Soiled Community

* a sermon preached at New Hope Lutheran Church on July 16, 2017 *

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

Texts for the 6th Sunday after Pentecost:
Romans 8:1-11 + Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

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Please pray with me:

Nurturing God,
We come to you this morning covered in dirt.
Dirty from our week, our expectations, our hurts, and our pains.
Things we’ve done, and things we’ve failed to do.
Plant in us this morning the truth of your immense love for us.
Water that truth with the nourishing waters of baptism,
And care for it, that it might take deep root in our lives.
Amen.

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There’s a common conversational method called the “Three Sieves” or “Three Filters”. Many people attribute it to Socrates or some other influential thinker, but the truth is, we don’t really know where it comes from. The premise is largely universal though.
Before one speaks, they should allow the thought or speech to pass through 3 filters: is it true, is it kind, and is it useful. The method has to do with how we create information or transmit information to one another.
The Quakers utilize a similar method at their meetings, whether in worship or in conversation with each other. The barometer they use centers around the question, “Will what I am about to say add something helpful to this discussion and move it forward?”

I think both of these methods try to get at the heart of what it means to be in relationship with one another in a community. And I think there are a few truths being expressed:
That in speaking kindly and truthfully, we do so out of love and a commitment to building up the community.
That it reflects a baseline of at least a desire to be in community together.
And there are certainly more truths to be uncovered, but the point is this: being in community with one another is difficult business. Simply because being in community with other people involves…other people…so communities are messy, multifaceted, nuanced, and complicated.

Quite a bit like parables in a lot of ways. Parables are stories with many different entry points and many different exits. There’s no one way to hear or receive a parable. They’re complex, layered stories with many truths existing within them.
But parables take a well-known action or lifestyle and approximate it to an abstract concept that’s difficult to understand. Like the kingdom of heaven…or the reign of God…or a life of discipleship…
Parables use the familiar to say something true or needful about the seemingly incomprehensible.
And it’s probably why Jesus uses them as a frequent method of teaching.

For years, sermons about this parable of the sower have been all about the ground, right? Like, “What kind of soil are you? Don’t be rocky or shallow soil, be good soil so that God’s word takes root in you and produces a bunch of stuff.”
Which is interesting because if the parable were all about the dirt, you’d think that it would be called the Parable of the Soil…

seedsBut if we consider the sower in the Parable of the Sower, we see someone who, honestly, I think is a little extravagant with her seeds. The parable doesn’t tell us that the sower goes out and carefully tills the soil so that when she does plant seed, it has the best possible chance of taking root and growing. No, the sower just goes out and starts throwing seed. Everywhere.
Doesn’t seem to take any special care with where the seeds are landing.

Which I think tells us something really significant about the heart of God. Because if God is the sower in the parable, then God is throwing out seeds—tossing out handfuls of God’s word of love and mercy and peace and compassion—like it’s going out of style.
Friends, the character of God is one of extravagance. Abundant and overflowing and generous measures of unconditional love, unmerited grace, and unrelenting compassion.
And if that’s the character of God, then it’s the character that we who call ourselves disciples and followers of this God are called to show as well.
That we communicate and demonstrate that same extravagant love and grace in the places where we find ourselves, charged with sowing those same seeds in our lives and in the lives of those we encounter.

And remember what I said about parables…that there are many entrances, many exits, and many truths. So our parable this morning isn’t just about the sower, right? I think the Parable of the Sower invites us to ask a lot of different questions.
In addition to the character of the sower, we might also wonder about the type of seed we’re sowing.
What kinds of handfuls of seeds are you throwing out? Is it good seed? Useful? Truthful? Kind?
If the seeds of the sower are the words of God, what words are you sowing?

What about where you’re sowing? Are you waiting for the perfect soil conditions to tell someone your story about how God’s love has impacted your life? Or is your testimony so compelling that, like the extravagant sower, you find yourself sharing handfuls of the ways and places you’ve experienced the life-changing and transformative love of God?

And finally, I do think it’s important to talk about the dirt, about the soil we find ourselves in, but maybe in a little bit different way. I wonder, what kind of soil do you think you are? What kind of soil do you think this place is?

To be completely honest, the question I’ve been wrestling with this week is, “How do you help people see that they really are very good soil?”
So much of our history with this parable is of trying to just be better dirt, to be a more worthy place for the word of God to take root and flourish. And that may be true of some communities.

I just don’t think it’s true of us right now at this moment.
Church, you are good soil. New Hope is very good soil.
I hope you can start to truly believe and internalize this.

This morning, we’re rejoicing with Lynnea and Alyssia as they celebrate their First Communion. These little ones are so, so hungry and eager for the love and goodness of Christ given for them in this magnificent meal, and they are so excited to share that with you.
This week we’ll welcome our siblings from El Buen Pastor in El Salvador and we’ll throw open our doors and our arms and shower them with the same warmth and hospitality that they show us every time we visit them.
Last week and in the weeks to come that Community Center over there is filled to the rafters with the shouts and squeals of young people who are learning and laughing and singing about a God who loves them beyond their wildest imaginations.

My goodness…
Keep planting, church. Keep cultivating this soil.
Keep speaking words that are true, kind, and useful.
Keep extravagantly planting the gracious, loving, compassionate words of God.
The fruits that are beginning to show are so, so good and abundant.

