Multiplying God’s Blessings

Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN + 24th Sunday after Pentecost + November 19, 2017

Reading: Matthew 25:14-30


The last time I preached, the gospel lesson was the Beatitudes (Matt. 5:1-12), and so during that sermon I quoted Jesus’s proclamations multiple times: “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” and, “blessed are the poor.”

As part of our confirmation program our students have to turn in worship notes. Sandy Vollmer gives them worksheets on which they answer questions about the church season and their own faith practices, and, of course, the sermon. One of the questions is, “What’s one thing that the sermon made you think about?” After hearing me repeat some of the Beatitudes over and over Brett Forsberg answered that question with a very insightful — and very challenging — question of his own: “If the poor are blessed, what does that mean for people who are rich?”

When I read Brett’s question, I immediately flashed to all these difficult Bible passages — passages that give us trouble whenever they come up in Sunday school. Like the list of “woes” that follows the Beatitudes in Luke’s Gospel: “But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry…” (Luke 6:24-25). Or Jesus’s famous line: “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God” (Matt. 19:24). Even Mary’s beautiful Magnificat song, which we love to sing during Holden Evening Prayer, declares: “[God] has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and the sent the rich away empty” (Luke 1:52-53).

If the poor are blessed, what does that mean for people who are rich? If the lowly are lifted up, what happens to the powerful? If it’s so hard for someone who is rich to enter the Kingdom, what are we supposed to do with our money?

Maybe this morning’s parable can be our guide to answering questions like those and to understanding passages that seem to condemn the wealthy. In this parable, a master gives each of his slaves some money, and then he leaves on a journey. When he returns, he wants to see what each of them has made of his money. Have they used it well? Have they multiplied it? Or did they just hide it away, terrified of losing it?

That’s the question for us: What do we do with the things God has given us? Do we bury them, or do we multiply them? Do we keep funneling our wealth back into a cycle of wealth, using it to make ourselves wealthier or more comfortable or more secure? Or do we break that cycle and use our wealth to multiply God’s blessings, to be part of the work of blessing the poor, the depressed, the mourning, the hungry, the sick, the imprisoned?

And of course we shouldn’t take this parable so literally that we think only of money. We should reflect on all the riches we individually have: intelligence; athletic ability; good health; patience; artistic ability; a caring nature; our place in society. All these things are riches we can use to multiply God’s blessings.

This parable calls us to ask seriously and creatively: How can we use the gifts God has entrusted to us to multiply God’s blessings?

And as we ask that question, “counting our blessings” becomes more than a mental activity we do to make ourselves feel better. Counting our blessings is a task we should do as part of our discipleship, part of following Jesus, part of working alongside God in the mission of the gospel. We count our blessings to remind us of all that God has entrusted to us.

The problem is that our culture is constantly tricking us into doing just the opposite. Think about how often you see advertisements. Watching TV. Looking something up online. Stuffed into your mailbox (whether you like it or not). On billboards while you’re driving to work. And all these advertisements are designed to make you want. To remind you that there’s something out there that you don’t have yet, that you’re missing, something that could make your life even better.

And in addition to any pressure to “keep up with the Joneses” next door, our TV shows and movies flood our minds with images of lifestyles richer than our own. We take in the power plays of the Underwoods on House of Cards or follow the shiny lives of celebrities or gasp at the houses people buy or renovate on HGTV and our own lives look pretty plan in comparison.

With all of that advertising and that peeking-in to what we don’t have, it can become easy to fall into thinking: well, I don’t have enough. Look at all those people who have enough money to afford all those things I don’t have. Or, look at all those people who are so much smarter or more talented or more powerful than I am. They are the ones who need to be generous and help with the world’s problems — because they are the ones who can.

I’ve heard people with more money than I can realistically dream of ever having talk about “those rich people out there” and how “they should give more.” We can get stuck comparing ourselves to people who have it better — or even just to the people around us — and totally miss seeing all that we do have to offer. It’s easy to think of ourselves as not having enough to be generous or to really make a difference.

Today’s parable reminds us that it doesn’t matter whether we have an abundance or barely enough: we are called to use whatever we have been given to multiply God’s blessings.

A few years ago I went to a panel on the question “Should we give money to people on the streets?” On the panel were lawyers and professors who specialized in studying poverty or helping people who are poor. They gave long complicated answers about the social system and the causes of poverty and the resources available to people in need…answers that didn’t really provide an answer to the basic question. The last person to speak was a woman who had just recently gotten settled in a job and a home after years of homelessness. The answer she gave to the question, “Should we give money to people on the streets?” was a story:

She talked about having recently had enough money that she could buy herself a treat. She bought a bag of her very favorite chips: those chili-flavored Fritos. You would not believe how good she made those Fritos sound when she described how much she liked them. Anyway, she bought herself a bag of those chips, then sat down on the bench at the bus stop with her snack and settled in to enjoy the taste of her hard work paying off. Then a man approached her, asking if she had any change to spare for a bus ride. “Well,” she said, “I had a dollar still left in my pocket, so I gave him that. And then I still had some Fritos left, so I gave him the rest of the bag. I figured, since I was so blessed, I better share what I could.”

When we have an attitude of scarcity — thinking over and over, What if I don’t have enough? — we end up like that third slave in the parable: fearfully burying what we do have in hole in the ground. The woman at the bus stop, still very poor by our standards, had an attitude of abundance — Look how much I’ve been blessed! –, and so she saw ways that she could multiply God’s blessings and jumped right in.

So let’s work on that discipleship practice of counting our blessings, naming all that we have, and looking for the opportunities we have to invest in God’s mission to bless the people in need around us.

One of the great gifts of being involved in a church is that it connects us directly to opportunities to use what God has entrusted to us, to multiply God’s blessings in the world.  We can use our financial resources to support the work of this congregation and its partners in ministry. We can give our companionship to men experiencing homeless and loneliness when we host them here at Room in the Inn. We can give our words and our love to the people in our congregation who are grieving or struggling. We can give skills in building or cleaning to help in disaster response; or skills in cooking to provide meals for those who are sick. There are as many opportunities to invest in God’s mission as there are blessings God has given to us. Some seem grand, some seem small, but God uses them all to multiply blessings.

 

Let us pray. God of abundance: You call us to count our blessings and see what you have entrusted to our care. Drive out our fears of scarcity and fill us with faith in your abundance. Help us to be creative in using what we have, whether it’s a little or a lot. Multiply our offerings and our efforts to bless your people and your Kingdom. In Jesus’s name we pray, Amen.

