Monday, August 26, 2019

Sanctuary--Pentecost + 11, August 25, 2019

 Sermon for SMHP, Year C, Proper 16, Pentecost + 11, August 25, 2019
Luke 13:10-17
               10Now he was teaching in one of the synagogues on the sabbath. 11And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight.
          12When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” 13When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God.
          14But the leader of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had cured on the sabbath, kept saying to the crowd, “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day.”
          15But the Lord answered him and said, “You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water? 16And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?” 17When he said this, all his opponents were put to shame; and the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing.

          In 2001, a resolution came before the ELCA Churchwide Assembly to allow congregations to call and ordain openly gay and lesbian candidates for ministry and to marry same sex couples.  It was defeated.  Again.
          But this time the Churchwide Assembly decided it was time to DO something!
          So we set up a SIX YEAR process of STUDY.  And then in 2005, we ADDED two more years, because we needed to STUDY MORE!
          That’s the way we often do things in institutions, right?  We make decisions slowly.  Sometimes painfully slowly, and I mean that literally.  People were feeling excluded by the church, which was painful.  Their identities were not being honored by the church, which was painful.  And the church was not as inclusive as it should be, which was painful for the whole body.
          But there were rules to consider.  The Law was clear.  The Gospel had to wait.
          Big ships turn slowly.  Heck, individual churches turn slowly, and I know this because I work with 175 of them now.
          But every once in a while, Jesus gets ahold of the church.
          At the Churchwide Assembly a couple of weeks back, there was a resolution to affirm the values of sanctuary for Christian community, which go back to the origins of the church.  And to encourage individual congregations to think about being sanctuary bodies.
          From the floor, an Assembly Voting Member added one little line:  “To declare the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America a sanctuary church body.”
          Twelve words, half of which are the name of our church.  So six words, really.  Six words which declare that as a denomination, the ELCA will provide support, respite, and even shelter to persons who are being hunted and persecuted because of who they are.
          The resolution as amended required a simple majority.  It got eighty percent.
          And the news reports and the history books will say that the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America did this, but that’s wrong.
          Jesus did this.  It was Jesus.
          The church studies.  The church plans.  The church sets meetings on crucial matters for at least three weeks away, because we have to give notice on three consecutive weeks according to our Constitution.
          We don’t just amend a resolution and become a sanctuary church.
          That’s Jesus.  That’s the way Jesus does stuff.
          Jesus sees pain and he heals.  Without a study or a meeting or a series of meetings or a whole bunch of damn meetings.
          Just healing.  Now.
          And while we may celebrate that healing nature now…it got him in some trouble in the day.
          Like there was that one day when Jesus was teaching in “one of the synagogues.”  Which one?  Doesn’t matter.
          He was teaching and “just then” a woman appeared.  She “had a spirit,” Luke tells us, that had “crippled her for eighteen years.” 
          Think about that.  Walking, eating, sleeping, with your back bent all the time.  Never getting to see what was above you, or right in front of you…never getting to look people in the eye when you talk to them.  Think of the pain--the physical pain, the social separation.
          That’s what Jesus saw.  That she was in pain and he could heal that pain.
          And without so much as amending a resolution or calling for a study, Luke tells us, “When Jesus saw her…”  The very moment he saw her!  “…he called her over and said, ‘Woman, you are set free from your ailment.”
          And he laid hands on her, and she was healed.  Set free. 
          Set free.  Language is always important, but in Luke’s gospel in particular, language is precise.  Jesus meant to set her free.  Her ailment kept her imprisoned, staring at the ground, and Jesus set her free.
          Free to stand up straight.  To see what was around her.  And free to praise God. 
          All good things, yes?
          That’s verse 13.  What’s the first word in Verse 14?
          14But the leader of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had cured on the sabbath, kept saying to the crowd, “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day.”
          After all, what’s eighteen years and another day of pain?  Or two days.  Or forever, because Jesus is traveling, so if she came back the next day, he would be gone.
          None of that mattered to the “leader of the synagogue.”  All that mattered was the Law.  The Law was clear.
          And once again, Jesus was even clearer.
          Freedom first.  When people are in pain, when communities are in pain, Jesus heals first, and consults the Law second.
          Which is why the church of Jesus Christ has a long history of civil disobedience, of placing the healing of people and communities above unjust laws.
          We stand in the footsteps of abolitionists, the anti-Nazi Confessing Church of Pastors Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Martin Niemoller, and the liberation theology of Archbishops Oscar Romero and Desmond Tutu.
          We have inherited a spirit of resistance to laws which place any persons in danger.
          Which is why we can no longer be silent in the United States of America in 2019.  We can’t just gather in this place of sanctuary and shut the doors to the injustice outside our doors.
          The idea of a sanctuary denomination is virtually meaningless unless individual congregations are willing to come alongside the wider church and declare ourselves sanctuary as well. 
          It is time, my siblings in Christ, to decide whether we will respond to the pain all around us, or wait, study, delay. 
          So I invite you to a special congregational meeting on Sunday, September 22, where we will vote on whether to become the fourth sanctuary congregation in the ELCA.  I looked it up—I’m allowed to call a congregational meeting.  Just never have.
          And I don’t really want to wait that long, but we have several people out of town in the next few weeks, and it is important to have as much of our community together as possible.  So please plan to be here after worship on the 22nd for this important decision.  In the meantime, I will get you information about what it means to be sanctuary, and what possible actions we might take as a sanctuary congregation.  And we can start to build a potential coalition of support from neighbors and ecumenical partners.
          Every day in this country, children are being separated from their parents.  Not just at the border, but here in Kansas City and across the nation, as parents are deported, leaving children behind. 
          Every single day, families and individuals are subjected to horrendous pain.  We have the power to bring healing in the name of Jesus Christ.  He has seen the pain.  We have seen the pain.  It is time to bring the healing.