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Falling Gracefully

* a sermon preached at New Hope Lutheran Church on July 9, 2017 *

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

Texts for the 5th Sunday after Pentecost:
Romans 7:15-25a + Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

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Please pray with me:

Holy Comforter,
Our lives are full of expectation,
Maybe none more than the expectation we place on ourselves.
Lighten our burdens and ease our demands this morning.
Help us hear your liberating word of grace.
Amen.

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These last 3 verses of our Gospel this morning are read to every Lutheran pastor at their Ordination. It’s read as the stole, one of the marks of the Office of Pastor, is placed on their shoulders.
Usually the pastor kneels while this is happening, and will stand up and be announced after the stole is put on.

And…if you’re Pastor Chris, you’ll get caught up in your alb as you’re trying to stand and nearly fall on your butt, only to be saved by a quickly-placed hand on the floor, trying to make it look as natural and smooth as possible.

Yeah…tell me again about how easy that yoke is and how light that burden is…

Sometimes the call to discipleship can feel like that. It can feel like a really lofty ideal, completely unreachable. And I wonder, what must that do to our own sense of discipleship? Devastating, right?
Why would we willingly follow if the way seems impossible?

Like St. Paul in Romans this morning, you might find that you’re heaping all kinds of guilt upon yourself, trying to live as God has called you to live. It’s one of my favorite lines from Paul, by the way, “The good that I want to do, I do not do, but the evil, that which I do not want to do, is what I do.”
Paul’s giving voice to a really significant inner struggle, I think. Why is it that I keep doing the thing that I don’t want to do—harming others with my words, my actions…living counter to the way God would have me live—rather than the thing I want to do…living according to the path of discipleship God has called me to?

The Reformer, Martin Luther, resonated deeply with this passage from Romans.
Side note: 2017 is the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. We haven’t talked a whole lot about it up to this point, but it is something that is informing my preaching a lot these days. It’s one of the reasons why when we made the changes to our liturgy for the summer, I wanted to be sure that we heard these passages from Romans. For Luther, Paul’s letter to the Romans is one of the clearest articulations of the Gospel. And you’ve heard those themes these past few weeks.
Saved by grace through faith…baptized into Christ, buried into Christ’s death and joined to Christ’s Resurrection…
Luther had many of his own struggles, but these verses from Romans 7 really vexed him. Luther couldn’t figure out why it was that even though he wanted to live out what he felt God was calling him to, he continuously felt like he wasn’t measuring up. He constantly felt like he was falling short.

Maybe you feel that way too. I certainly do.
You may have heard me preach the past few weeks and thought, “There’s no way I can live like that all the time. That’s an impossible task for anyone.”
And if that’s the case, then I hope Jesus’ words this morning are a welcome balm of grace for you.

Look, the call to discipleship is a tough road, let’s be honest. It’s not easy, it doesn’t come naturally to us, and to try and live the kind of life of discipleship that Jesus is talking about will find you, like St. Paul and Martin Luther, at odds within yourself.
Our default posture is not one of giving of ourselves so that others would have.

But just because the task seems tall and the goal seems unreachable, doesn’t mean that there aren’t steps we can take to try and live the type of life that we’re called to.

But…and this part is key, so don’t miss this…we try to follow Jesus in the path of discipleship in full and complete knowledge that we will fall short and we will be in need of God’s grace to help us and cover us and make up for our shortcomings when that happens.
That the grace of God will catch us when we stumble.
And right here, church…this is the incredible gift of the Gospel that makes all the difference in the world.

I was raised in the city, I don’t know much about agriculture or farming, but I learned something about plowing this week. Yokes, like the kind used to link two cows or horses together, are custom-fit pieces. Yokes have to be made to fit precisely, otherwise it can cause serious injury or harm to the animals.
Friends, if Jesus says, “Take my yoke upon yourself,” you have to know that it is fit exactly for you.
The yoke of discipleship is specifically made for you.
And you are created to be a disciple.

yokeThe heaviness of the yoke can sometimes feel like the heaviness of the cross of discipleship that we’ve been talking about these past few weeks. But the magnificent gift of grace is that you are not called to carry a cross or a yoke that is ill-fitting. You are called precisely according to the gifts that you have.

We have a baptism this morning at the late service, and as I sat with Milo’s parents, Peter and Brittany, this week, we talked about baptism as being born into a spiritual family…a community of faith…the body of Christ…and that through our baptisms we celebrate and name the various members of that body and the gifts we bring to that community. We had a wonderful discussion about what part of the body each of us might be and why, and then I asked Peter and Brittany my most favorite question to ask whenever I do a baptismal seminar: What member of this body do you hope your child is?
The warmness of hope and possibility that settles over me every single time I ask that question is one of the great gifts I receive as Pastor of this community.

We all bring gifts to this community, church. You have something to give.
Later on, we’ll bless and commission youth that will serve our neighborhood and community as staff during the next 3 weeks of Camp Hope.
We’ll bless and bid farewell to Cheryl and Tom Braaten as they make their way to San Antonio and we celebrate the gift that they’ve been to us these past 34 years.

What about you? What gifts do you bring? What part of this body are you?

You are made to be disciples, dear friends.
The yoke of discipleship is easy and light.
Know that. Trust that.
Most especially when the weight of the world causes you to stumble.