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The Saints All Around Us (People can be “Thin Places”)

Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN + All Saints Sunday + November 5, 2017

Reading: Matthew 5:1-12


There’s an old Celtic saying — or at least the internet says there is –that goes like this: “Heaven and earth are only three feet apart, but in the thin places the distance is even shorter.”[1] I’ve mentioned thin places from this ambo before: thin places are spots on this earth that make us feel that God, the divine, the beyond are closer to us in that spot than everywhere else. Mountains rising up out of the misty ground to break into the sky. The crystal-blue ocean reaching out past the horizon.

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Cathedral of Christ the Light, Omega Window: Oakland, CA. Craig W. Hartman (architect). Via Vanderbilt Divinity Library’s Art in the Christian Tradition.

As I looked toward today, All Saints Sunday, I started to think of how people can be “thin places” too; in a moment of interaction or through a lifetime of love and service, they make God feel a little bit nearer. Or maybe they help us realize how near God always is.

If we look back over history, there’s a strong record of the powerful people — kings or high priests and the like — being portrayed as thin places. And maybe we can get into that mindset: imagine living in an ancient or medieval world, with no TVs or photographs to show you a world outside your own, in a peasant village where everyone around you is poor like you. But maybe you don’t even think of yourself as poor, because that’s all you know; this is just how life is. But then this grand figure you’ve only heard about in stories — the king — passes by your village. He’s surrounded by people wearing beautiful colors and shining armor, and he is the shiniest of them all, riding a high horse, the gold crown on his head glinting with light like the sun itself. You’ve never seen anything like it before, and maybe you never will again. It’s a glimpse of a world beyond your own. Maybe you would feel like you’ve caught a glimpse of something a little closer to the divine than your daily life.

At the very least, the powerful have often claimed to be closer to the divine. Kings and queens were said to be chosen by God to rule. And since the most ancient times rulers have declared themselves to actually be divine. This was going on at the time of Jesus, too: Julius Caesar was declared to be a god after his death, and his successor, Caesar Augustus, who ruled during the first half of Jesus’s life, claimed the title “son of god.”

In the modern United States, with our rejection of royalty and the aristocracy and the divine right to rule, with our emphasis on democracy and the power of the people, we may think we are beyond all that. But a connection between God and certain classes of people has taken different forms in our history. To justify racist institutions like slavery and segregation, scholars declared that black people were descendants of Noah’s cursed son, and so they carried God’s curse and deserved to be treated as less than white people; or, more dramatically, some people argued that black people were not descendants of Adam and Eve at all. Through teachings like these, white people were seen as more closely aligned with God.[2]

In other ways God is still associated with the wealthy. People flock to hear the prosperity gospel, which promises that God will give the faithful material wealth. With that worldview it becomes easy to imagine that wealthy people are the chosen people of God. That idea exists in more subtle ways, too: as a culture we idolize wealth and the wealthy, and we tend to look on poor people as being wrong or immoral, somehow deserving their lot in life.

Throughout history the divine has been associated with the rich and powerful. After all, they are so obviously blessed, they must be specially connected to God.

But Jesus taught something different: “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” (Or, the Gospel of Luke’s version (Luke 6:20-26), “Blessed are the poor.”) “Blessed are those who mourn…blessed are the meek…blessed are the merciful…blessed are those who are persecuted.” These are the people who live close to God’s heart; these are the people through whom we can catch glimpses of the divine, of a world beyond our own. Not through the rich and powerful and proud, but through the poor and the poor in spirit. Not through those who seem to have been blessed with everything they need, but through those who mourn deep losses. Not through those loved and adored by everyone, but through those who are persecuted and rejected.

Once again, God is popping up in places where we wouldn’t logically expect to find God’s blessing; God is popping up beside and within the people we least expect.

This passage, these teachings of Jesus, have the power to turn our world and our values upside-down. They also have the power to transform our most painful experiences. When we experience loss, we are not being punished by God or abandoned by God; but rather in those times we should look for how God is drawing close to us, to bless us, because we are in pain, and God knows we need that blessing so much. When we hunger and thirst for righteousness and justice in our world, hunger and thirst so deeply that we grow weary with it, we should not abandon hope and believe we are living in a godless world; rather we should believe that God is there with us, blessing our hunger and thirst for righteousness; believing, in the words of our Communion liturgy: “our hunger and thirst for justice is [God’s] own desire.”[3]

At the very least, this teaching of Jesus, these blessings of the unexpected, everyday, even suffering people, should open our eyes to see God in the people around us — to find in our everyday interactions moments where that thin boundary between the ordinary and the divine gets even thinner.

A couple of Sundays ago, Spencer Lau, one of the elementary students in our congregation (you might know him and his little brother, Oliver, as the boys always hugging everybody)…A couple of Sundays ago Spencer was in pain in his knee and in a few other places, and he was hurting enough that he didn’t want have to process in with the children’s choir, and so he sat in the choir loft before worship started, waiting there for the rest of the choir to join him. I passed by him on the way to put on my robe and stopped to check in about how he was doing. I told him I would say his name during the prayers, and he promised me, “I’ll say your name, too.” When the time came for the prayers of intercession, and the assisting minister said, “…and these we name now, out loud or in our hearts,” Spencer and I — without planning this part at all — both opened our eyes, looked at each other across the room, and mouthed each others names. That moment became a thin place for me — a moment where I felt God brush against me through shared prayer with Spencer.

Those “thin place” moments can come to us through another person — not just in church, but any time, anywhere, if we open our eyes to see them. Maybe part of the reason Jesus said that people who are suffering — the poor, the mourning, the persecuted — are blessed is because in their suffering they are so desperate to see God that they have their eyes open as wide as they can go — and they are more likely to see God close by. They are so hungry for God’s touch that they find it in the care of a nurse or the kind words of a stranger on a hospital elevator. May we remember to open our eyes so wide, even in our times of contentment.

All Saints’ Sunday may be a perfect day to begin this holy practice of keeping our eyes wide open to see God through one another. Today we remember the saints of our Church and our lives, especially the people we know and love who have died. These people were ordinary people, like us, and yet as we remember them today, we look back to remember the moments in which they were also saints, the ways in which they made thin places for the rest of us to feel God’s presence in a special way.

