What About the Law? Galatians 3:1-9, 23-29

 Galatians 3:1-10  The Message

You crazy Galatians! Did someone put a spell on you? Have you taken leave of your senses? Something crazy has happened, for it’s obvious that you no longer have the crucified Jesus in clear focus in your lives. His sacrifice on the cross was certainly set before you clearly enough.

2-4 Let me put this question to you: How did your new life begin? Was it by working your heads off to please God? Or was it by responding to God’s Message to you? Are you going to continue this craziness? For only crazy people would think they could complete by their own efforts what was begun by God. If you weren’t smart enough or strong enough to begin it, how do you suppose you could perfect it? Did you go through this whole painful learning process for nothing? It is not yet a total loss, but it certainly will be if you keep this up!

5-6 Answer this question: Does the God who lavishly provides you with his own presence, his Holy Spirit, working things in your lives you could never do for yourselves, does he do these things because of your strenuous moral striving or because you trust him to do them in you? Don’t these things happen among you just as they happened with Abraham? He believed God, and that act of belief was turned into a life that was right with God.

7-8 Is it not obvious to you that persons who put their trust in Christ (not persons who put their trust in the law!) are like Abraham: children of faith? It was all laid out beforehand in Scripture that God would set things right with non-Jews by faith. Scripture anticipated this in the promise to Abraham: “All nations will be blessed in you.”

9-10 So those now who live by faith are blessed along with Abraham, who lived by faith—this is no new doctrine! And that means that anyone who tries to live by his own effort, independent of God, is doomed to failure. Scripture backs this up: “Utterly cursed is every person who fails to carry out every detail written in the Book of the law.”

23-24 Until the time when we were mature enough to respond freely in faith to the living God, we were carefully surrounded and protected by the Mosaic law. The law was like those Greek tutors, with which you are familiar, who escort children to school and protect them from danger or distraction, making sure the children will really get to the place they set out for.

25-27 But now you have arrived at your destination: By faith in Christ you are in direct relationship with God. Your baptism in Christ was not just washing you up for a fresh start. It also involved dressing you in an adult faith wardrobe—Christ’s life, the fulfillment of God’s original promise.

28-29 In Christ’s family there can be no division into Jew and non-Jew, slave and free, male and female. Among us you are all equal. That is, we are all in a common relationship with Jesus Christ. Also, since you are Christ’s family, then you are Abraham’s famous “descendant,” heirs according to the covenant promises.

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Surely we understand God’s grace better than the first Gentile Christians. Surely we know the difference between being good people and being Christians.  And yet, I think we, like the Galatians, have to have it spelled out for us from time to time.

The Gentile converts were put in the position of having to follow all Jewish traditions, which included following all the laws. Like so many people, the Jewish people put great store in the law.  If one followed all the commandments, that pleased God and God would have mercy on them. (FYI, that is bad or wrong theology, but it is human nature to think like that).

From Cradle Roll on, we learn the ten commandments.  We hear Bible stories that glorify people doing good things—feeding people, healing people, helping people. It’s no wonder that we think we have to do good things to please God, to earn God’s love and grace.

In fact, we cannot ever do enough to earn God’s grace. We can never be perfect enough to warrant God’s mercy. We are, sad to say, sinners.  Even though we are created in the image of a sinless God, we sin. Every day.  Thoughts.  Words.  Deeds.

 It’s funny how following the Law becomes an obsession with us. The thing is, we often worry more about how other people follow the law. We’re more aware of the sins of others than we are of our own.  How often do you watch the news or exchange local gossip and automatically convert all the wrongs in the world into all the sins of the people in the news or the neighborhood? 

Am I the only one who does that?  Some of my friends, for instance, think that police brutality would end if everybody would just obey the law.  Some of my friends think that if everybody would get a job, the economy would right itself. Some of my friends believe that government is the answer; some of my friends believe that government is the problem. Some of my friends believe that unemployment benefits provide financial stability; some of my fiends believe that unemployment benefits make people lazy.  

Where do the Ten Commandments come in? Love God. Love your neighbor.  What does love look like? How does God know that I love God?  Think about the Ten Commandments as a mirror. If I look into that mirror, what do I see? If this mirror is made honestly, I see myself as worshipping God, as paying attention to God, as keeping God at the forefront of my efforts and desires.  I see myself honoring parents and children and the unique relationship among families.  I see myself being satisfied with what I have. I see myself treating people kindly and seeing the good in everyone, from the screaming baby to the angry politician. At least that’s what I want to see. Sometimes I see myself trying to get along without God, trying to use my own human logic to solve problems.  Sometimes I see myself judging others, looking for their faults, criticizing their decisions. Sometimes I want more than I need. Sometimes I am afraid to share, for fear that I will have to do without.  Sometimes I find family and marriage to be too confining, too demanding.  Sometimes I daydream about what could be instead of being thankful for what is.

And what does God see when God sees Dianne looking in the mirror of God’s laws?

God sees someone lovable, someone with potential, someone made in God’s image. God sees the person God created to love and be loved.  

God sees someone who has no hope of being perfect, no hope of keeping every commandment. So what did God do? God sent the perfect Son to be not only God, but also to be human.  That Son, Jesus, walked the same paths we walk, felt the same “feels” we feel, and, because he did not sin, was able to conquer sin. He did not conquer sin for himself or for God. He conquered sin for us, so that we could, despite our obvious guilt, could be united with God forever. 

Do we need the Law, the Ten Commandments?  Yes.  We need to review everyday what it means to be freed from sin.  When we are freed from sin, we are freed to love God and love our neighbor.  The commandments show us how. We don’t have to depend on our own judgment, we don’t have to depend on the laws that society or the government has written, to show our love for God and for all of God’s children.

If God, who is perfect beyond imagination can love us, surely it is worth the effort to acknowledge God’s great mercy and love to our fullest capacity. 

It is easy to think that “being good” is all it takes to please God.  We don’t have to please God. God loves us unconditionally.  You may have had to please your teacher, your parents, your spouse, your boss. God doesn’t want to be pleased. God wants to be worshipped. God wants to be honored.  God wants to be adored.  And God gives it right back to us in grace and mercy and unconditional love.  Amen.

Adiaphora Acts 15:1-18

15 Some people came from Judea and started teaching the Lord’s followers that they could not be saved, unless they were circumcised as Moses had taught. This caused trouble, and Paul and Barnabas argued with them about this teaching. So it was decided to send Paul and Barnabas and a few others to Jerusalem to discuss this problem with the apostles and the church leaders.

The men who were sent by the church went through Phoenicia and Samaria, telling how the Gentiles had turned to God. This news made the Lord’s followers very happy. When the men arrived in Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the church, including the apostles and the leaders. They told them everything God had helped them do. But some Pharisees had become followers of the Lord. They stood up and said, “Gentiles who have faith in the Lord must be circumcised and told to obey the Law of Moses.”

The apostles and church leaders met to discuss this problem about Gentiles. They had talked it over for a long time, when Peter got up and said:

My friends, you know that God decided long ago to let me be the one from your group to preach the good news to the Gentiles. God did this so that they would hear and obey him. He knows what is in everyone’s heart. And he showed that he had chosen the Gentiles, when he gave them the Holy Spirit, just as he had given his Spirit to us. God treated them in the same way that he treated us. They put their faith in him, and he made their hearts pure.

10 Now why are you trying to make God angry by placing a heavy burden on these followers? This burden was too heavy for us or our ancestors. 11 But our Lord Jesus was kind to us, and we are saved by faith in him, just as the Gentiles are.

12 Everyone kept quiet and listened as Barnabas and Paul told how God had given them the power to work a lot of miracles and wonders for the Gentiles.

13 After they had finished speaking, James said:

My friends, listen to me! 14 Simon Peter has told how God first came to the Gentiles and made some of them his own people. 15 This agrees with what the prophets wrote,

16  “I, the Lord, will return and rebuild David’s fallen house.
I will build it from its ruins and set it up again.

17  Then other nations will turn to me and be my chosen ones.
I, the Lord, say this. 18 I promised it long ago.”

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I learned a new word in seminary: adiaphora. Adiaphora means simply those things which are neither commanded by Scripture nor forbidden by Scripture.

What things are commanded by Scripture?  Love God.  Love your neighbor. 

But church as we know it is a lot more than commandments.

What is the first thing you think of when you hear the word “church?”

A building with a steeple?  Sunday morning worship? A congregation?

Stained glass windows?  Organ music? 

The first churches met in homes.  No steeples, no stained glass windows, no organs. Worship was on Sunday morning because that was the day Jesus rose from the dead. That practice has remained with us. Many of us believe we can’t start a new week without worship.  

What it means to be church, to do church has changed over the centuries.  For those of us who were born into the church, the practices and traditions seem necessary. For those who came to church for the first time as adults, the practices may seem strange and superfluous. For those who worshipped for the first time as children, worship can seem boring. 

Let’s look at some of our practices.

Let’s look first at our building.  What makes this building different from other buildings in town?

The stained glass windows. The altar.  The table. The pulpit. The organ. The balcony. Do you know of many buildings with an inside balcony? How about the pews? Where else would pews be considered proper seating?  Imagine a movie theater with pews instead of cushioned seats.  Why did our ancestors in the faith put out the big bucks for stained glass windows and pews and an organ?  

And what about worship?  Why do we sing?  Why do we always have an invocation, a confession and absolution? Why do we always not only collect money, but dedicate it?  We read scripture—that makes sense—but why do we need a sermon?  Why do we say the same prayer every Sunday?   

And what about holidays? Why do we have a Christmas Eve service and not a Pentecost Eve service?  Why do we have Lenten services? 

What about committees and councils? What about Sunday School? What about funerals and weddings? 

What are we talking about here?  Let’s call all these practices traditions.

Why do we cling to traditions?  Because we know them. They are familiar, comforting—stress-free, really.  No surprises. No having to learn something new. No upsetting routines.

So, this idea of adiaphora—-can we sort out what is commended and what is not commended? Our guidebook is Scripture, of course.   Where in the Bible does it say that our churches must have stained glass windows?  Nowhere, of course. So why do we need stained glass windows?  Short answer: we don’t. Long answer: they serve a purpose. 