The Least You Could Do

* a sermon preached at New Hope Lutheran Church on July 2, 2017 *

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

Texts for the 4th Sunday after Pentecost:
Romans 6:12-23 + Matthew 10:40-42

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Please pray with me:

Welcoming God,
Your word of hospitality is wider and deeper than we imagine,
And though we try, we often fall short of extending that word.
Remind us again this morning that we were once recipients of hospitality,
And give us courage to show that same love to all whom we encounter.
Amen.

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There’s a church in the Briarforest neighborhood of Houston that has a ministry that’s been going on for over 20 years. Every week a handful of people from the church get together and they make sandwiches. Then they take them out to the area around the church and bless the folks who are homeless in the area with a meal and some cold water.
If you talk to the Pastor about it, the Pastor will tell you, “I don’t invite people to church, I invite them to make sandwiches.”

Incredible…
Church, for them, is less about coming together and existing for themselves, and more about what a lived-out faith looks like.
When I asked the Pastor about how their ministry got started and why they started doing it, the Pastor said, “It just seemed like the least we could do.”

These past 3 weeks, our Gospel readings have all come from the same chunk of the Gospel of Matthew known as the Discipleship, or Mission, Discourse. In it, we’ve heard a pretty clear outline about what a disciple is and what a life of discipleship looks like. The past 3 weeks began and end today with hospitality.
We started with how disciples are to be welcomed in ministry.
2 weeks ago we heard that disciples are to travel lightly, bringing peace to the places that will receive them, but shaking the dust off their feet on the places that won’t. With Jesus expressing words of caution about the ministry disciples are undertaking.
Then this week, the discourse ends with how disciples are to be welcoming.
And last week, we heard we heard about the perils of discipleship, the call to pick up your cross and follow Jesus on the path of discipleship.

And I wonder if hospitality doesn’t sometimes feel like a heavy cross to carry. Not only because it requires you to open yourself to someone or a group of someones who may not think, talk, believe, vote, speak, or worship like you; but also because, as a church, as a community of faith, we have to be honest about what we’re inviting people into.
Because if we’re being hospitable and inviting people into a place that is genuinely and authentically church, I think we have to be honest, certainly with the people we’re inviting, but maybe most especially with ourselves, that as a church, we expect that God is actually present…that we really and truly believe that God is moving and active and bringing about God’s reign of peace and justice…a kingdom that sees through the way things are and instead visions and works toward the way things could be…a reign that rejects violence as a viable solution and establishes equality, and equity, and justice, and righteousness as its foundation.
If we’re inviting people to join us on the path of discipleship, then we need to be honest about what discipleship looks like and where that path leads. Like I said last week, the path of discipleship is the way of the cross, and that is a way to death—dying to yourself and living for others, losing your life to gain it.

sandwichSeen this way then, church, there’s a deeply consequential connection between hospitality and discipleship, right? Jesus says, “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.”
How we show hospitality to others is a direct reflection on how we treat God.
I said it a few weeks ago, but it bears repeating here: if it’s true that all of humanity is made in the image of God, like we hear in the Creation narrative, then how we treat one another, how we treat those who are seeking our hospitality, is a direct reflection on what we think about God.

In a day and age when individualism and exceptionalism are celebrated and lifted up as the highest ideals to aspire to, it seems to me that the call to discipleship is a call to recognize the ways in which we’re connected.
And more than connected, to recognize the ways in which we’re in-ter-dependent upon one another, the ways in which injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere, the ways in which the oppression of anyone anywhere is oppressive of everyone everywhere.

But if our oppression is bound up together, then so is our liberation, by God.

 

And hospitality isn’t really that difficult. It doesn’t require much of you, mostly a posture of welcome and invitation. A cup of water, like we heard this morning, is literally the least amount of hospitality you could give. It hardly requires anything of you. To do any less would be to do nothing.
And yet, this is what gets lifted up as a model, right?

So, what does hospitality look like for us? How do we begin to adopt this posture of welcome?
It’s interesting, as I look across the many ministries we have at New Hope, so many have a component of them that involves food. And don’t get me wrong, I love to eat, but I think there’s deeper meaning there. Isn’t it interesting that one of the things that we hear about Jesus doing a lot of is eating? Sharing meals together is one of the great acts of hospitality.
One former member of New Hope tells the story about being totally new to the area, taking a chance on a little congregation in Missouri City and being invited over to another member’s home for lunch. On her first Sunday visiting. That’s the kind of radical hospitality that transforms lives, church.
Every church says they’re welcoming and hospitable. Few actually are.
So where are we currently showing that kind of radical hospitality?

In a few short weeks, we’ll welcome a group from El Salvador, and we’ll have an opportunity to open our arms and show hospitality.
We have visitors in our pews more Sundays than not. Are we being hospitable and welcoming in a way that isn’t in your face and overbearing, but is, at the same time, open and honest about the kind of Christian community we’re trying to be, the kind of life of discipleship that we’re trying to follow?

And what if we take the question of welcome and hospitality further? What about our LGBTQ siblings? What about our neighbors who are people of color? How are we showing invitation, welcome, and hospitality to members of oppressed and marginalized groups?