We remember Josette Starkey’s gifts of faith, caring, and nurturing — shown in our church in so many ways, including her leadership of the prayer shawl ministry. We remember Thelma Lockhart’s ministry of teaching and Lewis Lockhart’s brave service to our country in World War II. We remember Dominick Santarpia’s dedication to his family and his work. We remember Art Lebahn’s ever-present smile, his inspiring faith, and his service to his neighbors through ministries like Meals on Wheels. We remember Alex Brown’s dedication to researching cancer and to the students he mentored. We remember John Lillie’s years of service to his communities through board leadership and fundraising. Those of us who knew them well remember them in more detail, in specific memories, in the ways they touched our lives in particular. And I’m sure that on this day each of us is reflecting on others gone from this world but still close to our hearts.

Even their memory may be for us a thin place which helps to remember how we experienced God’s touch through them.

Often I end sermons by encouraging you all to go into the world and help others experience God’s love through you. Today I tell you the opposite: when you are sent from this place, go into your week with your eyes wide open, looking for the thin places where God feels especially close. Look for God and God’s blessing even where you least expect it: in the poor in spirit, the suffering, the meek; in a stranger, in someone vastly different from you in look or culture or opinion; in your own moments of hurt. Seek, and you shall find. Amen.


[1] Eric Weiner, “Where Heaven and Earth Come Closer,” The New York Times, March 9, 2012. Online: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/11/travel/thin-places-where-we-are-jolted-out-of-old-ways-of-seeing-the-world.html

[2] Ibram X. Kendi, Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, (New York: Nation Books, 2017).

[3] Evangelical Lutheran Worship, Great Thanksgiving option VII. Cf. Evangelical Lutheran Worship Leader’s Desk Edition, (Minneapolis, Augsburg Fortress, 2006) p. 202. The line comes originally from

Reformation 500: A call to practice curiosity

Written for Reformation Day at Emory University +October 26, 2017

Readings: Jeremiah 31:31-34 and John 8:31-36

[A video of this sermon is available here via the Candler School of Theology at Emory]


As we gather today to remember the story of the European Reformation, we have a number of options for a place to begin. Once upon a time an Englishman named John Wycliffe declared that the Bible — not the Pope — was the best source for knowledge of God, and he translated the Bible into the common tongue of his people. Once upon a time a Bohemian named John Huss declared that the people were being exploited by the church through the system of indulgences. Once upon a time a German named Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press, and suddenly mass communication was possible — even when the writings were suppressed.

But since we are calling this year the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, we should probably begin like this:

Once upon a time, a German monk felt trapped. Trapped, he would say, by his own sin. Trapped, we might diagnose, by his own anxiety and by certain problems with the church of his day. He spent his days in confession and his nights in penance, putting all his energy into justifying himself before God, making himself righteous, and avoiding eternal damnation. He lived in fear, and he almost hated the God he feared so deeply.

Driven by some mix of that anxiety and dedication to his faith and his call to teach, Luther poured over the scriptures. And as he studied and studied, so the story goes, Luther came to a realization: he could not possibly make himself righteous in God’s eyes; but he also didn’t have to. God had chosen to justify Luther — and all those who believed — through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus the Christ. That was God’s work, not Luther’s, not any human’s. That was God’s gift.

It was there in Romans: “Since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith” (Rom. 3:24-25).

It was there in Galatians: “We know that a person is justified not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ” (Gal. 2:16).

It was there in the Gospels: “They who have believed and have been baptized shall be saved” (Mark 16:16).

That great, liberating message was threaded throughout the scriptures (sidebar: yes, it’s in the Old Testament too). But that message was not being heard over the Church’s — or at least some priests’ — emphasis on things like penance, purgatory, hell, and indulgences.

And that was another of Luther’s great epiphanies: it wasn’t Luther who was trapped; the problem was much bigger. Scripture was trapped. The grace of God was trapped. The gospel was trapped. Trapped behind false teachings and abusive, greedy preachers — at least that’s what Luther thought.

Thinking the church would like to see the error of her ways so that she could correct the mistakes and sound the gospel more clearly, Luther nailed 95 theses, 95 arguments, to the door of his church — and soon the Gospel good news was set free over Europe.

One of the Reformation’s central statements of faith is that if people read the scriptures — like Luther read the scriptures — then they cannot possibly miss the truth of God’s will and God’s grace. The law and gospel ring free and clear in those writings and in faithful preaching — and all the false teachings will be swept away by its power. Our annual Reformation Day readings reminds us of that belief:

Today’s reading from the book of Jeremiah seems to promise a clear, direct, and personal understanding of both the will of God and the love of God. “I will put my law within them [says the Lord], and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, ‘Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest…for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.”

And we who are Christian confess that Jesus of Nazareth was the fulfillment of that ancient promise, believing that by some holy, graceful mystery, Jesus brings us into that intimate knowledge of God; believing Jesus when he said to his followers: “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”

We read these passages every year on Reformation Day because they point us back to that core Reformation belief: If we can just read the scriptures and just hear the word of God preached in faithfulness to the teachings of the Bible, then we will know God. Then we will know God’s will and God’s great love and forgiveness.1

And yet — Luther’s story of feeling like the Word of God is trapped or confused by the language of scripture or the teachings of one preacher versus another or by our own internal shame or anxiety — that story is still familiar.

Because we look back on the history of the Reformation and we see that things were not so clear and easy once the scriptures were translated and set free. My Reformation professor liked to call 16th-century Europe “the hermeneutical wild west”2 — because as soon as people felt freed to read and interpret the scriptures themselves, there were as many church factions as there were people with strong opinions. We know the Roman Catholic church did not agree with Luther’s interpretation of the scriptures; Luther struggled with other thinkers within his own Evangelical movement; the Anabaptists popped up quickly with their own, even more radical interpretation, and they were persecuted by Catholics and Lutherans alike. This splintering continues today; I remember hearing from a Candler admissions representative that they received applications to the M.Div. program from a brand-new denomination just about every year.

We look back and see that even with all Martin Luther’s world-changing and soul-changing epiphanies, all his intense study of scripture, Luther’s thoughts were still bound by some of the the more heinous teachings of the Church. Lutherans today are still repenting of his terrible anti-Jewish writings, wondering how this liberator of the gospel could also write something so painfully contrary to the heart of our Jewish savior.