Starting in the 11th century stained glass windows became a part of church architecture.  The first church to have such windows was the cathedral in Augsburg, Germany. Windows could be made larger because of the gothic architecture; the light they let in was considered to be the manifestation of God.   The subject matter of the windows was Bible stories, which served as Scripture for the people who could not read and who did not have access to printed Scripture. Most church windows still tell stories, still teach us lessons, still remind of us of who and Whose we are. 

What about the pews?  Up through the 13th Century, churches were SRO—standing room only—-nowhere and no way to sit. However, after the Reformation, the sermon became the most prominent feature of the worship service and pews were added so that people could sit during that long feature.  Can you imagine having to stand during the sermon? or during the entire service? 

In our Scripture today, the leaders of the church had to make a decision that was much more controversial than what kind of seating to provide.  

God had instructed Abraham centuries before that, as a sign of belonging to God’s people, all males should be circumcised. This became a physical mark of Jewishness and still is. In the days of Peter and Paul, Gentiles—non-Jewish persons—were not circumcised.  Because Christianity was the manifestation of Jewish prophecy, because Jesus and his followers were Jewish, and because Gentile Christians followed the Ten Commandments and read Jewish Scripture, maybe they should also have to follow other Jewish rules, like not eating pork or shrimp, and, of course, circumcision.  Underlying this concern was how Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians could interact with each other. What if someone brought pork chops to the potluck?  Would that be disgusting to any Jewish Christians? Do you have a food you don’t like that makes you lose your appetite? For some of us, the smell of liver and onions can make us ill. It’s not a matter of nutrition; it’s a matter of courtesy. To serve something that is knowingly distasteful to someone else is rude. 

That was the task set before the Jerusalem council. What is necessary and what is not necessary? By the way, this meeting is the perfect example of how to conduct any church meetings when there is controversy.  We’ll save that for another sermon. How many church meetings should have used Acts 15 alongside Roberts Rules of Order!  

Adiaphora—that which doesn’t make any difference—-theologically.  But in practice, some adiaphora—some of our traditions—must be kept.  

I had an hour-long interview with some very knowledgeable church people last Wednesday.  One of the things we discussed was that I don’t use the liturgy in our hymnal. In our Lutheran tradition, liturgy is a very important part of worship. Every song, every sung and spoken phrase is lifted straight from Scripture. They are not the words of a poet of the most recent century; they are Bible verses.  In most Lutheran churches, the same liturgy is sung every Sunday.  In our congregation, I have made a different choice.  I build a different liturgy every Sunday. We seldom have two worship services exactly alike.  I do that for two reasons: first, the liturgy is challenging to sing and, second, singing the same thing every Sunday can become rote, that is we lose the meaning and just sing out of habit.  However, there is an advantage to those words becoming embedded in our brains: they are instantly accessible whenever we need the Word of God int times of trouble or joy. 

When I was a child, we sang words from Psalm 51 every Sunday as the offering was carried to the altar: “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right Spirit within me. Cast me not away from thy presence.” How often those words pop into my mind and I’m so thankful that I still know them.  I wouldn’t know them if I had’t sung them fifty-two times a year for twenty years.  So, perhaps I’m doing you a disservice by giving you prayers every week that are new to you.  Why do I give you new prayers, new words? Because you have to really look at them to be able to say them, to be able to understand them. 

Which brings up another topic: why do we need music?  We don’t, but what it adds to our worship!  And hymns! I truly think most Christians learn their theology not from Scripture and sermon, but from the hymns.  Because of the way hymns are structured—with rhythm and rhyme, they do stick in our minds.  And, more importantly, they are the word of God. Hymns reflect the Scripture.  Not everybody knows this, but the pastor always chooses hymns to reflect, repeat and emphasize the Scripture for the day.  Every hymn has as its basis words from Scripture. In some hymnals, the Scripture reference is listed next to the author and composer.  It’s that important. 

So, all these parts of our service—could we worship without stained glass windows?  Yes.Could we worship without music?   Could we worship by sitting in some other kind of seating? I have a friend whose church is a storefront and he has rocking chairs, folding chairs, upholstered chairs, recliners.  How often I have wished we had recliners instead of pews for people whose backs hurt during the whole service.

What we have to remember is that though something may seem unnecessary, it is helpful: helpful for the instruction of scripture. Helpful in directing us to worship God. Helpful for us to center our minds away from the world, away from everyday life, and toward God. John Wesley had a good rule of thumb. He said, “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.”

Granted, our fancy buildings have become a financial burden. But they help us to worship.  One other thing that is absolutely necessary to Christianity is community. We cannot be Christians without being together. Even if we cannot be together in a building, we have learned to accept electronic community via applications like ZOOM. 

We have learned that from the pandemic. In fact, the pandemic has helped us to sort out what is necessary and what is not necessary. We have learned that community is what we miss most when we are forced to remain apart. We have had access to Scripture and song and prayer. We have been able to love our neighbor through phone calls and donations to charities and rides to the doctor. But to worship in person, to be praying together, to someday return to singing together, to be able to hear the Word of God together—we have reached a new level of thankfulness.  

Phyllis Tickle wrote a great book about the state of the church in the late 20th-early 21st Century.  She titled it The Great Emergence. It’s not about cicadas emerging from their beds after seventeen years of sleep. It’s about the church emerging from 500 years of tradition.  She says the church has a “rummage sale” every 500 years—sorting through what we are and have and do, discarding what is no longer purposeful and keeping only what enables us to faithfully be Christians.

What do we keep?  The death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The Sacraments of Holy Communion and Baptism.  The forgiveness of sins.  Life everlasting.

How do we keep our faith? Through the sharing of our faith in Community with Scripture and Worship and through the Sacraments.

Our traditions do not bring us salvation. Martin Luther gave us good reason to embrace our traditions: “We cheerfully maintain the old traditions made in the Church for the sake of usefulness and peace.” Our traditions give us structure and order and peace of mind so that distractions and obstacles are removed and we can worship as the whole People of God. Thanks be to God for what we have, adiaphora or not.  Amen.

“How Can I Understand Unless Someone Guides Me?” Acts 8:26-39

26 Then an angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Get up and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” (This is a wilderness road.) 

27 So he got up and went. 

Now there was an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of the Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of her entire treasury. 

He had come to Jerusalem to worship 28 and was returning home; seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah. 

29 Then the Spirit said to Philip, “Go over to this chariot and join it.” 

30 So Philip ran up to it and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah. 

He asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” 3

1 He replied, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” 

And he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him. 

32 Now the passage of the scripture that he was reading was this:

Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter, and like a lamb silent before its shearer, so he does not open his mouth.

33 In his humiliation justice was denied him. 

Who can describe his generation?
For his life is taken away from the earth.”

34 The Ethiopian asked Philip, “About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” 

35 Then Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus. 

36 As they were going along the road, they came to some water; and the Ethiopian said, “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?” 

38 He commanded the chariot to stop, and both of them, Philip and the Ethiopian, went down into the water, and Philip baptized him. 

39 When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away; the Ethiopian saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing.  

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Some one asked me, “Do you have a personal credo that guides you?”  Yes, I do. Tattooed across the inside of my head is the mantra, “Bloom where you are planted.”  In other words, don’t look for greener grass.  Don’t wait for a better opportunity.  Just do the best you can with what you have and where you are.  

So here I am in a pulpit in a small town that is just twenty miles from a larger town where two children were deliberately shot in the back alley behind Larry and Wilma’s house.  Bloom where you are planted.  How am I supposed to bloom, and more importantly, how do I help you to bloom through this tragedy?

I’m assuming none of us knew those boys who were riding their bikes through the alley, just like hundreds of kids before them for as long as that alley has been there; Kevin and Michael Johannsen rode their bikes through that alley when they were kids.  There is nothing remarkable about that particular alley, except that it runs behind Wilma and Larry’s house. 

There was nothing remarkable until bullets went flying and children were frightened and hurt and killed. It became a crime scene. Police cars and firetrucks and ambulances and frightened and angry people appeared out of nowhere and Larry couldn’t even put the van in the garage. And a mother couldn’t tuck her child into bed that night.  

This is personal.

This is a test.

Who is my neighbor?  

Jesus asked that one day, a long time ago. The question still haunts us.  My neighbor lives next door.  My neighbor lives down the street.  My neighbor lives around the corner.  My neighbor lives across the road.  My neighbor lives across the field.  My neighbor lives across town.  

Where do we stop?  

What does Jesus mean by neighbor?  According to the parable of the Good Samaritan, a neighbor is defined by need. The one who needs me is my neighbor.  That is a very different definition from our conventional use of the word. For us, neighbor is connected to location.

Jesus erases those boundaries and leaves us wide open to exposure to all kinds of “neighbors.”

Who is my neighbor? The sins of our culture, of our society, have built boundaries and alienated us from our neighbors.  The boundaries have been created from skin color, from economic status, from language, from faith practices. Skin color in itself is not a boundary.  Economic status is not a boundary.  How we speak our native tongue is not a boundary. Our choice of religious practice is not a boundary.  But like a tree or a stone, someone else has taken those elements and made them into walls that seem impenetrable. 

This is a test.  God does not test us.  Sin tests us.  Never think that God is holding you up against some standard that you can never meet.  It is sin that tests us; God has the answer sheet.

This is a test.  Sin, evil, tempts us to give in, to see only suffering and injustice, to see only guns and bullets, to see only anger and danger. Sin is not the answer. Sin is not the standard. Sin is the mischief maker, the culprit, the tempter, the villain, the abuser. 

We do not face sin alone.  God stands right beside us, unbeaten, unwavering, unalterable.

This is a test.  The most important question in the world is “Who is my neighbor?”

Was the boy killed behind Larry and Wilma’s house their neighbor?

Was he your neighbor?  Was he my neighbor?

In today’s scripture, Phillip and the Ethiopian are definitely not neighbors.  They are strangers separated by physical differences, by calling, by geography, by status.  And yet, they are, for a short time neighbors, sharing the word of God.

An important Ethiopian official happened to be going along that road in his chariot. He was the chief treasurer for Candace, the Queen of Ethiopia. The official had gone to Jerusalem to worship 28and was now on his way home. He was sitting in his chariot, reading the book of the prophet Isaiah.