I’m talking about deep, consequential hospitality and radical and inclusive welcome. That’s the kind of stuff that transforms.
If sin is separation from God and from one another, than to be inhospitable is sinful. The prophet Ezekiel notes that “This was the sin of your sister, Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy.” And like we heard from Jesus 2 weeks ago, “It will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom than for the one who is inhospitable.”
Friends, hospitality is more than a lovely ideal or a nice thing to put on signs, hospitality a vital part of being a disciple.

And if being inhospitable is sinful, then St. Paul’s words in Romans carry new meaning, right? “No longer be bound by sin.” We often relegate Paul’s message, especially his letter to the Romans, into morality, but consider Paul’s words in relation to righteousness or justice that he so often writes about.
Then the call to no longer live sinful lives is a call to live lives that are transformed.
A transformed life doesn’t live to sin out of some sense of morality; a transformed life doesn’t live to sin because it has no need to sin, it has no use for ways of living that are separated from God and from other people.

We heard last week from Paul, through your baptism, you died to sin.
You are no longer beholden to, no longer enslaved by sin. Your identity is no longer defined by sin. Your identity is rooted in your baptism. Your identity is that of a saved, redeemed, and sanctified child of God, reconciled to God’s own self. So what are you going to do with that?
Therefore, Paul says this morning, be enslaved by God. Be bound up in your calling as a disciple of Jesus Christ.

And this is the great liberating word of the Gospel. That you are no longer defined by or beholden to the ways of sin that draw you from God.
You are freed to live a life worthy of the calling you have received from God.
You are free to live lives of radical hospitality and inclusive welcome. Lives that are full and reflective of the same limitless and extravagant love that God has for you.

It seems to me, that in light of this incredible gift we’ve been given, this amazing grace of God that loves us in spite of our sin and promises us salvation here and now in this time and place, that being extravagantly hospitable and showing radically inclusive love to those we encounter is the least we could do.

True Peace is Hard to Come By

* a sermon preached at New Hope Lutheran Church on June 25, 2017 *

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

Texts for the 3rd Sunday after Pentecost:
Romans 6:1b-11 + Matthew 10:24-39

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Please pray with me:

Holy God,
We say we want peace,
Yet true peace is hard to come by.
Guide us as we walk down this path of discipleship.
And remind us again that you walk with us.
Amen.

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One of the things I hated most about being a kid was getting hurt. Scrapes, bumps, bruises, cuts, gashes…I got them all. I loved riding my bike more than anything, so all of those were basically a weekly occurrence.
I hated the cuts and bumps and scrapes most because 1) it meant playtime had to be put on pause, but 2) because the process of cleaning up scrapes and gashes and cuts is really quite terrible.
See, because before you put a bandaid or neosporin on it, you have to clean it. Really well.
You have to wash it with water, maybe a little soap, maybe put some hydrogen peroxide on it, and if you’re anything like me, you’re thinking back to when you had to do that last part and you’re cringing a little bit, right?

In order for wounds to heal well, they have be cleaned. And that part is awful, sometimes as bad as the injury itself. But it is necessary in order for good healing to happen.

In our Gospel this morning, we hear Jesus saying one of the most un-Jesusy things in all of the Gospels, “I’ve not come to bring peace, but I’ve come to bring a sword.” It’s a hard thing for us to hear from the one we call the Peaceful One. But I do think Jesus is talking about peace here.
It’s just that I think Jesus is talking about a deep, abiding, true peace, rather than the things that masquerade as peace these days. That abiding peace—that true peace—in Hebrew is Shalom.

Jesus is saying here that true peace is hard to come by.
And I think deep inside our heart of hearts, we know that to be the case. That so much of what passes as peace these days is a false peace. False peace is a peace that is gained by violence. False peace is a peace that is peaceful for some, but not for all.
But true peace—that abiding peace—I think we know, is a long, arduous, and sometimes painful road.

Because true peace requires you to confront some pretty ugly things about yourself. It forces you to recognize and be honest about the ways in which you’ve distanced yourself from your neighbor, how you’ve hurt or harmed those you once called family, and how you’ve used your words to cause injury or violence rather than building up and healing.

I think this poem by Christian Wiman that we’re using as our Confession during this Season of Pentecost does a pretty good job of naming this: “For all the pain passed down the genes or latent in the very grain of being; for the lordless mornings, the smear of spirit words intuit and inter…”
Right? These ways in which our words smear the spirits of others. Or the pain we cause others because it’s inherent to our very being, our DNA is infused with this sense of separation from God, and our innate inclination is to distance ourselves from our neighbors or the other.
Look deep inside yourself. Isn’t that true of you?

That’s what St. Paul is talking about when he writes about our “old self.” That the sinful posture of humanity is one of turning away from God. That’s been true of humanity from the beginning.
SparrowAnd we have to fight with every fiber of that being to overcome those tendencies. It takes a conscious choice on our part to try to live in reconciled relationships with God and with each other. And it’s not a one and done thing, we have to recommit ourselves to that difficult work of reconciliation and peace-making again and again, day after day, morning after morning, Sunday after Sunday. We come to this place to hear God’s word of forgiveness; that every single hair on your head has been counted, numbered, and named; that you, precious child of God, are worth so much more than a thousand sparrows; that neither height nor depth, that nothing in all of creation can separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus; that if you have been joined to Christ in a death like his, how much more surely, dear people, will you be united with Christ in a resurrection like his.