We look around us at the arguments that tear at the unity of the Church today. Arguments about who can be ordained or even allowed in the doors of the church; arguments about who is welcomed to the Communion table; arguments about whether Christian hands are permitted to commit violence or bake a cake for a same-sex couple or join together with people of different faiths for prayer. And each side of each of these arguments can open their Bibles and point and read and defend their position.

We look within ourselves — and this may be the most trying task of all. We struggle with our own doubt and confusion. We struggle to differentiate our own opinions and upbringing from the revelation of God. We feel, embedded with us, messages of shame and guilt and unworthiness — messages that run contrary to God’s love and forgiveness, we know, but still we can’t quite shake them.

So, looking back and looking around and looking within, we recognize that God’s Word is always competing against the other messages written on our hearts and in our communities and in our culture. Messages that cloud and confuse and maybe you, like me, sometimes find yourself praying:

Dear Lord, is it really possible for us to know you? “For now we see in a mirror, dimly,” and some days that mirror is so smudged and foggy that we wonder if we are really seeing you at all or just some combination of other people’s fingerprints and our own reflection (1 Cor. 13:12).

And yet every year we (of certain traditions) gather and look back at this thing called the Reformation. We read these same Bible lessons, promising us that God is writing on our own hearts, that we shall know the truth, and the truth will set us free. And it is a day for us to take a breath and receive anew that great gift of faith: the faith that God is speaking to us even through the debate and the questions and the doubt.

Yes, the Reformation was imperfect. Yes, it — like the Christians that brought it to life — was simultaneously righteous and sinful. It fractured the Western Church, and the factions that splintered off spoke hatred and committed violence against one another. It continued the Church’s horrible history of spewing poisonous words against the Jewish people. (I have noted these things already, but some corporate sins need repeated public confession.)

And yet we can hold all that in hand and still remember how the Reformation did help the gospel ring more clearly again. We put Luther’s face and a big “500” on our church calendars and our children’s coloring books and our coffee mugs because we want to remember and celebrate how the good news of God’s grace seemed to pour out anew over 16th-century Europe. We want to remember and celebrate how so many people heard for the first time that most powerful Word of God given to us, embodied, in Jesus Christ: “For it is by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God” (Eph. 2:8). We want to remember how those people, our ancestors in the faith, felt liberated from their paralyzing fear of God’s judgment and liberated for loving God and loving neighbor.

And by remembering that history, we hope for ourselves. We hope with the confidence of that memory; we hope with the confidence of what God has done for our ancestors in the faith. We hope that God will do again for us what God has done over and over throughout history. We hope that the Word of God will pour over us too, that God will write the message more clearly on our hearts and on our communities and on our culture.

So let’s begin telling the story of the Reformation again.

Once upon a time an anxious, imperfect German monk dared to be curious. He dared to question the teachings and traditions that everyone seemed to take for granted. He dared to read the scriptures with fresh eyes and an open heart. He dared to jump into the debates and confusion. He dared to believe that his questions and thoughts were, just maybe, the prompting of the Holy Spirit.

I think that such curiosity is what we need today in order to hear God’s Word more clearly.

Too often we approach confusion about God’s Word with fear. Fear maybe like the young Luther felt: fear of messing up, of doing something wrong, of believing something wrong, and so maybe putting ourselves outside of God’s grace (as if that were possible). And fear can make us freeze and hide, and keep us from sharing the gospel or serving our neighbor. Fear can make us defensive, so we cling tightly to what we believe and refuse to hear other opinions, perhaps missing opportunities to hear a new word from God. Fear is, I think, what is behind today’s shouting matches and Facebook wars and silent glares at Thanksgiving dinners. It’s not a new phenomenon, but, dear Lord, does it feel especially strong right now.

But in the Bible visits from God’s messengers often began with the command, “Do not fear.” Do not fear, but hear what God is saying.

So what if, instead, we approached all that confusion about God’s Word with curiosity? If we let ourselves wonder at different opinions. If we asked to hear about the experiences of our neighbors, if we asked the question, “What’s it like to be you? What do you think and believe?”: in our congregations and in our families; and also of our neighbors on “that side” of town, or living in the Penthouse, or locked up in prison; of our neighbors living around the world. What if we listened, openly and curiously, to those experiences and then returned to the scriptures and to our faith tradition and listened for what the Spirit was saying to us? After all, the assurance of God’s grace sets us free to do such daring things.

I’m going to tell you a story I heard, like, third-hand from Bishop Julian Gordy and then imagine my own ending for it, so I hope that’s okay.

An Ethiopian pastor took his seat on a plane, settling in next to a nice European-American woman who started the customary small talk. When she found out that he was a pastor, she brimmed with excitement about meeting not only an African person, but an African person who was a Christian. Her curiosity was set on fire. She asked him excitedly, “When did your people hear the good news about Jesus?” The pastor responded as politely as possible, “In the first century, madam.”

Imagine what that woman’s ears may have been opened to hear through that conversation. She could hear the story of the Ethiopian eunuch who heard the word of God so clearly that he begged to be baptized, and she might feel a new sense of connection to that ancient character. She could be disconnected from the false story (told far too often in my culture) of a God working through the white people to save the world — and instead reconnected to God’s story of a dark-skinned messiah and a Holy Spirit that spoke in every tongue and to all nations and through all nations. That one moment of curiosity on an airplane could be a like a boulder dropped into a lake, the water rippling out in all sorts of directions.

God is still speaking. God is speaking to us through the scriptures, through our neighbors, through our own hearts. If we are curious to follow the Spirit weaving through all those things, it will help us to join in what God is doing to continue the work of the Reformation in us: to write again and again, more and more clearly, the Word of God on our hearts and in our world. To unleash the power of the Gospel for us today.

Speak to us, Lord: help our world to know you; help those in need to hear your good news and believe; help each of us to trust that your grace has set us free to be curious. Amen.


1. [In his lecture on the question “Did the Reformation Fail?” given October 26, 2017 at Emory University as part of the Reformation Day events, Bishop H. Julian Gordy (Southeastern Synod of the ELCA) noted that Luther believed that the Bible should still be interpreted by and in the church. However, the idea that individuals could read and interpret the scriptures themselves was one of the fruits of the Reformation, and it clearly holds sway in our time. (I always think of the bumper-sticker-like phrase, “God said it. I believe it. That settles it.”)]

2. [Paul C. H. Lim, Vanderbilt Divinity School.]