Love Songs--Pentecost + 10, Aug. 18, 2019

Sermon for SMHP, Year C, Pentecost + 10, Aug. 18, 2019
Isaiah 5:1-7
          Let me sing for my beloved my love-song concerning his vineyard: My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill. 2He dug it and cleared it of stones, and planted it with choice vines; he built a watchtower in the midst of it, and hewed out a wine vat in it; he expected it to yield grapes, but it yielded wild grapes. 
          3And now, inhabitants of Jerusalem and people of Judah, judge between me and my vineyard. 4What more was there to do for my vineyard that I have not done in it? When I expected it to yield grapes, why did it yield wild grapes? 5And now I will tell you what I will do to my vineyard. I will remove its hedge, and it shall be devoured; I will break down its wall, and it shall be trampled down. 6I will make it a waste; it shall not be pruned or hoed, and it shall be overgrown with briers and thorns; I will also command the clouds that they rain no rain upon it. 7For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel, and the people of Judah are God’s pleasant planting; God expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry!

          First, this needs saying:  worst love song ever!
          The Police song “Every Breath You Take” is a close second.
          Every breath you take
          Every move you make
          Every bond you break
          Every step you take
          I'll be watching you.

            And there we were in the eighties, just singin’ along.  “Every smile you fake, every claim you stake, I’ll be watching you.”  A whole generation of mad stalkers, just singin’ along with Sting.
          Terrible, terrible love song.
          But the “Love Song of the Vineyard?”  [hold up Insert] 
          It starts off fine.  Let me sing for my beloved my love-song concerning his vineyard:
          “My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill. 2He dug it and cleared it of stones, and planted it with choice vines; he built a watchtower in the midst of it, and hewed out a wine vat in it; he expected it to yield grapes…
          …but it yielded wild grapes.”