True peace is hard to come by.
The Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr., when he was preaching a sermon on these verses from Matthew said, “Peace is not the absence of tension, but the presence of justice.”

When we truly follow Jesus in this path of discipleship…when we take seriously the call given to us in our baptism to actively work for peace and justice in the world…when we internalize what the Reverend Doctor King noted that “No one is free until all are free” and that our liberation as humanity is inextricably tied together and caught up in “an inescapable network of mutuality”…when we really, actually work for and make justice a reality in our unjust communities…when we take up our own cross and follow Jesus…that’s how we start down the way of true peace.

But let’s be clear about where that way leads.
If you pick up your cross, if you undertake the difficult work of creating and cultivating justice, you will find yourself with Jesus along the way of the cross. And that way leads to death.

You will die to yourself, and you will have started to live for others.
You will lose your life, but in losing your life you will have gained it.

The path of discipleship, this way of the cross, is one marked by wounds and scars.
And it’s especially through the wounds and scars of the One we follow in this way of hard-fought, abiding, true peace that God gives life to all of God’s creation…including the sparrows.

Suffering With and Speaking Life

* a sermon preached at New Hope Lutheran Church on June 18, 2017 *

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

Texts for the 2nd Sunday after Pentecost:
Romans 5:1-8 + Matthew 9:35-10:23

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This is a tough sermon this morning.
One that I hope names some of our deeper hurt, but also calls us to greater love.

Please pray with me:

Holy One,
We live in the midst of suffering.
But we do not suffer alone.
Remind us again of our call to bear one another’s burdens.
Call us again to speak words of life and peace and love.
Amen.

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I served as a chaplain in 2013 at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in downtown Chicago. The summer of 2013 was one of the deadliest on record up to that point, and each summer since then has seen the violent crime and homicide rate increase in Chicago.
I served on the Medical ICU floor…the worst-case scenarios, the long-term sick, the touch-and-go cases, and the folks who were out of options…

I didn’t know what suffering looked like until I served in a hospital.

I prayed with a family of about 25 people all crammed into one hospital room as we held hands around the bed as their matriarch took her last breaths. The room was filled with cries and sobbing and shouts of lament like I had never experienced before, but they were the most honest prayers I’ve ever heard.
I sat with a man for 5 hours in the lobby of the hospital after he watched his wife of 47 years die on the stretcher in the ER. Sometimes suffering looks like someone who’s just lost their beloved staring blankly at a cell phone, trying to remember who they were about to call, or even what they were going to say.

As I’ve listened to and watched the personalities on NPR and the news channels this week, it seems like everyone’s carrying around a heavier weight with them. It feels like the news cycle is starting to catch up to us.
On Wednesday, a man felt justified in opening fire on Republican Congresspeople as they practiced baseball in part because of the virulent rhetoric present in our political discourse.
On Friday, a jury in Minnesota acquitted a police officer in the 2016 murder of Philando Castile.
Yesterday was the 2-year anniversary of the massacre at Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. A massacre of 9 beautiful children of God, including their pastor, the Reverend Clementa Pinckney, who, by the way, studied at an ELCA seminary in Columbia, South Carolina. A massacre perpetrated by the white supremacist Dylann Roof, who, by the way, was baptized, grew up, and was confirmed in the Lutheran church. Our church, our denomination, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in American, the ELCA…

And all of this in the same month when Coptic Christians are being martyred in Egypt, terrorist attacks are happening around the world including Manchester and London, and more than 50 people are presumed dead in an apartment fire outside London.

There is no shortage of suffering in our world.
And yeah…it’s been a tough week.

I think of the end of our Gospel reading this morning when Jesus talks about siblings and parents and children warring against each other, and ruling classes oppressing the lower classes, and state-sanctioned punishment and execution. And it really doesn’t sound so different than today.
And when we hear this, I think it’s easy to feel overwhelmed, like “What can I do in the midst of all of this?”
And I turn to our Gospel today here too. See, because I don’t think Jesus is sending the disciples out to convert people, to create the newest batch of the first Christians. We hear Jesus this morning sending the disciples with explicit directives to “cure the sick, cleanse the lepers, and cast out demons.” Friends, the call to discipleship is a call to go and alleviate suffering. And not through thoughts and prayers and retweets and facebook posts, but through actual embodied presence. To alleviate suffering is go to the places where suffering is and do what you can with what you have to make things even just a little better for those people in those places.

Our Gospel this morning notes that when Jesus saw the crowds of people he was ministering to, those that were sick or diseased or cast aside or beholden to something outside of themselves, he had compassion for them. The Greek word is interesting…compassion…splachnizomai…literally, to be moved from your guts. Compassion is visceral, it’s feeling that moves you to action. Compassion, which we get from Latin…com—passio…to suffer with. To have compassion for someone is to be physically moved to suffer with them.
It only requires an investment of yourself.

But how many of you are dealing with suffering of own? I wonder for how many of you the thought of being present with someone else in their suffering feels like a really tall order because quite honestly you’re just trying to deal with you own stuff…
This, dear friends is why discipleship is a communal effort. Because it really does take all of us. To bear one another’s burdens. To lift one another up. To be present with one another in the midst of our suffering. To search out meaning and fumble around to find moments of joy in the midst of suffering.