Priorities

Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN + 19th Sunday After Pentecost + October 15, 2017

Reading: Matthew 22:1-14


Fifty-two years ago this month the Queen of England and the British government honored the Beatles for their influence in bringing British music to the world — and of course boosting the British economy with their record sales. Queen Elizabeth invited the four young rock-and-rollers to a formal ceremony at Buckingham Palace, where they greeted the queen and received medals, making them official Members of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire.

Four years later, in 1969, Britain (like many nations) was involved in a number of military conflicts. Nigeria was in the midst of a civil war with a secessionist state, Biafra, and Britain was supplying their federal government with weapons (mostly, it seems, to protect their oil interests). The Vietnam War continued to escalate.

Meanwhile, John Lennon, the Beatle always most likely to stir up controversy, organized public peace protests, often using performance art to draw attention. He and his wife, Yoko Ono, held a press conference for peace while inside of a giant bag. As part of these protests, Lennon returned his MBE medal to Queen Elizabeth with a note in his usual sardonic style, saying:

Your Majesty, I am returning this in protest against Britain’s involvement in the Nigeria-Biafra thing, against our support of America in Vietnam and against [my song] Cold Turkey slipping down the charts. With Love, John Lennon of Bag.[1]

John Lennon returned his medal and his honorary membership in the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire because that was the action that best represented his priorities. He didn’t care about receiving a public honor from his government and his queen — in fact, he didn’t even really care when the Beatles first received the medals; the others had to drag him out of bed for the ceremony — but in the late 1960s he had become passionate about standing up for peace. Rejecting and returning the honor was one more way for him to publicly stand up for his priorities.

Many others have turned down honors from royalty and presidents in order to stand up for their priorities. Athletes invited to the White House after winning a championship have refused to attend, citing passionate disagreement with a president’s administration; celebrities have refused to perform at inaugurations; and in fact when the Beatles received their MBE honors, some people who had received the same award for military service returned their medals, saying that giving the award to a rock-and-roll band made a mockery of the honor.[2] When a person’s priorities are challenged, they will reject even an honor from royalty.

In today’s gospel reading Jesus told a parable in which some people rejected an honored invitation from a king — though we may question the priorities of their decision. Most seemed to think the wedding of the king’s son was not worth their time; Jesus said “they made light of it” and returned to their daily business. Others must have had serious problems with the king’s reign (and not a lot of concern for their own well-being), because they killed the king’s slaves who had come to invite them.

The king was furious, of course, and punished the murderers and their whole city. We might expect that reaction in such a story, especially knowing that it comes from the days of notoriously violent rulers like Pontius Pilate and the emperor Nero. (Maybe in that point Jesus is not describing God’s character but reflecting the times in which he lived).

The next part of the king’s reaction is more surprising, though: the king sends his slaves out into the main streets to invite everyone, “both good and bad” to the prince’s wedding banquet.

Jesus told this parable as part of a larger conversation he’d been having with the religious leaders in Jerusalem, harshly criticizing them in parable after parable. In that context, the point of this story seems clear: You religious leaders had been invited to the Kingdom of God. You had advance notice. Youve spent your lives studying Gods laws and promises. But now that I tell you the Kingdom is here, youre ignoring it, youre going about your business like usual. And I know youre plotting to kill me. So Gods inviting everyone with eyes to see the Kingdom, even the people you dont think are worthy. Or as Jesus had just told them explicitly: “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you, [for they believe]” (Matt. 21:31-32).

We could spend a lot of time talking about those ancient Jewish religious leaders’ priorities and what in the world they were holding on to so tightly that they would miss the chance to follow God’s son when he was right in front of them. But it’s more interesting — and more important — to talk about our Christian priorities today. Is the Kingdom of God our first priority, or are we holding on to something else so tightly that we’re missing the opportunity to be part of Jesus’s mission today?

For example: last week in the lectionary adult Sunday School class, we had a conversation about the things that keep us from doing what God would have us do. As we talked, a few related main habits floated to the top of the list: Cynicism. Apathy. Feeling like we can’t do anything.

We hear about how one charity organization misuses their donations, and we are wary of making any more donations ourselves. We say we want to help the people who are poor, but we wonder if they will just waste it. We ask whether they deserve it. We feel like the world’s problems are too big, so we can’t possibly help — and why even waste energy caring? We get swept up in the 24-hour news cycle, hearing tragic headline after tragic headline, and we feel helpless. Or we decide it’s better to pay no attention at all. Trying to help seems too risky or too pointless.

If we get stuck in those thoughts and feelings, what happens to our priorities? The kingdom of God is no longer our top priority; instead, we hold on to fear and self-protection. Faith and hope are no longer first in our heads and hearts; instead, we give up on the idea that anything or anyone could change for the better — and we hold on to our comfort and routine rather than challenging the way things are. And maybe with all those sorts of feelings rolling around in our heads, we stop looking for the ways God is working to change the world, to help others, to build up God’s kingdom.

At the end of today’s parable there’s that creepy bit, where a wedding guest shows up with the wrong clothes, and the king has him thrown “into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” And Jesus finishes ominously, “For many are called, but few are chosen.”

Dear Jesus, that does not sound very Lutheran. Remember how we’re saved by grace through faith, and not by works? And certainly not by what we wear.

A lot of interpreters think that this creepy bit is not about being “saved by works.” After all, everyone, “good and bad” is invited to the banquet. Instead it’s about showing up to the banquet like it really matters to us. About accepting that free, graceful invitation into God’s Kingdom and then being ready and willing to participate in it, making the Kingdom the top priority of our lives.[3]

That means that when cynicism, apathy, helplessness, or whatever-it-is holds us back from actively participating in God’s Kingdom, we need to actively choose the Kingdom instead. We need to help and give despite our worry of being used (though we can be wise about it!). We need to care even when it hurts. We need to speak and act even when it feels pointless. We need to be willing to take risks and make people — even ourselves — uncomfortable, because the Kingdom is our first priority.

When the main values of God’s kingdom — things like love, peace, mercy, and justice — are threatened, we need to do whatever it is we can to protect and extend them, even if our abilities seem so small…and we need to have faith that God works through all those things that we do, big and small, to do the world-changing work of God’s Kingdom.

Let us pray. Holy God, give us eyes to see your Kingdom as it grows among us; give us ears to hear your invitation to enter; and give us the faith and courage to make it our first priority. In the name of Jesus, who announces your Kingdom to all people, in every age, Amen.