[Phillip} asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” 3

1 He replied, “How can I, unless someone guides me?”

“How can I, unless someone guides me?”

 God sent Phillip to guide the Ethiopian, to help him to understand the prophecy of Isaiah, to learn about the fulfilment of the prophecy, to be moved by the Spirit to accept Jesus as the Messiah.  

“What is to prevent me from being baptized?” asks the Ethiopian. 

The story doesn’t end with baptism.  The death and resurrection of Jesus does more than free us from sin. We are freed from sin to love our neighbor. 

How did that baptism change the Ethiopian’s life?  We’ll never know.

We do know that baptism can change our lives, that we have been changed and charged to be witnesses and workers in this place and time. 

As we watch horrific events take place far away and close to home, how can we witness to the salvific grace of God?  

Wilma walked down to the group of grieving friends and family yesterday to offer her condolences. Wilma saw what we do not see on the evening news: the faces of those who are mourning, the faces of those who are hurt and angry and frustrated because another child, a child from their family, from their neighborhood, has died.  It doesn’t matter now how or why he died.  He’s dead. He leaves behind parents, cousins, classmates, teachers.

How do we witness in such a world?

Who will cross our path like the Ethiopian crossed Phillip’s path?

We, in this congregation, are far removed from the news we see on television. The big news this week has been the conviction of a person who killed another person.  Is that man my neighbor? 

When Jesus told us that we should love our neighbor, did he have a certain radius in mind, like everyone within ten miles, a hundred miles?

My gut feeling is that Jesus was not talking about boundaries.  Knowing how all-encompassing Jesus’s love is for all of humanity, I’m thinking we are asked to love all of humanity.

How can we love people we’ll never meet? 

What if we start with our thoughts?  

We live in a time of sharp divisions.  It used to be that the most serious rivalries we experienced were the Bears versus the Packers or the ‘Clones versus the Hawks. Now mention “guns” or “vaccine” and suddenly you’re labeled and shoved in one box or another, without an opportunity to be neutral or undecided. And the people in the other box become anything but your neighbor.

What if we change our thinking about our neighbor who collects guns or gets a vaccine? What if we think about our neighbor as a person who lives and loves and struggles and laughs and prays just like we do?  

What if I think of the people I lump together as growing and blooming where they are planted?

What if I think of them as individuals, each created in the image of God?

What if I lay aside my well-earned biases and see a reflection of myself in each individual?  

What do people who see me for the first time, up close or from a distance, really see?  An old lady, with messy hair, who has had too many desserts and would come in last in a foot race. That’s not the way you see me, because you know me, but to anyone else, “nothing to see here; move along.”

What if we were able to look into the face of the one who is the Ethiopian or Norwegian, the one who is a foreigner or the neighbor who never waves as he drives by, the one who is richer or poorer, the one who is ugly or drop-dead gorgeous and see that person, not through our own eyes, hardened and narrowed by the world, but through the eyes of Jesus?  

What does Jesus see when he runs through an alley with boys riding their bikes? Who does Jesus see when he looks into the eyes and heart of a man with a gun who must pull a trigger? Who does Jesus see when he watches an official sign a piece of paper that removes or delivers the rights of others?

Who does Jesus see when he looks into the face of a man or woman sentenced to prison?  Who does Jesus see when he listens to angry profanities shouted from mouth of a man or woman?  Who does Jesus see when he looks into the heart of a man who abuses his wife, when he looks into the sou of a woman who neglects her children?  Who does Jesus see when he walks with the policeman or the person who walks constantly in fear? 

Jesus sees the image of God.  Jesus sees the goodness in that person. 

What if I, the greatest of sinners, remember that I am created in the same image as the person who frustrates me, as the person who angers me, as the person who threatens me?  What if I remember that my thoughts are as prone to sin as my words and actions?  What if I clean up my thoughts….then what?

Thoughts lead to words, do they not? What if my conversation reflects the intention of the Eighth Commandment? 

Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.16 What does this mean? — Answer.
We should fear and love God that we may not deceitfully belie, betray, slander, or defame our neighbor, but defend him, [think and] speak well of him, and put the best construction on everything.

What if we give our neighbor—the one we have’t ever met, the one we’ll never approach, the neighbor whose life is so different from ours that we can’t understand it—that neighbor—what if we only defend him, think and speak well of him, and give him the benefit of the doubt.  

We don’t have to judge, although our sinful nature always butts in and compares “those people” to our own standards. We don’t have to condemn—someone else will take care of that.  We only—only—  have to see them as a sibling in Christ.  

Don’t tell me you’re only human, that, of course, you can’t help thinking of “those people” —the billionaires, the politicians, the people who live west of Brady,  the people who live in “government housing,”  the tree huggers, the refugees, as losers and cheaters, as lazy and stupid.  You are human which means you  are made in the image of God.  You can control your thoughts and your words and your actions.

Each of us is a marvelous creation of God.  And here’s something to remember: God didn’t abandon us after he created us.  We’re not like some Barbie doll that’s lying at the back of the closet with tangled hair and one leg. We are still very much cared for, always very much loved, and understood by God better than we understand ourselves.  

God cares about us and loves us and respects us.  Love is something that is meant to be returned. How do we return our love to God? By loving God’s creation, God’s people.  How do we show that love? Thought. Word.  Deed.  

How? When?  Phillip didn’t wake up that morning planning to ride in a chariot with a man who was not from his neighborhood, not from his community.  But when that stranger needed help, Phillip said, “OK!”  

Phillip did not say, “He’s rich and stuck up, his skin is black, he’s a foreigner.” Phillip didn’t say, “Not my problem.” Phillip said “OK!” Phillip said, “Let me help you.” And a mile down the road, Phillip and the Ethiopian hopped out of the chariot and another child of God was baptized.

Sin tests us. God gives us the answer. Love your neighbors, even if you don’t know them. Amen.

Never Absent; Always Present Luke 24:1-12

24 Very early on Sunday morning the women went to the tomb, carrying the spices that they had prepared. 

2 When they found the stone rolled away from the entrance, 3 they went in. 

But they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus, 4 and they did not know what to think.

Suddenly two men in shining white clothes stood beside them. 

5 The women were afraid and bowed to the ground. 

But the men said, “Why are you looking in the place of the dead for someone who is alive?

 6 Jesus isn’t here! 

He has been raised from death. 

Remember that while he was still in Galilee, he told you, 7 ’The Son of Man will be handed over to sinners who will nail him to a cross. But three days later he will rise to life.’ “ 

8 Then they remembered what Jesus had said.

9-10 Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and some other women were the ones who had gone to the tomb. 

When they returned, they told the eleven apostles and the others what had happened. 

11 The apostles thought it was all nonsense, and they would not believe.

12 But Peter ran to the tomb. 

And when he stooped down and looked in, he saw only the burial clothes. 

Then he returned, wondering what had happened.

+++

Nothing has changed since last Easter.

Oh, sure, we didn’t meet in person last Easter.

We have a different president.  The ice caps are melting faster.  Babies have been born. People have died.

ZOOM is now a household word.

We wear masks.

But nothing important has changed since last Easter Sunday. The tomb is still empty. Jesus is still the conquerer of death. 

The women, Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and some other women, expected to perform one last act of love for their dead friend. 

They had had no opportunity to prepare Jesus’s body for his final resting place. They knew what to do; they would use perfumes and spices to anoint the body, wrap it in cloth and put a special cloth over the face.  At a normal death, the body would remain at the person’s home for a visitation, much like our visitations at funeral homes.  Jesus’s death was not normal; he was taken down from the cross and buried immediately. 

Matthew’s Gospel tells it this way: 

57 When it was evening, there came a rich man from Arimathea, named Joseph, who was also a disciple of Jesus. 58 He went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus; then Pilate ordered it to be given to him. 59 So Joseph took the body and wrapped it in a clean linen cloth 60 and laid it in his own new tomb, which he had hewn in the rock. He then rolled a great stone to the door of the tomb and went away. 61 Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were there, sitting opposite the tomb.

The Gospel according to John tells us that Jesus had already been anointed: 

39 Nicodemus, who had at first come to Jesus by night, also came, bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighing about a hundred pounds. 40 They took the body of Jesus and wrapped it with the spices in linen cloths, according to the burial custom of the Jews.

Regardless of which report is 100% accurate, the women needed to do this one last caring thing for their friend. Perhaps they knew that usually women prepared the body, that men did not. Joseph and Nicodemus probably didn’t do it exactly right, so they needed to go in to make sure Jesus was properly buried. As it turned out, the perfumes and spices and clothes weren’t needed.  Jesus wasn’t dead.  There was no body.  

What was their first thought? That the body had been stolen?  That was the fear of chief priests and the Pharisees; they convinced Pilate to  have the stone at the entrance sealed and to have soldiers posted to guard the tomb. 

Imagine! All the efforts of men to make sure that Jesus would no longer be a threat to the establishments of the Roman Empire and the Jewish community were for naught.  The authorities, both secular and religious, did everything they could to silence Jesus. Jesus could not and cannot be silenced.  

What does this mean for us?  

It means that we are freed from sin, freed from death, freed from our mortality. Those are abstract ideas, but we Christians cherish our freedom.  We did not earn this freedom, we did not fight for this freedom.  This freedom is a gift, given without any conditions attached.  

To be freed from our sin frees us to love as Jesus loved. That is what it means for our earthly life.  Jesus not only showed us what love looks like, as he helped and healed and cheered the people of Galilee.  Jesus did more than free us to be the force of love in the world.  

Jesus freed us from death. That is hard for us to imagine. We still die; we still prepare bodies for burial, so what does it mean to be freed from death? We do try to imagine what life after death will be.  We hear stories of people who have died and been resuscitated.  Usually, the people describe meeting God or angels or the people from their family who have been dead for a few years.  

That glimpse of heaven—we call that place we go to after death, heaven—is comforting because it sounds familiar.  Dying is frightening because all we have ever known is life. Even when life is painful, it is preferable to death. Why else do we seek cures for every disease? Why else are we lining up to get vaccines?  Why else do we give money to the American Cancer Society and similar organizations?  We fear death. And yet, Jesus gives us a reason to ignore that fear and look forward to something better. 

