving us these gifts.

I use this language in our invitation to offering, too. Have you noticed? Every Sunday, I call us back from a time of sharing peace into a time of offering by saying, “We’ll now receive our offering, giving thanks to God for what God has given to us.”
Dear friends, our gifts, what we have, the space and place we inhabit, our friends and family, everything that we are blessed with…these are all blessings from God, and a holistic understanding of stewardship is one that recognizes that all we have and all we’ve been given were first given to us by God. And stewardship, whether we’re talking about offering, time, resources, food, money, talents, gifts…anything you have to give…is simply a way of looking at everything God has blessed you with and asking the question of what you do with…how you steward well…everything God has blessed you with.

How do you show thanks to God, for what God has given to you?

Maybe it’s volunteering at Fort Bend Family Promise or the East Fort Bend Human Needs Ministry Food Pantry. Maybe it’s finding one afternoon a month to read with some kids at your nearby school. Maybe it’s partnering with a mentoring program like Big Brothers and Big Sisters. Maybe it’s taking a Saturday morning to pick up trash around your neighborhood park. Maybe it’s giving of your time, energy, resources, or talents to New Hope.
Maybe it’s all of those things.

The point is, God is a God of abundance, and God has lavished gifts of all kinds on God’s people, so how do we thank God for all those things that God has extravagantly lavished on us?
When we move beyond an understanding of an economy of scarcity, and begin to view the world and everything in it the way God sees the world, as full of promise and possibility, through an understanding of an economy of abundance, the question is reframed from “How can there possibly be enough?” to “What are we going to do with all these leftovers?”

Dreaming Our Stories

* a sermon preached at New Hope Lutheran Church on July 30, 2017 *

Since sermons are primarily intended to be heard, you can listen along here.

Texts for the 8th Sunday after Pentecost:
Romans 8:26-39 + Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

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Please pray with me:

Loving God,
We thank you for your vision and your dream for your world,
Even when that vision and dream feel small, hidden, and disguised.
Help us to see that vision more clearly this morning,
That we may join you in doing what we are able.
Amen.

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One of our dear friends died yesterday.
We’ve been praying for Herb Boerstler and his family for over a week, and yesterday morning, Herb claimed the eternal promises made to him in his baptism. Promises of life in spite of death…promises of living and dying in sure and certain hope of the resurrection, because if in our baptism, like St. Paul writes, we are joined to Christ in a death like his, how much more surely will we be joined with Christ in a resurrection like his…promises that through the crucifixion of Christ, death has been conquered and death does not have the last word…promises that God’s final word is one of life…
We don’t have details to share right now, but when we do, we’ll share those.
I know…it’s not a super-happy way to start a sermon, but I think there’s something really beautiful about being to share and talk about the ways a faithful disciple of Christ has made a lasting impact on our community of faith.

See, Herb liked to tell stories. And, my God, he had a bunch of them. Herb had a story for almost any situation or occasion. And most of those stories ended with you holding one of your sides because you were shaking from a good old-fashioned belly laugh.

I have a tendency to begin most of my sermons with a story. A story about growing up, or a story from my time in Chicago… And as I get more time and more experiences in Houston, I’ll have stories about Houston too.
And as most of y’all know already from the facebooks, Tiffany and I just bought a house this weekend. And by the way, if you’re on the facebooks and we’re not friends, feel free to find me and add me as a friend. I like to post sermon excerpts, things I find interesting, and sometimes pictures of the house Tiffany and I just bought. Or cat videos… Anyway, so if you give me some time I’m sure I’ll also have some pretty good stories about the lovely spiritual discipline of homeownership.

I think one of the things we can take away from the parables of Jesus that we hear occasionally every year is that Jesus also liked to tell stories.
See, stories have a way of telling a deep truth about ourselves, about life, and about the world we inhabit together. Stories help us to relativize and personalize things that are complex, nuanced, difficult to understand, and difficult to talk about.