[1] “Queen’s honours: People who have turned them down named,” BBC News, January 26, 2012. Online: http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-16736495

[2] Dave Lifton, “50 years Ago: The Beatles Receive MBEs Amid Protests,” Ultimate Classic Rock, October 26, 2015. Online: http://ultimateclassicrock.com/beatles-mbe/

[3] Karoline Lewis, “What Not to Wear,” Dear Working Preacher, October 8, 2017. Online: http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=4980

Sharon H. Ringe, “Commentary on Matthew 22:1-14,” Working Preacher, October 9, 2011. Online: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=997

Thoughts After the Las Vegas Shooting: “And much it grieved God’s heart to think what man had made of man”

Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN + 18th Sunday after Pentecost + October 8, 2017

Readings: Isaiah 5:1-7; Matthew 21:33-46


It was Sunday night, before any shots had been fired in Las Vegas, before the news had come pouring in over phones and radio and television. I was watching one of my regular TV shows, and it was getting to be that point in the season where things were really ramping up as some evil plans were thwarted and some reached their crescendo: there was fire, and yelling, and violence, and betrayal, murder. And over all those images one of the characters recited a poem. I caught one line – or maybe it caught me, because it stuck with me even after the episode had ended: “…and much it grieved my heart to think what man has made of man.”[1]

Maybe it caught me because it made me think of this week’s gospel reading: these tenant farmers beating and murdering groups of slaves, then beating and murdering the landowner’s own son. It made me think of how that parable points to the violence humans have inflicted on God’s messengers throughout history: the ridicule and persecution of prophets; the torture and execution of God’s own Son. “…and much it grieved my heart to think what man has made of man.”

The next day the news coverage of the shooting in Las Vegas poured in to my ears over the radio: stories from the scene of the violence; reports of the insane amount of guns found in Steven Paddock’s hotel room; the death and injury count rising. “…and much it grieved my heart to think what man has made of man.”

And as part of the coverage, reporters recounted the mass shootings of recent years. Pulse. San Bernardino. Military centers in Chattanooga. Santa Monica. Sandy Hook. Virginia Tech. Charleston. The Navy yard in D.C. The movie theatre in Aurora, Colorado. The political meet-and-greet in Tucson. Just a couple weeks ago, a church close by, in Antioch, TN. Other shootings which didn’t make such headlines.[2] My friends and colleagues talked about how we didn’t even really feel anything when the news alerts started coming, besides, “Oh, another one,” and how terrifying that was in itself. “…and much it grieved my heart to think what man has made of man.”

At times like this Christians often talk about how God’s heart is grieved at such tragedy. God suffers with those in pain, weeps with those who mourn, knows death with those who die and holds them until they rise to new life. God is the source of comfort, consolation, and even hope. All this is true. Beautifully, powerfully true. Amen and amen.

But this morning’s Bible readings remind us that when God’s heart is grieved, God also gets angry. And hear the way I’m saying this carefully, because I’m not trying to scare anybody: it’s because God loves us so much that God gets angry when we mistreat one another, when we hurt one another.

In today’s Old Testament reading, we see how God spoke in compassionate anger through the prophet Isaiah. The leaders of Israel were greedy and corrupt, ignored the word of God, and treated the people of Israel unjustly (see Isaiah 5:7-24).

Comparing Israel to a vineyard, God said through Isaiah: “When I expected it to yield grapes, why did it yield wild grapes? And now I will tell you what I will do to my vineyard. I will remove its hedge, and it shall be devoured; I will break down its wall, and it shall be trampled down…God expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry!” (Isaiah 5:4b-5, 7b).

God was angry at the leaders not just because they disobeyed God, but also on behalf of those who suffered underneath their rule. And much it grieved God’s heart to see what man had made of man.

In today’s gospel reading, Jesus shows that same anger. He had just swept into Jerusalem like a one-man riot, overturning tables in the Temple, publicly criticizing and condemning the leaders (Matt. 21:12-13). Those leaders had not believed and repented when they heard the word of God through John the Baptist (Matt. 21:31-32). They belonged to that same line of leadership that had ignored and killed the prophets; they were the ones who would ignore and kill Jesus. Jesus gathered crowds of people and told them that those leaders were greedy hypocrites and that all their religion was only a show. He said their teachings actually hurt people and took them farther away from God (Matt. 23). And much it grieved Jesus’s heart to see what man had made of man.

And in today’s reading, we heard him say angrily to the leaders: “the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom” (Matt. 21:43).

This week, as God looks on the U.S. and the tragedy of the Las Vegas shooting, as God looks back on all these mass shootings, I think God is grieved. And I think God is also angry with that same compassionate anger we see in the prophets and in Jesus. Angry at what man makes of man throughout history. Angry at the violence committed over and over again, since the time of the prophets, the violence which God experienced in God’s own human body in Jesus’s torture and execution, the violence that continues to happen over and over again in our world and our country. And angry that we keep making a way for it, like it ought to be the status quo. Angry and hurt, like maybe you are angry and hurt.

But in God’s anger there is always a hope. It is the hope that when God tells God’s people that they are doing wrong, they will repent; they will change their ways; they will do what is right in God’s eyes. That is the hope and purpose of God’s anger: not condemnation, but change for the better. Not punishment, but reformation.

So how do we, as a nation, repent now? How do we break this pattern of violence, and particularly this pattern of mass gun violence? What is the right thing to do in God’s eyes?

I think our hearts — the law and the love of God written on our hearts — pull us towards what is right by the heroic stories we lift up out of the wreckage of this tragedy. People helped others find a place to hide in the midst of the violent chaos. Someone literally gave the shirt off his back to bandage a stranger’s wound. A nurse from right here in Tennessee died shielding his wife. Countless first responders and trained military people immediately started helping even in the midst of the shooting. People used tables as makeshift gurneys and pick-up trucks as makeshift ambulances to get others to hospitals.[3]

We lift up these stories because these are the sorts of acts that remind us of what is true, what is worthy, what is holy. They give us glimpses of the Kingdom of God, built on Jesus Christ the cornerstone: a world where strength is seen in sacrifice, where love of God and neighbor rule the day. A kingdom where idols like pride and greed and fear are left behind for the sake of the true God and the people and the world God created.

How does God call us to help build that heavenly kingdom right where we are?

Gift_of_USSR-medium

“Let us Beat Swords into Plowshares” scultpure by Evgeniy Vuchetich. Located at the United Nations north garden area, a gift from the Soviet Union, presented in 1959. Via Vanderbilt Divinity Library’s Art in the Christian Tradition.