We observed the four-year anniversary of my father’s death this past week.  I wrote a little tribute to him that included this:   

I have no doubt that the saints wander among us, seeing only the beauty in our lives.  Thanks be to God for this marvelous creation and for the miracle of human life, which continues even after death, without the sorrow.

I can say this because I know that my father and all the people I’ve loved have or will move from this life to a new life.  I know this because I believe what Jesus did and what Jesus said are meant for me as much as they were meant for the men who put him in the tomb, as much as they were meant for the women at the tomb.

I find great comfort in thinking that the saints walk among us, that heaven is wherever they are.  I cannot prove this; it is only my idea, but let me tell you a story about my cousin, Jane, her mother, Anna, and her daughter-in-law, Nancy.

 Anna’s mother was my great grandmother. Anna’s daughter Jane, is a good friend, as well as my cousin. Jane told me about a visit from Anna—after Anna died. Anna did not visit Jane.  She visited Jane’s daughter-in-law, Nancy.  Nancy had only met Anna once, so it was surprising that she would dream about Anna. But it seems that it was not so much Nancy dreaming as it was Anna visiting Nancy in her dream.  Here is the other part to the story.

When Anna died, Jane came back from Ohio to Muscatine to close up Anna’s house. She chose a few things to take with her, including a plate with roses on it. When she returned home, she hung the plate on the wall of her home.  In Jane’s words: 

Nancy seemed so unlikely.    But what do I know? I believe this was the last plate of the set that didn’t have a chip in it.  I brought it because I always liked how those dishes went so well in the kitchen. After I hung the plate, Ron was the only person who saw it, and neither of us told anyone.  (He wouldn’t anyway.  It is not a guy thing!) The plate still hangs there and makes me smile every day.   

What did Anna tell Nancy in the dream?  She told Nancy to tell Jane she liked where she hung the plate.  Anna was dead.  Nancy had only met Anna once.  Nancy lived in New Hampshire.  Anna is buried in Muscatine.  Jane lives in Ohio.  But Anna saw that Jane took the plate from the house on Cedar Street and took it to the house in Ohio.

So, in my mind, the saints, freed from death by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, are with us.

Likewise, Jesus is with us.  We proclaim that when we celebrate Holy Communion.  Jesus said “Remember me,” but Jesus is more than a memory for us. 

Barb Hedges-Goettl, a Presbyterian pastor and liturgical scholar, expands on this idea.

Since the Ascension, while believing in the Resurrection, we too are witnesses to an “absent” Jesus with regard to his body.  In the Church, we live out the words about the Word through the preaching of the Word. In the Church, we participate in the absent, ascended, resurrected Jesus through sharing in the body of Christ in the Lord’s Supper.  And, in the world, we live out our witness to the Word and to the resurrected Christ by speaking of God’s selfless love and by acting in selfless love as the body of Christ.

The first and last people to expereince something really, really new on this day were Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and some other women.  What those women saw was a change that would change the world.  

Since then, that empty tomb has remained empty and Jesus Christ has remained risen. 

Michal Beth Dinkler, Assistant Professor of New Testament at Yale Divinity School says exactly what I believe, exactly what I want you to hear and believe: 

The women’s experience, and their response to it, remind us that when we love God, neighbor, and ourselves with our words and our actions, we render Christ visible in a world where the divine all too often seems absent. We draw community together, instead of being pulled apart by fear, confusion, grief, and distress. When we do that—draw attention to a deeper reality that is often hard to remember or believe—God is still present and working in the world. Death does not, and will not, have the last word. That good news—that gospel—is what Christians proclaim when we say that Christ is risen. He is risen, indeed.

The resurrected Christ gives us so much that it is hard to realize it in the space of one sermon, in the space of one Holy Holiday, in the space of four Gospels.  

We are who we are, not because of where or when we were born, not because of what a few pieces of paper say about us or what a few people say about us.  We are who we are, because we believe in God the Father Almighty, in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, who died for us, who conquered death for us, and in the Holy Spirit, the Giver of Life. We walk in the presence of the Triune God, and the Triune God walks in our presence.  What greater joy, what greater comfort, what greater strength can there be than to say to each other “He is risen!” “He is risen indeed!” Amen.

Destination Phillipians 2: 1-12; Luke 19:28-44

Phillipians 2 Christ encourages you, and his love comforts you. God’s Spirit unites you, and you are concerned for others. 2 Now make me completely happy! Live in harmony by showing love for each other. Be united in what you think, as if you were only one person. 3 Don’t be jealous or proud, but be humble and consider others more important than yourselves. 4 Care about them as much as you care about yourselves 5 and think the same way that Christ Jesus thought:

6  Christ was truly God.
But he did not try to remain
    equal with God.

7  Instead he gave up everything
    and became a slave,
when he became
    like one of us.

8  Christ was humble.
He obeyed God
and even died
    on a cross.

9  Then God gave Christ
    the highest place
and honored his name
    above all others.

10  So at the name of Jesus
    everyone will bow down,
those in heaven, on earth,
    and under the earth.

11  And to the glory
    of God the Father
everyone will openly agree,
    “Jesus Christ is Lord!”

12 My dear friends, you always obeyed when I was with you. Now that I am away, you should obey even more. So work with fear and trembling to discover what it really means to be saved. 13 God is working in you to make you willing and able to obey him.

Luke 19: 28 After he had said this, he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem.

29 When he had come near Bethphage and Bethany, at the place called the Mount of Olives, he sent two of the disciples, 30 saying, “Go into the village ahead of you, and as you enter it you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden. Untie it and bring it here. 31 If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you untying it?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it.’” 32 So those who were sent departed and found it as he had told them. 33 As they were untying the colt, its owners asked them, “Why are you untying the colt?” 34 They said, “The Lord needs it.” 

35 Then they brought it to Jesus; and after throwing their cloaks on the colt, they set Jesus on it. 36 As he rode along, people kept spreading their cloaks on the road. 37 As he was now approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen, 38 saying,

“Blessed is the king
    who comes in the name of the Lord!
Peace in heaven,
    and glory in the highest heaven!”

39 Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, order your disciples to stop.” 40 He answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.”

41 As he came near and saw the city, he wept over it, 42 saying, “If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. 43 Indeed, the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up ramparts around you and surround you, and hem you in on every side. 44 They will crush you to the ground, you and your children within you, and they will not leave within you one stone upon another; because you did not recognize the time of your visitation from God.”

+++ 

What is the difference between a parade and a procession?  That is the first thing we need to figure out when we try to reconstruct Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem.

A parade is organized, planned, scheduled.  A procession can be planned and scheduled.   

So what is the difference?  As the director of DeWitt’s Fourth of July parade, I can tell you that a parade is about showing off and celebrating. A procession is about getting from one place to another.

Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem was not scheduled. It was not organized.  Jesus was not showing off.  If he had been, he’d have found something besides a donkey to ride into town.  A chariot would have been the choice of some of his contemporaries. In fact, there was a procession entering from the opposite side of town, at the same time, a procession of Roman soldiers and dignitaries.  People watching that were getting a bigger bang for their buck with all the imposing chariots and the beautiful horses draped in metal and leather.  And the soldiers themselves would have been dressed uniformly, much better than Jesus and his followers.  

So, if a procession has a beginning point and ending point, what were those points for Jesus.  Exactly when did this procession start?  On a morning a few days before Jesus execution? Or did it start earlier?

I propose that it started at Creation.  Jesus, as part of the Trinity, as God the Son, was present at Creation.  Jesus was present when sin came into the world.  The minute sin became an option for humans, Jesus was on a mission.  God so loved the world that God gave us Jesus.  So that procession began before time. It continued, through eons, through the years of God’s people turning to God, turning from God, returning, rejecting, forgetting, returning.  

And when the time was right, or when we humans were in so much hurt and chaos and misery, when we humans were so lost and careless and a danger to ourselves, Jesus arrived, not in a parade with angels riding on silver-white horses, but in the form of a tiny baby.  He did not arrive int the middle of a governmental body but in the middle of a family, just like you and I did. 

We are in a procession, not a parade. We do not show off.  We follow.

We are able to follow because our sins have been erased.  There is no barrier to our participation except our own sinful will. Jesus has lifted that barrier so that we can love like Jesus loves.

 2 Christ encourages you, and his love comforts you. God’s Spirit unites you, and you are concerned for others. Now make me completely happy! Live in harmony by showing love for each other.  

Because we are freed from sin, we are freed to love each other. We are freed to be a part of the procession of Jesus Christ our Savior. 

Live in harmony!  What a beautiful concept!  Harmony does not just happen.  Living in harmony has to be intentional.  

Harmony is something we long for.  How do I know?  Because everyone I know complains about the lack of harmony.    

Our inability to reconcile is a symptom of our fear. It is a symptom of the very thing against which Paul warns us.  Don’t be jealous or proud. Jealousy makes us unstable; when we are unstable, we are afraid of losing our balance, our possessions, our safety.  Pride makes us a threat to the neighbor who is jealous.

But be humble and consider others more important than yourselves. True humility is measured, not by low self-evaluation, but by active concern for others.

This does not mean that you should think less of yourself.  Paul does not mean that you lower your self-esteem. You are encouraged, instead, to raise the esteem of your neighbor in your own eyes.

  Paul admonishes us to always see everyone as deserving of our esteem, not because of their talents or their social connections or their personalities, but because they are our brothers and sisters in Christ.

In our broken world, we often learn the hard way who is important and who is not.  In Jesus’ world, in the world God created, everyone is important. Is this pandemic teaching us the lesson Paul was trying to teach to the Phillipians?

Christ was truly God.
But he did not try to remain
    equal with God.
Instead he gave up everything
    and became a slave,
when he became
    like one of us.

He became like one of us.  So let us, as we continue this procession, become like Him. Through His death and resurrection, we are freed to follow Him with humility, with joy, with anticipation. We are released from jealousy and pride to care for each other, for all the others.

I still stumble into sin—I can wrap myself in the chains of disapproval and judgement at the mere mention of an event or a person. But Jesus takes care of that. Jesus forgives me.  Jesus pins a note to my back—”this one is forgiven”—and lets me join the procession once more.

