Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN + 7th Sunday after Pentecost + July 8, 2018
How would you treat yourself differently if you really believed that God is working through you?
Sometimes that can be a very hard thing to believe. We feel comfortable confessing that God is at work in those really exceptional, saintly people: the Mother Theresas or the Pope Francises. Or maybe we’re willing to admit that God might be at work in people with great skills or expertise: brilliant scientists or inspired musicians. Or maybe we are comfortable thinking that God is at work through the powerful people — surely, we might think, it was God who put them in that position, and for a reason. But God working through me? Well, maybe that will happen one day, when I get better at praying or patience or love.
At the ELCA National Youth Gathering last week we heard lots of speakers who shared a similar theme: that God is at work in us and through us, even when we were are at our least saintly or brilliant or powerful. People who had struggled with eating disorders or drug addiction or terrible diagnoses told us about how they felt and saw God working in them even in the midst of their struggle. God never gave up on them, even when they gave up.
Nadia Bolz-Weber — who is probably the ELCA’s most famous pastor; you might know her as that tall lady with tattoos from the House for All Sinners and Saints in Denver — may have summarized the theme most powerfully during her sermon to the 30,000 youth gathered together in Houston:
[There’s a] burden that we carry of always knowing the difference between, like, our ideal self and our actual self…But if you think about it, no one’s ever become their ideal self. It’s a moving target. It’s a false promise. Your ideal self is a lie…Your ideal self doesn’t exist. The self that God has a relationship to is your actual self. The self God loves is your actual self. And there’s a word for this, and that word is “grace.”
Martin Luther taught that God’s grace made us — miraculously — sinners and saints at the same time. Yeah, of course we do wrong things and we’re prideful and sometimes mean and whatever our particular flaws might be. But at the same time, the Holy Spirit is in us, forgiving us, leading us, working through us to build God’s kingdom and share God’s love…even though we’re also going to go on being imperfect and un-ideal for our whole lives. Even the most saintly of us.
As a pastor I might be in privileged position to see how true this is. Many of you share your struggles and your hurts and even your weaknesses with me and Pastor Lippard, and I get just a glimpse of what you are struggling with, where you see imperfections in yourself, what your doubts are, how you feel that things aren’t good enough. I get to know that broken side of you. And then I turn around and see God working through you. You’re taking care of someone else here at church; you’re going to St. Paul’s breakfast or helping with Room in the Inn; you’re helping get supplies to victims of hurricanes. I get reminded all the time that God is not waiting for us to get more perfect to bring us on to God’s mission team: God is working in us just as we are, and making us holier along the way. God gives us on-the-job training.
So, how would you treat yourself differently if you really believed that God is working through you? Would you give yourself more grace? Would you feel more empowered to do the work God is calling you to do? Would you let yourself think that you do have something important to offer this world? Would you recognize what you have to offer — great strengths and little skills and even weaknesses — as holy things that God can and does work through?
And then: how would you treat the people around you differently if you could better recognize how God is working through them?
This is closer to the situation we see in today’s Bible readings. In our Old Testament reading, God warns the prophet Ezekiel that God is sending him to rebellious, impudent, and stubborn people. The great majority of them will not take seriously that God is speaking to them through Ezekiel. They’ll refuse to hear his warnings and deny his wisdom. They won’t recognize God at work in him.
In our gospel reading, we see that the people of Jesus’s hometown could recognize Jesus’s wisdom, his miraculous healings (either genuinely or sarcastically)…and yet somehow they could not believe that these things were the work of God. Wasn’t this the kid they’d known his whole life, the guy who used to be a day-laborer down the street? Someone just like them, not someone special. Instead of standing in awe of what Jesus was able to do, they took offense at him. They would not recognize God at work in Jesus.
And then Jesus sent out his disciples, and he warned them that some people would reject them. They would not see God working in that ragtag group of ex-fishermen and ex-tax collectors and ex-rebels.