[1] William Wordsworth, “Lines Written in Early Spring.”

[2] “Deadliest U.S. mass shootings, 1984-2017,” Los Angeles Times, October 2, 2017.

Online: http://timelines.latimes.com/deadliest-shooting-rampages/

[3] Amanda Lee Myers and Jocelyn Gecker, “’There was Blood Everywhere.’: Acts of Heroism Saved Countless Lives During Las Vegas Shooting,” Time, October 3, 2017.

Online: http://time.com/4966656/las-vegas-mass-shooting-acts-heroism/

“Las Vegas shootings: Tales of heroism emerge from aftermath,” BBC News, October 3, 2017.

Online: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-41478630

 

Stewardship of Law and Gospel

Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN + 14th Sunday After Pentecost + September 10, 2017

Reading: Matthew 18:15-20


Story #1: Kamaria Downs was an honors student at a small Christian university. In 2015, her senior year, she had to fill out medical forms for her student teaching assignment, and through those forms the college discovered that Kamaria was pregnant. She was unmarried. The college told her she had to move out of the campus dorms and did not refund her the money she’d pre-paid to live there for the year. She had to scramble to find a place to live so that she could complete her degree.[1]

Story #2: Peter courted Sally in the classic way: with flowers and lots of love letters. His charm won her over, and the she agreed to marry him. Almost immediately, Peter seemed like an entirely different person. He yelled at her for things as small as sleeping in on their honeymoon; he drank too much and flew into abusive rages; later, he was violent with their young daughter. When Sally went to the counselors at her church for help, they advised her to forgive her husband and submit to him. “When she [finally] left Peter, Sally also left her church parish, feeling isolated and unwanted as a single mother.”[2]

Unfortunately, neither Kamaria’s nor Sally’s experience is uncommon.

Today’s gospel reading is a lesson on our stewardship of the Law and the Gospel — in other words, our stewardship of the message “You’ve sinned; you’ve done something wrong,” and the message, “God loves you and forgives you, and we love you and forgive you, too.”

It’s common for us to lean to one extreme or another. To emphasize the need to call people to repentance so that they may receive grace and new life from God and to protect our community from sin and its devastating effects. Or to emphasize the radical acceptance and forgiveness of God to the point where we feel uncomfortable even using the word, “sin.” We often think of whole denominations as leaning one way or the other.

We also tend to fall into communal habits of thinking of some sins as more necessary to call out than others. One of my professors gave an example of this in a very blunt and cynical way: the Church likes to keep arguing about sex so that we don’t have to talk about the more uncomfortable topic of how we use our money.

Jesus’s teaching in today’s gospel reading challenges us to get out of our comfort zone and see the importance of both Law and Gospel, both approaching a fellow Christian whose sin is affecting the community and being a place of welcome and healing for all of us sinners seeking grace.

For those of us who tend to want to speak only of forgiveness, this passage may help us think of reasons why pointing out sin and calling for change may be necessary. It may be good for the one who has done wrong: Martin Luther pointed out that we need to realize that we are stuck in sin in order to see that we need God’s grace and to reach for God’s forgiveness and God’s power to free us and transform us. We see that principle at work when families and friends stage interventions for someone struggling with addiction in the hope that she will accept help and start changing her life for the better.

Calling for repentance may also be good for the community. Telling a friend that they’ve hurt you is the first step toward forgiveness and the healing of the relationship. Though I am by nature and upbringing a conflict-avoider, I’ve come to realize that it’s an act of grace to tell my friend that I’m angry or hurt and why rather than to give her the silent treatment. We can’t reconcile if only half the party knows what’s wrong. In the case of Sally and her abusive husband, it would have been better for the church to help Sally confront him and turn away from him; for her safety; for their child’s safety; and for the well-being of the community. Then, if he was willing, others could give him the help and support he needed to change.

That’s a good segue into talking about what Jesus said to do if you approach someone three times and they still won’t repent. Jesus said, “Let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”

At first that seems to indicate a total rejection of the unrepentant person: “Gentiles” means “people who aren’t Jews,” and Jews (like Jesus’s disciples) were not supposed to fellowship with those outsiders. Tax collectors were among the most reviled and rejected people of Jesus’s community.

But how did Jesus treat Gentiles and tax collectors? Matthew was a tax collector, and Jesus called him to be one of his closest disciples (Matthew 9:9). The gospel book that today’s reading comes from bears that tax collector’s name. Zaccheus was a tax collector, and Jesus invited himself over to his house and changed his life forever (Luke 19:1-10).

And though the gospels do mention times when Jesus specifically excluded Gentiles (e.g. Matthew 10:5), in the one story we have where he meets a Gentile face-to-face, he is so impressed by her faith that he changes his mind and heals her daughter (Matthew 15:21-28). Later, the still-very-Jewish Church decides to accept Gentiles and to reach out to them with the message of the Gospel (Acts 11:1-18); St. Paul’s main vocation was to be the “apostle to the Gentiles” (Romans 11:13).

So even when we are instructed to treat the unrepentant one as a “Gentile and a tax collector,” it does not indicate that we should utterly reject them and cast them out. Rather, the minute we remove them from the community, they become someone to be invited back in.

So for those of us who might lean towards over-emphasizing the need to remove sin from our community, Jesus’s teaching reminds us that God’s first priority is that all people would be part of God’s family, all people would be forgiven and welcomed. This becomes very obvious when we read Jesus’s teaching in this passage with what’s going on in the verses right before and after it. This lesson is set between two stories that emphasize God’s desire that all people would be forgiven and welcomed into the fold.

Right before Jesus gave the disciples these rules for dealing with sin in the church, Jesus told them a story. It’s that crazy story of the shepherd who loses one sheep, and he leaves 99 sheep behind to go looking for the lost one. Jesus summed up the moral of the story: “So it is not the will of your Father in heaven that one of these little ones should be lost” (Matt. 18:10-14).

Then he went into, “If another member of the church sins against you…” do this and this and this, and then after all that they still won’t listen, then “let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”

Peter then asked Jesus, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus responded “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times,” which we generally agree doesn’t mean “count to seventy-seven and then you can stop forgiving him,” but rather, “forgive endlessly.”

Then Jesus tells another story, which we’ll hear in worship next week, about a slave whose debts are forgiven by his master, but who does not forgive other slaves the debts they owe him. The king is furious, and says to the slave, “Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?” (Matt. 18:21-25).