So, dear friends, dear brothers and sisters in Christ, as we process through Holy Week, as we look forward to a different way to celebrate Easter, let us walk in humility, not because we are ashamed, not because we want to show off our Jesus-side, not because we want to hide, but because we are walking with Jesus, not admiring Him from afar, but walking right next to him, emulating what he does.  

As you walk, invite the bystanders, the onlookers to join in the procession 

This is our destination on this Palm Sunday, during this Holy Week, on every Sunday, on every day God has given us. We are headed toward the day when we will all bow down, with all the saints, declaring “Jesus Christ is Lord!” Amen.

Scapegoats Luke 18:31-19:10

31 Then he took the twelve aside and said to them, “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written about the Son of Man by the prophets will be accomplished. 32 For he will be handed over to the Gentiles; and he will be mocked and insulted and spat upon. 33 After they have flogged him, they will kill him, and on the third day he will rise again.” 34 But they understood nothing about all these things; in fact, what he said was hidden from them, and they did not grasp what was said.

35 As he approached Jericho, a blind man was sitting by the roadside begging. 36 When he heard a crowd going by, he asked what was happening. 37 They told him, “Jesus of Nazareth is passing by.” 38 Then he shouted, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” 39 Those who were in front sternly ordered him to be quiet; but he shouted even more loudly, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” 40 Jesus stood still and ordered the man to be brought to him; and when he came near, he asked him, 41 “What do you want me to do for you?” He said, “Lord, let me see again.” 42 Jesus said to him, “Receive your sight; your faith has saved you.” 43 Immediately he regained his sight and followed him, glorifying God; and all the people, when they saw it, praised God.

19 He entered Jericho and was passing through it. A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich. He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way. When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. All who saw it began to grumble and said, “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.” Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.” Then Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. 10 For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”

+++

Three miracles. #1 TBA  in another week or so

#2 a blind man can see  

#3 a selfish, unhappy man can find joy in sharing.

Three ways of seeing. #1  Not “getting it.”

#2 physically impaired 

#3 self-centered

Three ways of being  

#1 Carrying the Gospel to the known world—eventually

#2 Giving God the glory for the healing power of Jesus.

#3 Repenting, not just apologizing. 

Three roadblocks #1 intellectual understanding

#2 bindness

#3 reputation 

Or we could see this as the story of 3 scapegoats

#1 the disciples

#2 the blind man

#3 Zacchaeus 

We know the term scapegoat well enough—it’s the person who gets the blame when we don’t want to accept the blame for ourselves.  Do you know the origin?  

In the ancient days of the temple in Jerusalem, on the high holiday of Yom Kippur, the priest would symbolically lay the sins of all the people on the head of a goat and the goat would be chased into the wilderness, carrying, symbolically, the sins of the people away from them. In other words, whatever sins anyone had committed were now on the goat, not on them.

How are the disciples scapegoats in this story?  It doesn’t fit the context. 

Let’s define the blind man as scapegoat first. Let the blind man stand for all who have lost sight or strength or opportunity. Let the blind man stand for the people who need us, need our resources.  This is a stretch, but to fit my formula, let me stretch the metaphor this way: Do we ever complain about those who can’t care for themselves? Do we blame them for needing what is ours as a society—our property, our food, our healthcare?  Do we blame them instead of the people who legislate to make themselves wealthier?  

Zacchaeus falls into the same category. He represents all that is wrong about Roman oppression and< because he takes something that is very precious to everyone—their money, they blame him for the taking of their money, not the Roman government.  Scapegoating is often just intellectual laziness.  

Back to the disciples: how can they be scapegoats in this text? Remember, I used to teach Creative Writing, so anything can happen.  🙂

For the third time (in Luke’s gospel) Jesus predicted his arrest, trial, death and resurrection to the disciples.

 31 Then he took the twelve aside and said to them, “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written about the Son of Man by the prophets will be accomplished. 32 For he will be handed over to the Gentiles; and he will be mocked and insulted and spat upon. 33 After they have flogged him, they will kill him, and on the third day he will rise again.” 

The disciples didn’t understand, couldn’t believe that Jesus could be serious.  Why would Jesus, kind, gentle, healing, loving, perfect Jesus be handed over to the Gentiles, the Roman authorities?  Why would anyone mock Jesus? How could anyone insult Jesus? And spit on a person who hurt no one? Flogging?  Out of the question! That was for criminals. Kill him? Why? Rise again? But that wasn’t possible. Was Jesus losing his mind?  Hallucinating? 

How could they not question Jesus, ask him to explain, be more careful about protecting him?  The gospels sometimes make the disciples look clueless, ignorant, dumb, stupid. The writer of the Gospel of Mark is especially hard on the disciples.

14 Now the disciples had forgotten to bring any bread; and they had only one loaf with them in the boat. 15 And he cautioned them, saying, “Watch out—beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and the yeast of Herod.” 16 They said to one another, “It is because we have no bread.” 17 And becoming aware of it, Jesus said to them, “Why are you talking about having no bread? Do you still not perceive or understand? Are your hearts hardened? 18 Do you have eyes, and fail to see? Do you have ears, and fail to hear? And do you not remember? 19 When I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you collect?” They said to him, “Twelve.” 20 “And the seven for the four thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you collect?” And they said to him, “Seven.”

And Jesus said, “Duh!” 

Maybe this example applies only to me.  Maybe you’ve never struggled to understand the meaning of Jesus’s death and resurrection. Maybe you’ve never struggled to understand why God would send his only Son to redeem all of us from our sinfulness by such a torturous method.   Maybe you’ve never said, “Nobody’s perfect!” How are the disciples scapegoats, then?  For me, it is this: The disciples were with Jesus every day for three years.  They heard him teach and preach over and over and over. And they didn’t understand.  How am I, two millennia later, supposed to understand why my professors try to teach me? How am I supposed to be able to explain why God sent Jesus to live a mundane life among peasants?  How am I supposed to be able to explain why Jesus had to die, not a natural death, but an excruciating death?  And how am I supposed to understand how Jesus could defeat death? What does that even mean, to defeat death?

How do I use the disciples as scapegoats? If they couldn’t understand what Jesus was talking about, how could I possibly understand?

Here’s the funny thing: I don’t need to be a scholar to follow Jesus.  I don’t need to be a genius to understand what Jesus did for me. I don’t need to be any smarter than the next guy to be a Christian.  What do I need?

Faith. I only need to know that God loved me and every other person so much that God found a way to forgive my sins and welcome me into the Kingdom, today and forever.  My faith assures me that Jesus died so that, no matter how many times I fail and blame someone else, no matter how often or how badly or ignorantly I cause pain to someone else, I am saved, through His death and resurrection.  

Thanks be to God that Jesus walked that road to Jerusalem, plagued by dense disciples, harassed by the authorities of his own nation and faith tradition, and used as a scapegoat by Pontius Pilate.  Thanks be to God that we the beloved children of a God who loves us beyond comprehension.  Amen.

Who is Lost? Luke 15

15 Tax collectors and sinners were all crowding around to listen to Jesus. So the Pharisees and the teachers of the Law of Moses started grumbling, “This man is friendly with sinners. He even eats with them.”

Then Jesus told them this story:

If any of you has a hundred sheep, and one of them gets lost, what will you do? Won’t you leave the ninety-nine in the field and go look for the lost sheep until you find it? And when you find it, you will be so glad that you will put it on your shoulder and carry it home. Then you will call in your friends and neighbors and say, “Let’s celebrate! I’ve found my lost sheep.”

Jesus said, “In the same way there is more happiness in heaven because of one sinner who turns to God than over ninety-nine good people who don’t need to.”

Jesus told the people another story:

What will a woman do if she has ten silver coins and loses one of them? Won’t she light a lamp, sweep the floor, and look carefully until she finds it? Then she will call in her friends and neighbors and say, “Let’s celebrate! I’ve found the coin I lost.”

10 Jesus said, “In the same way God’s angels are happy when even one person turns to him.”

11 Jesus also told them another story:

Once a man had two sons. 12 The younger son said to his father, “Give me my share of the property.” So the father divided his property between his two sons.

13 Not long after that, the younger son packed up everything he owned and left for a foreign country, where he wasted all his money in wild living. 14 He had spent everything, when a bad famine spread through that whole land. Soon he had nothing to eat.

15 He went to work for a man in that country, and the man sent him out to take care of his pigs. 16 He would have been glad to eat what the pigs were eating, but no one gave him a thing.

17 Finally, he came to his senses and said, “My father’s workers have plenty to eat, and here I am, starving to death! 18 I will go to my father and say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against God in heaven and against you. 19 I am no longer good enough to be called your son. Treat me like one of your workers.’”

20 The younger son got up and started back to his father. But when he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt sorry for him. He ran to his son and hugged and kissed him.

21 The son said, “Father, I have sinned against God in heaven and against you. I am no longer good enough to be called your son.”

22 But his father said to the servants, “Hurry and bring the best clothes and put them on him. Give him a ring for his finger and sandals for his feet. 23 Get the best calf and prepare it, so we can eat and celebrate. 24 This son of mine was dead, but has now come back to life. He was lost and has now been found.” And they began to celebrate.

25 The older son had been out in the field. But when he came near the house, he heard the music and dancing. 26 So he called one of the servants over and asked, “What’s going on here?”

27 The servant answered, “Your brother has come home safe and sound, and your father ordered us to kill the best calf.” 28 The older brother got so angry that he would not even go into the house.

His father came out and begged him to go in. 29 But he said to his father, “For years I have worked for you like a slave and have always obeyed you. But you have never even given me a little goat, so that I could give a dinner for my friends. 30 This other son of yours wasted your money on prostitutes. And now that he has come home, you ordered the best calf to be killed for a feast.”

31 His father replied, “My son, you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. 32 But we should be glad and celebrate! Your brother was dead, but he is now alive. He was lost and has now been found.”

+++

Who is lost?  These are three feel-good parables with a happy ending. All the lost are found at the end of the story.  How happy we are for those owners and for the lost items.  We’re happy for the sheep, who would probably have met a violent death in the jaws of wolves.  We’re happy for the woman, who is just a bit more financially secure. We’re happy that the boy is welcomed home and restored to a loving, rather than angry, father.  