For example, I think I’ve mentioned before, or maybe you’ve read in my bio, that I like to brew beer. I certainly like to drink it, but I also really like to make it. And one of the ingredients when you’re making beer is yeast. And it wouldn’t be beer without the yeast, because the yeast eats all those sugars in the beer mixture and that’s what makes alcohol and carbonates the beer. But you can’t use too much yeast, because otherwise you’ve ruined the beer. And you can’t use too little, because otherwise you just have flat sugary water that tastes a little like bread.
See you have to use just enough. And it’s always amazing to me how just the right amount of something can make something as wonderful and tasty as beer.

And I think that’s true of Jesus’ parable about yeast too. You need yeast to make bread, but you’ve got to have just the right amount, not too little or too much. But it doesn’t take much, right? A little yeast goes a long way, because yeast packs a lot of power in those tiny molecules. Jesus tells us, “A little bit of yeast will leaven the whole batch.”

making breadThe kingdom of God appears unassuming at first. Small and insignificant…maybe even unthreatening…but the influence, the staying power, and the extent to which it will take over and spread like a mustard weed, and how it supplants the way things currently are for God’s vision of how things could be is colossal.

Truthfully, we probably don’t even know what exactly we mean when we say phrases like “the kingdom” or “the reign of God.” Even though we’re told over and over throughout the prophets and in the Gospels by Jesus himself what God’s vision, God’s reign, God’s kingdom looks like. Right?
Think of Isaiah. They will beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks. No longer will they learn war or violence. The wolf and the lamb, the lion and the calf, they’ll all be friends. The people of God will not hurt or destroy or be violent or kill because all the created world will be full of the knowledge of God.
Remember Micah. This is what the Lord requires of you, o mortal one, that you live in and create systems of justice, that you commit yourselves to love and kindness, and that you walk in fervent humility with your God.

Blessed are those who create peace. Blessed are the poor. Blessed are the ones who show mercy and have mercy shown to them. Blessed are the hungry, the naked, the sick, the dying, the homeless, those who can’t repay you.
And blessed are you when you alleviate these sufferings, because just as you did to one of the least of these, you also did to me. And whatever you did not do to one of the least of these, you also withheld from me, Jesus says.

The kingdom of God is not a fanciful idea or a lovely thing to put on a poster. The reign of God is a real, actual vision for how the world could look. And God’s bringing it about with or without our help.
But what a gift…what a remarkably tremendous gift…to be able to have a part…to just participate in God’s work when, where, and how we can in helping to make our little corner of the world just a little more reflective of the vision God has for God’s world.

We often confuse the kingdom of God in Jesus’ parables with us, don’t we? We think that we’re the yeast, we’re the mustard weed, and we’re the invaluable pearl.
And sometimes we are, to an extent, but be careful, because that interpretation replaces the reign of God with people, and while the people of God are part of the reign of God, the people aren’t the totality of God’s reign.
Because when people become the totality of the reign of God, we misunderstand what the greatness and expansiveness of God’s kingdom looks like.

But when we understand God’s reign in it’s fullness, greatness in the kingdom looks less like more Christians, and more like the presence of justice and equity.
When we understand God’s reign in it’s fullness, greatness in the kingdom looks less like discrimination veiled in religious wrappings, and more like how we show compassion and kindness to someone who’s different.
When we understand God’s reign in it’s fullness, greatness in the kingdom looks less like the push for more butts in the pews, and more like how we practice peace and love and righteousness and mercy.
It’s more hungry stomachs filled, more naked people clothed, more imprisoned people being visited and set free, and more sick being made well.

Those are things…that’s a vision…that I would sell everything for.

Would you?

The reign of God is God’s vision for how God’s world could be. And the growth and multiplication of God’s kingdom is not the spread of the religious institution or the church or Christians themselves, but the out-of-control explosion of the message of hope in God’s future for the world, and not just the message, but the actualization of it.

We try and live into that vision as best we can here at New Hope. And we can certainly do more.
Over the past few weeks, dozens of lives were impacted by their experience at Camp Hope. We blessed and were extraordinarily blessed by our amigas and amigos from El Buen Pastor in El Salvador.

What other visions are waiting to be discovered and uncovered in this field?

Those dreams we envision…the stories we tell…speak to deep truths about our selves, our world, and our lives. Like the pearl hidden in a field, those truths are precious and priceless. And like the yeast and mustard weed, they have explosive potential.

 

So what new stories is it time for us to tell?