Matthew sets today’s gospel story — of confronting someone who has sinned and how to treat them if they don’t repent — in the middle of stories that emphasize how important it is to God that not even one person be lost from the Church, how important it is to God that we forgive one another.

Jesus said to his disciples, “Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” In church tradition, this has been called the “Office of the Keys” or the “Power of the Keys” — the great power given to the Church to bind people to their sins or to free them; to include them or exclude them from the community. To quote Spiderman, “With great power comes great responsibility.”

So let’s be careful and thoughtful with our stewardship of this power and this responsibility. Let’s be careful to help our fellow sinners find their way to God’s grace and to protect and heal our relationships and our communities. But let’s also remember that even the Law is a servant of God’s grace, God’s unending desire that we would be in communion with God and with one another, knit together by the mercy and love of God.


[1] Susan Donaldson James, “Student Changes Christian College’s Policy After Getting Kicked Out for Being Pregnant,” NBC News, September 16, 2016. Online: https://www.nbcnews.com/feature/college-game-plan/student-changes-christian-college-s-policy-after-getting-kicked-out-n649381

[2] Julia Baird with Hayley Gleeson, “’Submit to your husbands’: Women told to endure domestic violence in the name of God,” ABC News (Australia), August 10, 2017. Online: http://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-07-18/domestic-violence-church-submit-to-husbands/8652028

“Overcome evil with good”

Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN + 13th Sunday after Pentecost + September 3, 2017

Reading: Romans 12:9-21


If you were here for worship last Sunday, you probably remember Frank Hale giving a Temple Talk about the Navigators, our men’s group, which meets monthly for breakfast and also coordinates a lot of volunteer work to help people in the congregation and the community. Frank began his talk by mentioning the issue of Time magazine he’d seen sitting on his coffee table; its cover said in big letters: “Hate in America.”

“If we were making headlines,” Frank asked, “what would we want them to say? What about ‘Love at St. Andrew?’ How about ‘Christ is victorious?’”

I love that question. If a reporter were to look at St. Andrew, or at the Church of Jesus Christ as a whole, what is the headline we hope that they would write? If we were living up to our own highest standards of discipleship — or better, put, if we were living as close to God’s way as we could, what would that headline read?

I thought of that as I read this week’s lesson from Paul’s letter to the Romans. In this chapter Paul set forth the ideal image of Christian life. The introduction to that reading (printed in your bulletin in italics) says it like this: “Love is the unflagging standard of our behavior. When we encounter evil, we do not resort to its tactics but seek to overcome it with good. While Christians cannot control the actions and attitudes of others, we seek to live at peace with all people.”[1]

It can feel like we encounter evil a lot. As Frank pointed out, our news headlines often highlight the evil for us. Hatred, violence, and crime; abuse, discrimination, and infighting; corruption, lies, and terrorism — the news can make it feel like that’s all there is in the world.

And we may experience evil more close to home, in our own personal lives. We suffer from broken relationships, we feel caught in webs of manipulation or defensiveness or anger. Someone may lie to us or treat us unfairly or make us feel betrayed. People we love hurt other people that we love.

Sometimes all that evil seems overwhelming. We want to be part of the good that overcomes that evil, but how do we do that? How do we even start?

A podcast series I’ve been listening to spent its final episode trying to answer the question of how we can help overcome one specific evil: racism. What can we actually do about it? The hosts of the podcast did one of the classic bits: asking random people on the street for their opinion. First they stopped a man named Robby and asked him, “I was wondering what you feel like the solutions to our race problems are.”

At first Robby joked about being asked out of the blue to answer such a conundrum “Oh, just a little, quick question like that. Not anything deep…” But then he gave his actual answer, which made me think of this week’s reading from Romans. Robby said:

I think it’s humility. I think that even when we’re communicating our frustration or our anger, we do it from a very selfish place because I want to feel a certain way, and the fact that you’re not doing something that makes me feel that way, I’m offended by it. So I think selfishness is a huge, huge barrier to us being able to have an open and honest conversation. We have extreme challenges and things that have happened in the past that are absolutely unacceptable. But we bring that anger to the conversation from both sides, and that selfishness that I want to feel a certain way, I think really hinders our ability to move the conversation forward.[2]

As that introduction to our Romans reading reminded us — and as any therapist will tell you — we “cannot control the actions and attitudes of others.” But what Robby’s thoughts and Paul’s teachings share is the encouragement that we do have power over our own actions and attitudes. And as good, orthodox Lutherans we should say, better yet: it’s not us alone trying to change our own actions and attitudes — if you’ve tried to make conscious changes in yourself, whether that’s changing your eating habits or changing the way you treat the people around you or changing your outlook, you know how hard it can be to work transformation even in yourself. But we believe that we are not trying to change ourselves by ourselves, but the Holy Spirit is also working in us to transform us, to bring our thoughts and actions more and more into line with God’s will.

As Paul wrote earlier in this chapter of Romans:

I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God — what is good and acceptable and perfect. (Rom. 12:1-2)

And when we are “transformed by the renewing of [our] minds,” when we — with the Holy Spirit — do change our actions and attitudes, we can have big impacts in our conversations and our relationships.

If we can be a change from the usual way of doings things, if we can break the usual pattern, then the people and things around us have to respond to us and to the change we’re bringing. And at least that opens a door for things to change for the better.

When we do this as individuals, we can bring change to our own spheres. When we do this as a community — as St. Andrew here in Williamson County, and as the Church at large — we can change the world. Our lives can be one of the means by which God overcomes evil with good.

Let’s read the Romans lesson one more time. If you tried to cling closely to Paul’s advice, how might your life change? And if we all tried to cling closely to Paul’s advice, how might our community change? How might our nation change? How might the world change? You might even underline the parts that really jump out at you as we go.

Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

hands-doves-sumility-medium

“Wonders by Their Hands,” Len Matthews (photograph). “Wonders are still able to be done in the city by our hands of compassion, mercy, humility and justice.” [Via Vanderbilt Divinity Library’s Art in the Christian Tradition]


[1] From Sundays and Seasons: Year A 2017, (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2016), September 3, 2017, Romans 12:9-21, pg. 257.

[2] John Biewen, “Transformation,” Scene on Radio, episode 45, (episode 14 of the series Seeing White), podcast, August 24, 2017. Available online: http://podcast.cdsporch.org/episode-45-transformation-seeing-white-part-14/