Why are we able to feel good for the lost who are found?  

I worry that my good feelings are based on pity.  I always want to cheer for the underdog, but why is an underdog an underdog? Because the underdog is less than me. The underdog is, in my blurry observation, lacking something.  The sheep and the son both lacked good sense.  Do I cheer for the under dog because I feel sorry for them? 

Full confession:  We have watched Wheel of Fortune every night for dozens of years.  Back in the early days, all the contestants were white.  I didn’t notice that until a black contestant appeared on the show. Never more than one at a time. Always two white people and one black person.  I always, in my heart, cheered for the black person to win.  Why? Because I saw the black person as an underdog, as underprivileged, as lacking in something. So in some crazy ESP way, I tried to help the black person win.  I wasn’t cheering for the person because of their character or clever repartee or intelligence.  I was cheering out of pity. Pity that was illogical and underserved.  

Let’s establish some definitions here. To lose  is a verb.  It’s past participle is lost.  I lose my marbles. I lost my marbles.  The noun form of lose is loser.  To be lost therefore, is to be a loser.  Your team lost the game; you are the losers.  Your boss reduced your hours at work; you’re the loser.  We also use loser as a general insult to put people down.  So, to lose, to have lost, to be lost, is to be something bad, something wrong, something, at the minimum, to be pitied or avoided. 

Yet who does Jesus go after?  Time after time, story after story, parable after parable, the loser comes out ahead.  The leper, the demon-possessed, the bleeding woman, the crippled child—all healed by Jesus after everyone else has given up on them.

Who are the lost in the year 2021?  We identify ourselves based on who we believe or convince ourselves we are not; we are not them

Pope Francis took a huge step in weakening the barrier between Muslims  and Christians when he visited Iraq this week.  Iraq has not been a safe place for Christians in recent years, which is ironic, because so much Christian history took place in ancient Iraq.

See if you recognize the names of these Iraqi cities.

Ur is located in southeastern Iraq.  What is Ur famous for?  The Lord said to Abram, “I brought you here from Ur in Chaldea, and I gave you this land.” Genesis 15:7

Babylon is located about 25 miles south of Baghdad.  During Jehoiakim’s rule, King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylonia invaded and took control of Judah. 2 Kings 24:1

Nineveh was located on the outskirts of modern-day Mosul.  Once again the Lord told Jonah to go to that great city of Nineveh and preach his message of doom. Jonah obeyed the Lord and went to Nineveh. The city was so big that it took three days just to walk through it. Jonah 3:1-3

Some of the earliest Christian communities were established in Iraq, known as Mesopotamia at the time. 

The most important message that Pope Francis delivered was the reminder that Iraq is the home of the three great monotheistic faiths, Judaism, Christianity and Islam.  He chose to lift up how the three faiths are united, not divided.  This is significant, because the number of Christians in Iraq has shrunk. Before the Gulf War in 1991, one million Christians lived and worshipped in Iraq.  According to the newscast on Saturday, only 200,000 remain.  

It’s interesting that some Christians in our country claim to be persecuted, but I don’t recall hearing of any who had to flee for their lives from this country because they worshiped Jesus. 

I think it is fair to say that Pope Francis went to Iraq to minister to the lost. 

We give up on losers.  Whom have you given up on?  Who in our society is left for dead, figuratively speaking? There is a Bible verse that is quoted to support giving up on the losers. 

You will always have the poor with you, but you won’t always have me. Matthew 26:11

Does that mean that people living in poverty are a hopeless cause?

Hardly. Six times before that in Matthew, Jesus assumes that his followers care for the poor: 


When you give to the poor, don’t blow a loud horn. That’s what show-offs do in the meeting places and on the street corners, because they are always looking for praise. I can assure you that they already have their reward. Matthew 6:2

When you give to the poor, don’t let anyone know about it. Matthew 6:3

The blind are now able to see, and the lame can walk. People with leprosy are being healed, and the deaf can hear. The dead are raised to life, and the poor are hearing the good news. Matthew 11:5


Jesus replied, “If you want to be perfect, go sell everything you own! Give the money to the poor, and you will have riches in heaven. Then come and be my follower.” Matthew 19:21
We could have sold this perfume for a lot of money and given it to the poor.”Matthew 26:9

That brings me back to how we see the poor, the lost.  Our church, along with several other churches in the North Scott School District maintains a food pantry.  It is supplied and staffed by all of the area churches—which is pretty remarkable, seeing that we represent a variety of denominations.  In some communities, denominations do not cooperate with each other, but in ours, the cooperation is unquestioned.  

Still, it takes courage to come to the pantry. You have to endure some paperwork.  I’ve never had to show a driver’s license to buy groceries. I’ve never had to tell the cashier how many people live in my household.  I know there are good reasons for the rules, and they help us to keep track of how we operate.  It’s good business. But, so often, after the shopper walks out the door, I hear comments from the other church ladies (it’s always women that volunteer at the food pantry, never men; go figure) that basically criticizes our clients for needing food.  Even though that is WHY WE EXIST. Assumptions are made about how they cook, clean house, care for their children, all based on the fact that they have to shop under our eagle eye.  Does anybody watch how you fill up your grocery cart? Yes, I know we need rules, but why do we have to have rules that insult people?  Our customers are treated as if 1) they don’t know how to make a grocery list. 2) don’t know how to feed their families, and 3) would take too much food if we didn’t limit them.  They are treated as the losers, as the lost, as the less-than.

And yet, if Jesus is looking into your heart, into my heart, who is the loser? The one who bears false witness?  What does it mean to be lost to Jesus?  Jesus came to save——drum roll———-sinners!  That’s me. Every time I judge, every time I automatically assume someone else is lacking what I have, is lacking good judgement, is lacking in generosity, is lacking my genetics, every time I see someone else, even with sympathy or pity, I am the loser, the sinner. I am casting aside the person who is, just like me, EXACTLY like me, made in God’s image by God.  I am slandering the person who, EXACTLY like me, has been blessed by God’s mercy to be forgiven and raised again from the dead to spend eternity with God the Creator, Savior, and Comforter. Will I be surprised at who is already in heaven, ready to welcome me?  Will I be surprised who sits next to me in the heavenly choir?  
 Amen.

Suffering Luke 13: 1-9

13 About this same time Jesus was told that Pilate had given orders for some people from Galilee to be killed while they were offering sacrifices. Jesus replied:

Do you think that these people were worse sinners than everyone else in Galilee just because of what happened to them? Not at all! But you can be sure that if you don’t turn back to God, every one of you will also be killed. What about those eighteen people who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them? Do you think they were worse than everyone else in Jerusalem? Not at all! But you can be sure that if you don’t turn back to God, every one of you will also die.

Jesus then told them this story:

A man had a fig tree growing in his vineyard. One day he went out to pick some figs, but he didn’t find any. So he said to the gardener, “For three years I have come looking for figs on this tree, and I haven’t found any yet. Chop it down! Why should it take up space?”

The gardener answered, “Master, leave it for another year. I’ll dig around it and put some manure on it to make it grow. Maybe it will have figs on it next year. If it doesn’t, you can have it cut down.”  Contemporary English Version

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Why? Why did half a million people have to die from a simple virus?  Why did Texans have to live without heat and water for so long?  Why did Tiger Wood’s car go off the road?  Why were there so many forest fires last summer?  Why are people still trying to recover from the derecho?  Why can’t health insurance be cheaper?  Why do we have to pay taxes?  Why did that fourteen year old boy have to be shot?  Why do policeman have to be afraid of people of color? Why do people of color have to be afraid of policeman?

All of those questions have logical answers, multiple answers, but the larger question is “Why do people have to suffer?”  Why do people have to be in danger, why do people have to get sick, why do people have to have bad things happen?  Why can’t the world be nicer? 

That’s the kind of question Jesus was asking the crowd. Why did Pilate massacre a bunch of people who were offering sacrifices?  They weren’t breaking the law. Why did 18 people have to die when that tower collapsed?  They were just living their ordinary lives. Jesus makes a point that too many Christians can’t seem to understand: suffering is not punishment. 

God does not send bullets or viruses or fires or winds or high prices or low wages.  God does not inspire fear.  

Suffering is not a punishment for sin; nonetheless, suffering is often the consequence of sin. In my observation, that sin is often selfishness.Why did half a million people die from COVID-19? First, there was virus; second there was little effort to initially contain it, and eventually, the silly, individualistic selfishness of refusing to change habits to protect others. In Texas, the selfishness of not wanting to spend money to update the power grid left thousands of people in very uncomfortable living conditions.  Sin!

The death of fourteen-year-old boy is the consequence of hate and conflict.  Sin!

The continued suffering from the derecho is in part from unkept promises on the part of some insurance companies and some contractors. Sin!

One of the easiest ways to cause suffering is to ostracize people who are  different.  Growing up, I “learned” that Catholics were bad people, or at least questionable.  I also learned that other groups were, if not bad, at least not nearly as good or decent or smart as the people I knew.  Sin!

I’ve had a chance to learn differently and to repent of my groundless prejudices.  Let me give you an example

I am part of a group of people who serve our neighbor down the road, Our Lady of the Prairie Retreat Center.  (My goal is for us to meet there someday, when it is safe.) As a member of the Advisory Committee for the Prairie, I am learning about the entity that owns the Prairie, the Congregation of the Sisters of Humility.  As I listened to one of the sisters explain the history of their order, I realized that people all over the world owe much to the various orders of dedicated Catholic women.

 If every denomination had nuns as dedicated and successful as the Catholics have among their various orders, there would be no hunger or poverty or homelessness.  

The work that just this one group of women living in Davenport has done as far as housing homeless people (veterans, single mothers, the elderly) in the Quad-Cities is comprehensive, brilliant, well-managed and well-organized.  They also minister to immigrant workers in Ottumwa on a huge scale.  

They minister to the people who, like the slaughtered Galileans and the people crushed under the tower of Siloam, have little control over what happens to them. Many of my friends like to say that the homeless and hungry are victims of their own poor choices. My observation is that they have no good options presented to them in the first place.