There’s another interesting language note in our reading from Romans this morning. St. Paul writes that, “We boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance; endurance, character; and character, hope; and hope doesn’t disappoint.” That “boasting in sufferings” part, that’s not boasting or being prideful because of suffering, but is more accurately translated as boasting in the hope we have from God in the midst of our suffering. It’s having hope in spite of suffering.

And that is the message of the cross. That though we are still sinners, Christ suffered and died for us. And for “them”. And for all of creation.
And not just that Christ died, but through the Resurrection, Christ overcomes suffering and death—Christ defeats death and takes away the sting of suffering. Death no longer has the last word. God’s final word to God’s people is one of life.

And if that’s true, I think that gives us an indication about how we are to go about at least beginning to follow this call to discipleship. If God’s word that overcomes death and suffering is a word of life, then the call is to alleviate suffering where we find it begins with our words. Speaking words of life instead of words that harm and injure and inflict violence.
Because how can we know the needs of someone else unless we talk and listen to them? How can we possibly start to show compassion to someone who is suffering if the words we use most often are those of division and violence and hatred?
There’s no shortage of suffering in our world; that harvest is plentiful, but the laborers willing to be present with and speak life-giving words into the midst of that suffering are few.
So how will you undertake the call to that kind of discipleship?

I think it starts with our words.
In the wake of the attack in Virginia on Wednesday, US legislators of all parties are calling for a toning down of the vitriol and spitefulness in the rhetoric of Washington. And I think that’s a helpful lesson for us. It may or may not surprise you to know that your pastor can see your facebook posts. And you may or may not be ok with that.

Be kind to each other. Speak words that lift up and give life rather than words that tear down and destroy. Build bridges instead of walls. Build bigger tables for sharing food rather than larger fences for closing yourself off.

And when you do that, I think you’ll find that your capacity for sitting with one other in your suffering begins to grow.

These Are The Facts

* a sermon preached at New Hope Lutheran Church on February 5, 2017 *

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

Texts for the 5th Sunday after the Epiphany:
Isaiah 58:1-12 + Psalm 112:1-10 + 1 Corinthians 2:1-16 + Matthew 5:13-20

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Please pray with me this morning:

Holy God,
You tell us the truth about ourselves.
That we are salt. That we are light. And you call us to live like it.
Remind us of these truths, these facts, when we are fearful.
And especially when we aren’t feeling particularly flavorful or luminous.
Amen.

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A few years ago I was making the solo 14-hour drive from Chicago to Arlington, TX. I was doing it solo because I had a meeting with my candidacy committee and Tiffany had to work, so I set off on my own. I left Chicago about 5:30 in the morning, grabbed my Starbucks iced coffee with 4 shots of espresso, and away I went. I turned on NPR as I do quite often, and I just kept going. I got about halfway down Illinois before I had to switch radio stations, and then I found the central Illinois NPR station, then the southern Illinois NPR station, and then the St. Louis area NPR station, and at that point it really just became a game. I made it almost to Joplin, Missouri before I was no longer able to find a public radio station.

I went almost 9 hours and nearly 900 miles of just listening to news and facts and commentary.
That’s another reason I was driving alone, because there’s no way Tiffany would have let me do that if she were in the car…

I consume information.
I listen to public radio, I read blogs, and articles, and headlines, and updates.
I am data junkie.

But to what end? What does my consumption of information do for me?
I certainly consider myself well informed. I purposefully seek out perspectives that are different than mine. But ultimately, what have I gained?

Knowledge without purpose isn’t useful. Our knowledge needs direction.
Consider us this morning, church. I mean, for the most part, we have a lot of information about Jesus, and the Holy Spirit, and God. We know a lot of stuff.
But knowledge for knowledge’s sake is just that…information, data…

But what if we amassed information and knowledge for the sake of the actual, physical, life-or-death difference it might make on the life of another?

In this section of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus reminds us that knowledge about God cannot exist simply as knowledge. Knowledge about God—or more simply, theology—is the knowledge of God’s very presence in the world. To know about God is to notice the ways God is moving and active in our world.
It’s not enough, then, to know about God. As disciples, we have to live into, we have to be the activity of God in the world.
It’s not just that we are salt and light, Jesus calls us to be salt and light.
Jesus calls us to live out our identity as salt and light.

To let our righteousness, or more accurately translated justice, exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees.
That type of justice is an embodied justice, it’s actualized.
Like Dr. Cornel West says, “Justice is what love looks like in public.”
Church, it’s one thing to sit in here for an hour on a Sunday morning and nod our heads in agreement because everything I’m saying and everything we’re praying and singing sounds really good and really, wouldn’t that be lovely…but it is a wholly different thing to take these words to heart, and not just to take them to heart, but to let them seep into our very bones, the very fibers of our being, and have these words bind up our lives so that we can’t not go out and do the very things that the Gospel is calling us to do.

Knowledge without purpose, without action, perpetuates the way things are.
Knowledge without action allows us to see injustice in the world, but justify our inaction because it doesn’t square exactly with our worldview, or the problem is just too big, or there are too many problems, or “I’m just one person, so what difference could I really possibly make…”
Friends, it is a myth and a lie that injustices in the world are mutually exclusive. Yes, our world is rife with injustice. Yes, our world looks very different than the vision of the peaceable kingdom that God envisions for God’s world. But dear people, this is an opportunity, not a prohibitive excuse!
Because these are the facts: You are salt. You are light.
And as claimed, and called, and beloved children of God, we must start living like it. Because it is truly a matter of life or death.