What stopped all those people from seeing God at work in the people around them — people we now revere as prophets and saints and the Son of God? I mean, those guys were doing miracles: casting out demons and curing the sick and revealing divine truths. Was it that they were, aside from the miracles, just ordinary people?
Was it that the rejecters did not like what Ezekiel and Jesus and the disciples were saying? Was it a pride thing — Who are these guys, to think they’re so special?
But maybe the more important question is: What keeps us from seeing God at work in the people around us? Not that they’re all going to have their names on the calendar of saints one day…but God is at work even in imperfect people. Ordinary, boring people; people who make us mad; people who make our food at restaurants; people we disagree with; people who do obviously bad things; I think even in people who don’t “know” God themselves. Of course not everything everybody does is of God, but I think God is at work somehow in all people.
So: how would you treat the people around you differently if you could better recognize how God is working through them? Would you give them more grace? Would you try harder to understand them? Would you look harder for what God is offering through them?
And then: how would you look at the world differently if you could better recognize that God is working in all sorts of people, in all sorts of places, in all sorts of situations?
For a solid period of time Western Christian missionaries believed that their culture was closer to God’s way than the cultures of the peoples of other lands — even the parts of their culture that really had nothing to do with following Jesus: things like dressing in the same style, taking on the same social customs, listening to the same music, using the same first names. As they sought to win converts to Christianity, they demanded that the converts also turn away completely from their native way of doing things and essentially become foreign Westerners.
Individual missionaries had a whole range of personal experiences in their work, and I’m sure that many of them were changed and inspired and grew as Christians through their encounters with other peoples. But at least at the theoretical level — and often at the practical level, too — it was thought to be the missionaries who carried God to others, and there was little to no reciprocation: they did not go out expecting to see God at work in these other lands, did not expect to be changed or challenged back.
In some ways this idea still persists: we often think of mission or outreach work as one group doing the work of God for another group rather than as something more reciprocal and relational. It takes a lot of thought — and probably some real experience — to be able to see the prisoner ministering back to the chaplain or the homeless man providing something to the Room in the Inn host. And, admittedly, it can still be easy for us to think of Western culture and Christianity as one and the same — for some this is unintentional, because it’s what we’re used to, and we need the reminder that God is already at work in other places and cultures, and has been since ancient times. But for some other people the idea that Christianity is Western culture, that’s a creed they hold on to…and that easily becomes harmful to mission work and to Christianity.
But today many missions groups — including ELCA Global Missions — teach that their work is something more interdependent and mutual. Our Global Missions website talks about how our missionaries work with and among the people they travel to, seek to empower them, build relationships, and open themselves to what they might learn from other people and other cultures. These missionaries go expecting God to work through them and also expecting to experience God working in others, in the midst of different traditions and styles and histories. As one of our Young Adults in Global Mission put it: “You always hear about ‘brothers and sisters in Christ,’ so that’s not, like, a totally new concept for me…but I’m just really feeling it lived out here.”
How would you look at the world differently if you could better recognize that God is working in all sorts of people, in all sorts of places, in all sorts of situations? What situations would you consider with more grace? What would you try harder to understand? What preconceptions would you have to let go of? What things about the way the world is going would you want to challenge? What new things might God teach you?
Jesus came to his hometown, and his disciples followed him. On the sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astounded. They said, “Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands! Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary…?” And they took offense at him. (Mark 6:1-3)
Sometimes we, like these people from Jesus’s hometown, may fall into the habit of limiting God. We might think, “God can’t be here, or there, in that person, in me.” There might be great teachings. There might be great signs. But for some reason, we can’t quite get ourselves to believe God is working in people or places that don’t seem right or holy enough, that seem too ordinary or too strange. Maybe it’s because of our pride or because of our shame; maybe it’s because we’re too comfortable with what we’re used to, or too uncomfortable with a new experience. But what would change if we did see God working in places we aren’t used to expecting?
What if God is working in all those strange and contentious parts of our world?
What if God is working in the people you see every day?
What if God is working in you?