The second part of our text today is the story of the fruitless fig tree.  Three years and no figs!  What should the gardener do? Chop it down?  No! Give it extra attention.  

Isn’t that what the church does? We give extra attention to those who are prevented from meeting the expectations of the community, the county, the neighbors. And what happens?  Something good. We don’t always see the fruit that is born because of our extra attention, but we keep trying, with extra attention, with food banks and all the other ways we try to help.  

I’m rambling, so ramble with me as I switch to another subject: why worshipping in the church building is important.

We have been worshipping by mail, email, and ZOOM for almost a year—can you believe it!?!?!   But there are people missing—-our community is fragmented.  

Being in each other’s presence for worship and fellowship is important to our sense of belonging.  At the same time, because we care for each other, we have protected each other by staying apart.  But when we get back together, we will find renewed energy and incentive to once again act as a group of people, not as individuals.

Being in worship together gives us the courage to say out loud in the presence of others what we believe. Together we confess, repent, thank, ask and praise. It is easier to speak the truth of sin and mercy in a group and it is strengthening to have others speak truth with us.  How many of us would have the courage to say these words out loud anywhere else, standing alone, even in our own homes?  It is important that we say these words out loud with witnesses. In worship, we hold each other accountable.  Like the fig tree, we don’t always bear fruit, but with the loving attention of the people around us, we can say out loud what we believe, repent, and produce. 

Our faith cannot be a secret from the world.  Our faith has to be proclaimed to the world. When the doors are open, the lights on, and the bell rings, we are proclaiming to the world that Christ is present and that we want the world to know that we can be expected to act differently, to talk differently, to plan differently than the secular society in which we live. 

We have no control over weather, little control over the decisions made by powerful people behind closed doors, but we have control over our own reaction to the suffering in the world. 

We know that God does not cause suffering, that God does not cause hurricanes or blizzards, that God does not cause disease to spread. We know that God does not cause selfishness, conflict, segregation.

We do know that God suffers with us. God sent Jesus to discover what it is like to suffer. Jesus became human and walked among the suffering, the sick, the miserable, the sinful, the angry, the broken-hearted and learned for himself what it is to feel helpless and despondent. The other side of the coin is that Jesus saw the only answer was love and Jesus taught us how to love. Our wisest theologians and philosophers have found no greater solution than love.  Jesus’s love went all the way to destroy the sins of hate and greed and envy: he conquered death for us by conquering his own death. 

During this season of Lent, let us be mindful of repentance, mindful of changing our selfish ways, mindful of loving all of God’s creation.  Amen. 

Shock Value Luke 10:25-37

25 An expert in the Law of Moses stood up and asked Jesus a question to see what he would say. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to have eternal life?”

26 Jesus answered, “What is written in the Scriptures? How do you understand them?”

27 The man replied, “The Scriptures say, ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind.’ They also say, ‘Love your neighbors as much as you love yourself.’”

28 Jesus said, “You have given the right answer. If you do this, you will have eternal life.”

29 But the man wanted to show that he knew what he was talking about. So he asked Jesus, “Who are my neighbors?”

30 Jesus replied:

As a man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, robbers attacked him and grabbed everything he had. They beat him up and ran off, leaving him half dead.

31 A priest happened to be going down the same road. But when he saw the man, he walked by on the other side. 32 Later a temple helper came to the same place. But when he saw the man who had been beaten up, he also went by on the other side.

33 A man from Samaria then came traveling along that road. When he saw the man, he felt sorry for him 34 and went over to him. He treated his wounds with olive oil and wine and bandaged them. Then he put him on his own donkey and took him to an inn, where he took care of him. 35 The next morning he gave the innkeeper two silver coins and said, “Please take care of the man. If you spend more than this on him, I will pay you when I return.”

36 Then Jesus asked, “Which one of these three people was a real neighbor to the man who was beaten up by robbers?”

37 The teacher answered, “The one who showed pity.”

Jesus said, “Go and do the same!”

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I’ve come to the conclusion that some of the Bible stories I heard as a child had a hidden agenda that was designed to make Jewish people look bad. 

This is the dark side of Christianity.  

You may have heard the saying  “Blowing out someone else’s candle does not make yours shine brighter.” But how often in the history of humanity have people justified the oppression of others by finding ways to make them look dumb or ugly or evil, in order to make themselves look better? 

This story of a Samaritan coming out as the good guy is an example.  I’ve always heard this story as condemning the two Jewish men who chose not to help the victim.  It may seem a stretch to you, but I think it was one of my first lessons in seeing Jews as being “wrong.” Other lessons followed, which I want to pursue at some point, but the biggest lesson was taught on Good Friday: the Jews killed Jesus. This lesson has a long history in the church, and even though it has been theologically debated and refuted, we hear those words during every Passion week, “Crucify him!  Crucify him!” and we know from Scripture that these were not Roman soldiers yelling “Crucify him!”

Three of the four gospel writers implicate the Jewish people

Luke: the chief priests, the leaders, and the people

Mark: the chief priests stirred up the crowd 

John: When the chief priests and the [Jewish] police saw him

Martin Luther, 16th Century reformer, is well-known for his anti-Semitic writings. Yet, Luther gave us the the key to loving all our neighbors: we are freed from sin to love our neighbor. Luther established that it was not the Jews who killed Jesus, but that my own sins killed Jesus.  I am responsible for Jesus dying like a despicable thief on an instrument of murder and torture. Or from a historical perspective, Jesus was killed because of an unjust political system.  He caused discontent among the crowds, attracted the attention of the authorities, became a problem to the carefully enforced peace of the state, and had to be removed. 

 Like Luther, we tend to pick and choose who qualifies as a neighbor.

The lawyer in today’s scripture, in true lawyerly argumentative style, wasn’t satisfied with a simple answer.  He, too, wanted a strict definition of who deserved to be treated as a neighbor.

Jesus answered him with a story, a parable.  This parable is so well-known that there are laws named after it.  Iowa’s Good Samaritan Law encourages those who witness a drug overdose to stay and call 911, rather than running out of fear of prosecution. 

It seems like a simple story: two bad guys and one good guy.  But that was not the formula Jesus used. 

Jesus was actually using a story telling device common to Jewish literature.  He follows the “rule of three” of good storytelling,  Since there are three traditional divisions among Jews (priests, Levites, and all Israel) one can expect that the third person would be an ordinary Israelite.

Jesus told this parable for shock value.  The shock was not that a Samaritan was a good guy—and it was not the first shock. The first shock was that the priest passed by.  The second shock was that the temple helper passed by. Jesus’s listeners would have expected both of them to stop and help the man. Just as you would expect your pastor to stop to help someone who was hurt, so did the Jewish audience expect the two men, because of their status as temple authorities, to stop. So the shock is that these two men passed by.  (Nor, contrary to one popular view do the priest and the Levite pass the injured man because of ritual purity concerns.) 

But then, of course, comes the shock that we have learned to embrace: a Samaritan stops by.  Not an ordinary Jewish person, who then becomes a hero. No. An enemy.  A creep.  An outcast. The last person you’d expect to help an injured Jewish person.  But the shock for Jesus’s listeners was double: according to the “rule of three,” the third man should have been Jewish, an ordinary Jewish person who would become a hero.  So, two shocks: NOT a Jewish person AND a Samaritan person.

Some of my colleagues were asking whom we would portray as the Samaritan if we were to cast this in a modern setting.  Here are some of their responses: 

  • a Muslim woman in a hijab who stops to help after a pastor and youth pastor “pass by on the other side.”
  • If you’re talking to a BLM or ANTIFA crowd, Trump.
  • a Cubs fan gets beat up, and a Bears fan and a Bulls fan pass by, but a Cardinals fan is the one who helps

But I have a better example—-from Texas—just this past week or so.

For the passers-by, let’s use Ted Cruz and a mayor from a small Texas town:

 One unsympathetic mayor took to Facebook to demand that “lazy” people get electricity and water on their own. Tim Boyd, the mayor of Colorado City, Texas, removed his post and resigned after writing that he was “sick and tired of people looking for a damn handout!”

For the hero, for the “Good Samaritan” of Texas, let’s use a furniture store owner: Houston furniture store owner Jim “Mattress Mack” McIngvale 

Anyone is welcome to use the beds and sofas in his showrooms, take in a movie or basketball game on his big screen televisions and sit down to a hot meal.

Mattress Mack is the perfect example in our time, not because he opened his doors, but because he has as many detractors as fans. I only know that because of Facebook comments.  In other words, he’s not perfect.  However, he is a nice contrast to the mayor of Colorado City and to Ted Cruz, who have been elected to not only represent people, but to provide for the people whom they represent. They have chosen to walk on by. 

Sometimes it’s helpful to see ourselves as one of the characters in a parable.  Who am I?  Who are you?  We have five parts to play.  The injured man, the priest, the temple worker, the Samaritan and the innkeeper.

OR am I the young lawyer, trying to obey the law and protect myself at the same time?

Dr. Arland Hultgren has written a book of commentaries on the Parables of Jesus.  The real heart of this parable is not what kind of story-telling device Jesus used, but about answering the question, “Who is my neighbor?” 

The earlier question was, “Who is my neighbor?  Here the question is, Which person proves to be neighbor?  If the issue is about love of neighbor, the question one should be asking is that of how one is to express that love, not to whom it should be expressed.  “One cannot define ones’ neighbor; one can only be a  neighbor.

Is Jesus saying that we cannot choose our neighbors? Is Jesus saying that the definition of “neighbor” is “everybody?”

The parable teaches that one cannot justify oneself by drawing distinctions between persons, deciding who is and who is not one’s neighbor, and using the law to do that.  The question for a disciple of Jesus is not, “Who is my neighbor?” but rather, am I neighbor to the person in need?”

Hultgren shows that how we define neighbor can be less than loving:

The one who asks, “Who is my neighbor?” thinks of others in the world as classified commodities. One can build fences to determine who is in the circle of those to be cared for, and who is not.  Then we and all others can “take care of our own,” thinking that our help should be directed to those we are related to by ties of family or friendship—things based on law, rights, bloodlines, culture, or tradition.