Knowledge without purpose allows us to continue in the dominant narratives of fear that we tell ourselves.

I fully believe that, fundamentally, it is fear that prevents us from truly living as God calls us to live, as salt and as light.
And so I wonder, church, what are you afraid of? What do you fear?

How you answer that question probably depends on your demographic or your social location.
For example, if you’re a 30-something like me, you might fear that you’ll never be able to pay off the mountains of student debt you might have.
Or if you’re a little older, you might fear the increased number of visits to the doctor, or the myriad of specialists you now have to make appointments with.
If you identify as LGBTQ, you might be fearful of being able to be your fullest self, for fear that some people might not accept those parts of you.
If you have a daughter, or son, or family member, or loved one serving in the military, you might fear the prospect of them being put in harm’s way, or worse, returning from their service only to be so deeply emotionally and mentally affected that they’re just not the same again, only to find a system not set up to give them the support that they need and deserve.
If you have family or loved ones overseas, you might fear for their safety. You might legitimately be afraid of going to visit them, for fear of not being able to return home.
These aren’t politics, church, this is real.
Just this weekend, a hate-filled note was left at the house of someone in the Riverstone community, just down the road. This also happened in Sienna Plantation. And near the Galleria.
This is not who we are.
These are all real, actual fears that many of you sitting here this morning have.
These are all real, actual fears that many of your siblings in Christ have.

barbed_wire_in_the_sky

Friends, don’t hear me saying that fear isn’t real, or that fear isn’t warranted. 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.
Rather than practicing self-serving fasts, like the prophet in Isaiah says. Rather than quarreling and fighting and going back and forth on facebook.

Because “This is the fast that I choose,” says the Lord, “To loose the bonds of injustice, to set the oppressed free, to share your bread with the hungry, to bring the homeless into your own house, to clothe the naked, to give to those who ask of you
Then your light will shine forth like the noonday! Then your light shines in the darkness!”
Then…you are being light.

You are free to be Christ…to be the very embodiment of God…to be Love…to your neighbors who are fearful. Who need to be wrapped in the loving warmth of God.
You are free to be salt and light to a world that needs to be flavored and illumined.
Don’t let your fear prevent you from living out the truth of who God calls you to be.
God says be salt and be light anyway, in spite of your fear.
Because by doing so, maybe…maybe…we can begin to overcome our fears.

If I’m honest, sometimes my continuous consumption of information makes me feel overwhelmed and causes fear to rise up inside me. And it’s not easy to see God in the midst of those times. But when I take time to pause, and breathe deeply, and really look for God, often a small flicker of light, a glimmer of hope, catches my eye.
It happened to me two weeks ago, when I was feeling particularly discouraged and fearful. And just then an unread email caught my attention. It was from a then-unknown friend at The Islamic Institute here in Houston. One of my predecessors had reached out to them and begun conversations about finding opportunities for partnership between our congregation and any number of Islamic faith communities in our area.
He and I have only just started exchanging emails, but I am so, so hopeful for the future directions of these conversations. I hope we can build bridges of peace in our corner of the world, rather than digging deeper trenches of division.

What do people see when they see you? Do they see salt that has lost its taste, or light that has been snuffed out under a basket?
Church, we are salt. We flavor the world we inhabit. Let that flavor be good and wonderful and pleasing to God.
We are light. Light that shines forth from us wherever we go. I hope that what people see from us is beautiful and Christlike. That people see Christ in us, and give glory and praise to God in heaven.

These are the facts, Church:
We are a city on a hill. We are the salt of the earth. And we are the light of the world.
Christ has freed us to live it.

One Spirit, One Community

* a sermon preached at New Hope Lutheran Church on Pentecost, June 4, 2017 *

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

Texts for the Festival of Pentecost:
Acts 2:1-21 + Psalm 104:24-34, 35b + 1 Corinthians 12:3b-13 + John 20:19-23

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This was a jointly preached sermon between one of our youth and myself.

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When I was young, well younger than I am now, I was taught the head, shoulders, knees, and toes song. You know, “head shoulders knees and toes, knees and toes,” you get the gist. And the preschool teachers began the long process of teaching us kids all the parts of the body and their roles. The hands were for touching, the mouth was for eating, the feet were for walking. And then years later the health and science teachers expanded on that, going into excruciating detail on organ and body systems, and how they interact with each other. My entire seventh grade science class was devoted to biology and the study of what makes creatures stay alive, while also adapting and evolving to continue thriving through homeostasis. We thoroughly explored how each part contributes to a whole, and that that is precisely what keeps us breathing in and out, among other things.

In the second reading, today we hear again the familiar idea that “all the members of the body, though many, are one body.” Reinforcing everything I had learned, a reminder even in faith. It doesn’t have the same meaning though. This liturgical version runs deeper as it applies to much more than just the scientific aspect of the body. If English class has taught me anything, it’s that to learn the true meaning, unwrap the layers of the text and focus in on the word choice. Paul chooses the word “member”, rather than piece or part. Now why is that? Paul uses the word member to represent living individuals coming together to become one, just as he uses the word body to symbolize not only the literal human body, but larger communities and societies. The dissolving of the differences that separate us brings us together, speaking the same language, listening to the same words, singing the same songs.

