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.

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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.

Love Without Restrictions

* a sermon preached at New Hope Lutheran Church on February 19, 2017 *

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

Texts for the 7th Sunday after the Epiphany:
Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18 + Psalm 119:33-40 + 1 Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23 + Matthew 5:38-48

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Please pray with me this morning:

Holy One,
We are often caught up in the world’s
cycles of retribution, and revenge, and violence.
Increase our capacity for love, as you have loved us.
And by loving, may we begin to overcome and end those cycles.
Amen.

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For the past 2 months, as we’ve been moving together through this season of Epiphany, I’ve been centering us in the narrative of a life of discipleship. I’ve been noting for us how a life of discipleship fits certain patterns of life, how a way of living and being that is modeled after the life and ministry of Jesus looks a certain way and reflects certain values. I’ve been calling attention to the ways in which living and being this way, as a Christ-follower, sometimes…oftentimes…looks very different than the patterns of life that are lifted up as good or desired or admirable by the world.

But mostly, I’ve been highlighting how these patterns of living and being aren’t easy and don’t come naturally for us.
In my own sermon preparation, in my devotional time, or in leading weekly Bible studies for the staff, I find myself saying, “These are some of the most difficult words from Jesus.”
In fact, it’s possible that I’ve said those words explicitly each week for the past 4 weeks as we’ve been working through the Sermon on the Mount.

Each week it feels like Jesus is taking the calling on our lives a little further. Each week, it feels like the expectations are increasing, like the bar is being set higher and higher. Each week, it feels like Jesus is trying to outdo himself from the previous week.

And this week is no exception.

This week, with his talk of resisting retribution and loving enemies and nonviolent resistance and praying for those who would prevent others from living full and abundant lives, Jesus is taking this Christ-like living to another level.
But how can we? How can we truly love like Jesus is asking us to love?

The word for love here is not the emotional kind that we associate with the holiday from this past week. This love is consequential relationship. It’s a deep and abiding love. But I want to suggest something to you this morning that I think will help us as we unpack Jesus’ words, and it’s something that I also hope will totally shift how you think about and live out love.

Love…is an action verb.
You cannot love passively. This type of love that Jesus is talking about is actualized. It’s embodied. Love requires something of you. Those of you who have deep and abiding love for your partner or spouse or significant other or children or grandchildren or family or loved ones know that this is true.
Love requires something of you.

merton285Father Thomas Merton, a Cistercian monk and mystic who lived in rural Kentucky said, “Love seeks one thing only; the good of the one loved. It leaves all the other secondary effects to take care of themselves. Love, therefore, is its own reward.”
Love seeks the best for the one being loved, not the one doing the loving.

Love means that we risk vulnerability. That we give up our innately human desire to pluck out eyes and pull teeth. Love relinquishes the need for retribution or revenge.
Love has no use for violence, because our world is violent enough.
Love is the ultimate self-giving act… It’s a cruciform way of living… It’s the way of the cross.

When we say that God is love, we mean that God seeks, above all else, the best for God’s beloved, which is all of us. And not just us here, but those that are not here this morning.
God so loves the world, right? Do we take God at God’s word?

When Jesus says to us this morning, “Be perfect, therefore, just as God is perfect,” I think he’s talking about perfect love.
The Greek word for “perfect” here doesn’t mean to be morally right, as we so often characterize it. In fact, it has nothing to do with morality or sinless living. It means to be complete, to lack nothing necessary for completeness. To live with integrity, like we talked about last week. To let your “Yes” be “Yes,” and your “No” be “No.”
To truly love is to be lacking nothing in completeness.

We live incomplete lives when we place restrictions on our love. You know what I’m talking about when I say “restrictions,” don’t you, Church? When we try and characterize “us” as “us” and “those others” as “them.” When we try and step in and do God’s job for God…thinking that we get to determine who’s “in” and who’s “out”… Who’s covered under the bounds God’s love and who is not…

At the end of our reading from First Corinthians, St. Paul gets at this. “Whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas…or the world…or life or death…or the present or the future—all belong to you, and you belong to Christ. And Christ belongs to God.”
All things belong to God, church.
You belong to God.

St. Paul uses this language of belonging to talk about ownership. You are God’s. All things are God’s. Your employment status does not own you. Your earning potential does not own you. Your depression or addiction or marital status or anything else does not own you.
You…are God’s.
But to take Paul’s words further I think is to get at what Jesus is talking about with this “love your enemies” thing. Because if I belong to God, and all things belong to God, then how I treat you depends on my answer to a fundamental question: Who do I think *you* belong to?

Does the person sitting next to you belong to God? What about your next door neighbor? Your co-workers? People of other faiths? People of no faith?
All things belong to God.
What about your enemies? What about people that don’t wish the best for you?

Who do I think you belong to? Who do you think they belong to?
How we answer this question is essential to how we understand ourselves in relationship with other people. If I belong to Christ and you belong to Christ and all belongs to God, that radically reorients how I treat you.
And here is where I think Jesus’ command to love your enemies makes us maybe more than a little uncomfortable. Because it sounds like foolishness.
But it is the way of the cross.

Jesus, even on the cross, did not shout curses at those acting on behalf of the empire, putting him to death. He cried out for forgiveness: “Forgive them, God, they don’t know what they are doing.” Jesus proclaims blessing to those he was executed alongside: “Today I tell you, you will be with me in paradise.”

A couple of chapters earlier in First Corinthians, Paul calls the way of the cross foolishness and a stumbling block. This word translated as “stumbling block,” it’s an interesting word. The Greek word is skandalon. Any guesses which word we get from skandalon?                     —– Scandal, right.

Living a life of discipleship, living a life that is cruciform, following the way of the cross is scandalous.
Loving your enemies, actively seeking the best for them, is certainly not easy, but it also isn’t very fair, is it? At least according to our Western ideals about fairness and justice.

And you’re right. It’s not fair. But fair is not for me to decide. Fair is not for any of us to decide.
We restrict our love. God does not. All things belong to God. God makes God’s sun rise on the evil and on the good. God sends God’s rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.
God is absolutely and completely abundant and extravagant with God’s mercy, grace, and love, and quite honestly, most of us find that offensive.

And you’re right. Grace is offensive. It is a scandal. Because grace means that “they” don’t get what “they” deserve. But grace also means that I don’t get what I deserve. And thank God for that.
Thank God that I don’t get what I deserve, but instead God delights in lavishing me with mercy, grace, and love. Thank God that none of us get what we deserve, but instead God is pleased to shower all of God’s creation with the cleansing and refreshing rains of justice and mercy. Instead God delights in warming all of God’s creation with God’s sun of grace and love.

And if God doesn’t restrict God’s love, who are we to restrict ours?

The Christian life…the life of discipleship…is not easy, church. I’ll say it again, it will demand your life.
But by truly loving—by actively working and fighting for the best for—not just those who we agree with…or those who look like us…or think like we want them to think…or act in ways that we might not understand or agree with…we begin to live ever more closely to the heart of God.