Have I built fences to keep out neighbors?  We certainly do that as communities. We have zoning laws, we have “homeowners associations,” we have gerrymandering—we have so many ways to include and exclude.  Are you wearing a mask? No? Go home. Do you have a passport? No?  Go home. You can argue for the necessity of these laws, but they all are based on excluding some, relegating some to non-neighbor status. Some are for the common good; some are for the privileged. 

Perhaps the Kingdom of God is too idealistic, too impossible, to ignorant of how people act. 

Jesus is trying to show us the life God has intended for us, a life of authentic love. We are not bound by laws when it comes to being a neighbor.  Our neighbor is simply the one who needs something. If we can supply that need, then we are obligated, not by law, but by love.  Amen.

They were Afraid to Ask Luke 9:28-45

28 About eight days later Jesus took Peter, John, and James with him and went up on a mountain to pray. 29 While he was praying, his face changed, and his clothes became shining white. 30 Suddenly Moses and Elijah were there speaking with him. 31 They appeared in heavenly glory and talked about all that Jesus’ death in Jerusalem would mean.

32 Peter and the other two disciples had been sound asleep. All at once they woke up and saw how glorious Jesus was. They also saw the two men who were with him.

33 Moses and Elijah were about to leave, when Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good for us to be here! Let us make three shelters, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” But Peter did not know what he was talking about.

34 While Peter was still speaking, a shadow from a cloud passed over them, and they were frightened as the cloud covered them. 35 From the cloud a voice spoke, “This is my chosen Son. Listen to what he says!”

36 After the voice had spoken, Peter, John, and James saw only Jesus. For some time they kept quiet and did not say anything about what they had seen.

37 The next day Jesus and his three disciples came down from the mountain and were met by a large crowd. 38 Just then someone in the crowd shouted, “Teacher, please do something for my son! He is my only child! 39 A demon often attacks him and makes him scream. It shakes him until he foams at the mouth, and it won’t leave him until it has completely worn the boy out. 40 I begged your disciples to force out the demon, but they couldn’t do it.”

41 Jesus said to them, “You people are stubborn and don’t have any faith! How much longer must I be with you? Why do I have to put up with you?”

Then Jesus said to the man, “Bring your son to me.” 42 While the boy was being brought, the demon attacked him and made him shake all over. Jesus ordered the demon to stop. Then he healed the boy and gave him back to his father. 43 Everyone was amazed at God’s great power.

While everyone was still amazed at what Jesus was doing, he said to his disciples, 44 “Pay close attention to what I am telling you! The Son of Man will be handed over to his enemies.” 45 But the disciples did not know what he meant. The meaning was hidden from them. They could not understand it, and they were afraid to ask.

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One of my favorite forms of fiction, of novels, is a genre called “magical realism.”  The stories always seem believable— people eating, loving, working, making mistakes, getting in trouble, but at some point, something happens that seems, in the context of the novel, perfectly normal, but could never happen in real life.  It is normal for the characters in the story, but not for me or you. Magical realism is about different levels of reality working at the same time. The first example I ever read was a story in the sophomore literature book from which I was teaching.  I don’t remember the plot or the title of the story, but I do remember being sucked into the story and believing every word all the way to the end.  I had to pull myself back to the asbestos floor tiles and chalk board of Room 9 when the story ended.  After that, I sought out authors in that genre.  I mentioned one in last Sunday’s sermon, José de Sousa Saramago.  Other authors I enjoy include Isabel Allende and Laura Esquivel.

I mention this form of literature because today’s Bible story could be labeled as “magical realism.” None of us could ever hope to witness Jesus and Elijah and Moses—in real time—in real life—-standing around talking to each other, plain as day.  Yet Peter, John and James did witness this exclusive gathering. Something impossible really happened.  

Something else to notice about today’s reading is that there seem to be two very separate stories, one being the transfiguration and the other being the poor boy possessed by a demon.  Why did the organizers of the lectionary put these two stories next to each other? Why did Luke put them next to each other?  

My answer: they are connected because one informs the other.  Knowing about the transfiguration is meaningless if we focus on that scene alone.  

Raphael, an Italian painter of the High Renaissance. painted the Transfiguration. Like our text today, it portrays both stories. In the top are Jesus, Elijah, and Moses illumined beyond human understanding, with Peter,  James, and John looking on, unable to comprehend what their eyes are seeing. Below this scene of glory is a heartbreaking scene of the child, held up by his father, possessed by demons, surrounded by helpless people.  The men on the left are the disciples, who are not able to help the little boy. The connection between the two scenes is the little boy, whose face is turned upward toward Jesus and the prophets.The apostles are pointing and looking every which way, not able to help.

 Luke describes the scene this way: 

38 Just then someone in the crowd shouted, “Teacher, please do something for my son! He is my only child! 39 A demon often attacks him and makes him scream. It shakes him until he foams at the mouth, and it won’t leave him until it has completely worn the boy out. 40 I begged your disciples to force out the demon, but they couldn’t do it.”

Frederich Buechner writes about a woman he met who had a reputation as a successful faith healer.

The most vivid image she presented was of Jesus standing in church services all over Christendom with his hands tied behind his back and unable to do any mighty works there because the ministers who led the services either didn’t expect him to do them or didn’t dare ask him to do them for fear that he wouldn’t or couldn’t and that their own faith and the faith of their congregations would be threatened as the result.  

How many of my prayers are simply token requests that don’t expect results? How often do I pray because I’m supposed to pray?  How often to I really expect God to answer, to act on my prayers?

 This woman, Agnes Sanford by name, said:

You had to expect. You had to believe. Remember the parable of the Unjust Judge? The woman pestered the judge until he gave into her. It takes work, and practice and faith.   

Buechner explains that prayer without faith is pointless. According to this faith healer,    

Inside us all, there is a voice of doubt and disbelief which seeks to drown out our prayers even as we are praying them. 

Do I really believe that God can move mountains, cure COVID-19, bring unity among the nations of the world?  Is a prayer for world peace a joke? 

Look at these two stories—Jesus in all his glory and a little boy in all his misery.

What is the connection? The little boy is the connection, the reason, the mission, the purpose of the ministry Jesus has given to the disciples.  They have failed. They cannot cure the little boy?  Why not? 

41 Jesus said to them, “You people are stubborn and don’t have any faith! How much longer must I be with you? Why do I have to put up with you?”

Where do we fit in this story, in this work of art?  Are we illumined by the glory of God or do we avoid the light, staying in the shadows?

This story may seem so far removed from our expereince—being filled with light so bright it rivals anything Clorox could do to a load of laundry. Where do we fall in that picture?  Hiding in the shadows? Heck, no!  We, more than ever, are anxious for sunlight and being outside and being among people.  

Let me suggest that our church building is as close as we come to glory on a regular basis. But guess what! We’ve discovered we don’t even need the building! For now, it has to be our ZOOM time together.  What brings us close to glory? The Word, as it is expressed in singing and prayers and preaching. Jesus expected that same glory, that same power to manifest itself in the disciples, so that they could use the glory of God for good of the people of God who were suffering.   They could not stay on the mountaintop.  We cannot stay in our sanctuaries, real or makeshift.

One pastor wrote in response to this idea of going out into the world this rather depressing observation:

  How many times have we preached a sermon and as the congregants leave the sanctuary they shake your hand and say, ” what a wonderful message…great sermon,” only to head down to coffee hour and behave just as they always do? I can understand Jesus’ frustration especially after being on the Mountain top with Peter James and John witnessing his divine nature.

Why do we even need to worship?  You know how few people attend worship. Why is the mountaintop experience of worship necessary? 

David Lose, Luther Seminary professor puts it this way. 

Which is why the next scene and second half of this week’s passage is so important. Because the retreat to worship and the time to listen to the Word, be immersed in the cross, and be gathered in prayer leads inevitably to a return to the “everyday world” of human need where Jesus heals the sick and opposes the forces of evil. If worship is a retreat, in other words, it is not a retreat from the world but a retreat in order to come back to the world in love, mercy and grace.

If worship is our mountaintop experience, how do we hold that in our hearts and minds during the week.

If we cannot think and speak and act in the name of Jesus, how can we share in God’s glory? Can we rebuke the unclean spirits that frighten us? Can we bring light to the dark places of our suffering brothers and sisters in Christ? 

We are the ones who must be transfigured.  We must use the privilege of worship, of Bible study, of music to recharge our faith, to strengthen our belief that through God all things are possible. 

We can interpret Jesus’ time with Moses and Elijah as a time of transition, a time of facing the future.  Moses and Elijah represent the law and the prophets, the pillars of our  history, 

But let’s not skip over why Jesus is on the mountain: 

Jesus took Peter, John, and James with him and went up on a mountain to pray. 29 While he was praying, his face changed, and his clothes became shining white. 

Jesus is moving toward Jerusalem, toward his death.  For the second time in Luke’s gospel, he tells the disciples that he will die.

44 “Pay close attention to what I am telling you! The Son of Man will be handed over to his enemies.” 45 But the disciples did not know what he meant. The meaning was hidden from them. They could not understand it, and they were afraid to ask.

Jesus is facing his death. It will not be pretty. He will not pass away in his sleep.  He will not be lying in a comfortable bed with palliative drugs to ease his pain. He will endure all the pain of all the people of all time, the pain of sin. He will endure beyond anything imaginable—he will die and rise again, to live again, just as human as he was the day he was born. 

It would be easy to say, because Jesus did this for me, I owe Jesus, I must pay Jesus back by doing good deeds.  That is not how it works. This is a stumbling block for us: in our human weakness, we cannot accept a gift without either deserving it or giving something back in return.  Jesus loves us unconditionally.  He does not expect anything.  So what are we supposed to do?  Love.  We don’t love because we could or should or would. We love because Jesus has freed us from sin —->to love.

We don’t come down from the mountaintop and jump into the sad places to impress Jesus.  We jump into the hard places, we walk the scary paths, we enter the dark rooms because we love Jesus.  That love is given to us by the Holy Spirit—it’s like being given athletic ability or artistic ability—we are all given the ability to love.

They were afraid to ask.”  I’m using this phrase slightly out of context. The disciples were afraid to ask. Are we afraid to ask? Are we afraid to ask for healing? for world peace?Are we afraid to ask for change, for transfiguration?   Amen.