These days in the media you hear the way people treat each other. As if they have nothing in common. You see the inequality. The discrimination. How somehow people think it is acceptable to treat people differently than they deserve, based solely on things that make us people. Things like, “race, gender, sex, pregnancy, ethnic or social origin, color, sexual orientation, age, disability, religion, conscience, belief, culture, language and birth, etc.” If this all exists then how can we also be simultaneously members of one body, all whole as one? The other day I was sitting at the lunch table with my friends stressing over finals, how we were going to miss each other in high school, plans for the summer, etc. And the topic of Ariana Grande’s concert came up. Immediately we expressed our sadness for those who were injured and those who lost their life. But then my best friend in the world, who happens to be Sudanese and proud of it, looked at me, straight in the eye and said, “I hate those attacks because whenever people die or get injured everyone assumes that all Muslim people are bad and not every Muslim is a bad person.”

Therefore, how, in the midst of all this, can we be one whole society?
Paul tells us. “In one Spirit” For in one spirit. We are all connected. Today’s reading stresses that the Holy Spirit is truly what brings us together and creates that bond of members we have under the church of Christ. When I was growing up out of the three and one, the Father and the Son were most talked about. But now as I mature I start to realize that the Spirit might be one of the most important of all. The Holy Spirit not only unites us, but marks us as children of God during baptism. It is during that time when the Spirit washes over us, cleansing our mind, body, and conscience of differences, so that we can be our own selves, but joined under the entire umbrella of the church, sheltering us from the harsh rains of separation.

Furthering this train of thought, Paul grasps at something bigger for he touches the theme of identity, and defining who you are in relation to others. For not only does this reading ask “how can we be united when we are so different?” but also “how can we be different if we are so united?” The Holy Spirit guides us to help find that perfect middle, so that all those pieces of the puzzle are distinctive, but whole, and all irreplaceable.

Today we honor the Spirit and all that it entails, shaping our lives so that we can be who we are. Who we were created to be. Today we remember not only the stories when the Spirit comes as fire, or water, or wind, but especially the present stories of ways the Spirit shines through people now. In my now old middle school we had the most diverse classrooms I have ever seen. I must’ve had friends from countless countries teaching me about their traditions and lifestyles. I personally hung out with many Indian friends, so much that they have accepted me into their culture and called me an honorary Indian. I participated in doing an Indian dance in PE when we had to choreograph one together, and I’m pretty sure right now I could name at least 10 Indian songs that are popular even though I don’t understand the language at all. The purpose of this now lengthy example is that this is how I see the Holy Spirit. When I walked into school every day and saw all those friendly but widely varied faces it evidenced the power the Spirit has, forever bringing us together, no matter what.

NHLC Pentecost

Like Abby said, Paul writes “In the one Spirit we were baptized into one body, and so it is with Christ.” Friends, in our baptism we are brought together as one, joined to Christ, joined to one another, through the Spirit. And “to each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good”.

I think that’s a really important verse for us. As Abby notes, we’re much more ready to identify those things that divide us than those things that unite us. And how on earth could we possibly work together for good if our starting point is one of division?

God’s not looking for mindless drone robots. That’s why I think Paul’s language of members of the body is so beautiful. Each member of the body retains their own identity. A finger is different than a toe, a shoulder different than a nose, but all of these members are dependent on one another to accomplish that which a body is used for. Our task, dear people, is to come together, bringing our individualities and identities, yet asking the prayerful and discerning question, “What is that God would have us do together?”

It’s part of the reason that today, during this celebration of Pentecost, that we’re recommitting and rededicating ourselves to the mission and ministry of New Hope Lutheran Church. On a day when we celebrate the birthday of the Church, the day when the message of the Gospel was heard in new ways by new groups of people and set loose in the world by the Holy Spirit, we’re also celebrating the ways in which we, as a church, as New Hope, are hearing and experiencing and living out the Gospel in new ways and being moved out from our pews by that same Holy Spirit.

Recommitting ourselves to the mission and ministry of New Hope means recommitting ourselves to prayerfully asking that question about what God is calling us to. It means moving forward into a new future, a new mission, a new path… It’s not closing the book, at all, it’s committing to beginning a new chapter, one that remembers and is informed by but is not beholden by our past.

There are many ways in which the church we are now has been incredibly blessed by the church we once were, and we are thankful for that. And, we are and we can be so much more than the church we once were.
Recommitting and rededicating ourselves to the mission and ministry of New Hope is recommitting and rededicating ourselves to listening for and following that Spirit of God that was set loose at Pentecost and is still moving mightily in our world and in this place.

And if you’re wondering if that’s true, if you’re still not convinced, just take a look at our worship this morning. Everything we’re doing this morning has been planned and led by this group of faithful Christians, who want nothing more than for you to recognize what they’ve known this whole time: that the Spirit is here and the Spirit is moving through this place like fire.

 

So in your everyday life, if you haven’t already, start noticing the little ways the Holy Spirit contributes in your life. Notice how the Spirit sparkles and flows through members you see, for all of them are surely becoming one body.