          Now… “wild grapes” may not sound like an ominous metaphor.  It’s not a “house built on sand,” just waiting to drift into the sea…or the “abominable stench” or solemn-but-empty assemblies.
          It’s worse.  This is that argument that sneaks up on you.  Like when your spouse says, “are that the shirt you’re planning to wear?”
          Seems innocent enough.
          It’s not.
          The beloved, who is God, built a vineyard—which is the people of Israel.  I try to be careful with metaphors and analogies and not say “this means this,” but Isaiah unpacks this one pretty well, especially there at the end.  Plus we know that a well known trope in Hebrew poetry is for a vineyard to stand in for the beloved.
          And we know from our readings in the prophetic literature over the past few weeks that the metaphor of a marriage is often used to describe the relationship between God and God’s people.  You might recall the passage from Jeremiah 31, in which the prophet declares in God’s voice that the day is coming when God will make a new covenant with the people, and it won’t be like that old covenant, which they broke, “even though I was their husband.”
          So God, the bridegroom, builds a vineyard for God’s beloved—us. 
          Not an ornamental garden, mind you.  This thing has a practical purpose.
          A vineyard.  Planted with “choice vines.” 
          Watchtower in its center.  Wine vat ready for the harvest from those “choice vines.”
          Robert Mondavi would be proud.
          Except that this perfect vineyard, this beautiful offering from God the lover to God’s beloved--it didn’t produce lovely Cabernet.  It didn’t even produce a serviceable  “red table wine.”
          What did it produce?
          Wild grapes.
          Can you do anything with wild grapes?
          Actually, you can.  According to the Missouri Department of Conservation, the wild grapes grow here in our state can be used to make a pretty decent grape jelly.  And the leaves can be used in salads, or as an addition to homemade pickles.
          But Isaiah isn’t interested in horticulture, or jelly-making. 
          The beloved built a vineyard.  In the ancient world, you didn’t build a nice vineyard, plant nice vines, put in a nice watchtower and hew a nice wine vat in order to make jelly.
          The point of the metaphor is pretty clear, right?  God wants a relationship with humanity that ages like a fine wine.  Not something to put between slices of bread with some peanut butter.
          But time and time again, we keep showing God that we are wild and tough to tame.  And it strains our relationship, unsurprisingly.  So much of the prophetic literature is simply an exploration of this strained relationship, of God singing a different love song, this one by Rick Springfield:  “I’ve done everything for you…you’ve done nothin’ for me.”

          So here’s Isaiah, laying it all out for us.  God’s frustration and God’s thwarted promise…the prophet just hoping that the Beloved—the object of God’s often unrequited love—we will do something.  Repent.  Turn around.  Prune back our wild rebellion and starting growing right.
          So what does that look like?  What does it mean to bring our whole selves into relationship with our Creator and love God?
          What have we been learning the past few weeks, as we walk through Amos, Hosea, Isaiah?  What does the Lord ask of us?

[Let this go where it will]
          Love is tough.  Love songs tend to remind us of that, don’t they?
          It’s really tough when you love someone who doesn’t love you back.  Just ask Rick Springfield.
          God has given us life, and breath, and endless love and mercy.  We have named today some ways of saying to God, “Hey, we love you back!”  Let’s make a pact, just between us, here.  Let’s find a way of showing God how grateful we are to be loved so well, even though we’re not perfect.  Let’s remind God every day that we are God’s.
          And let’s sing this love song.  #581

"for I am God"--Pentecost + 9, August 11, 2019

Sermon for SMHP, Year C, Proper 13, August 11, 2019
Hosea 11:1-10
          When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son. 2The more I called them, the more they went from me; they kept sacrificing to the Baals, and offering incense to idols. 3Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk, I took them up in my arms; but they did not know that I healed them. 4I led them with cords of human kindness, with bands of love. I was to them like those who lift infants to their cheeks. I bent down to them and fed them. 5They shall return to the land of Egypt, and Assyria shall be their king, because they have refused to return to me. 6The sword rages in their cities, it consumes their oracle-priests, and devours because of their schemes. 7My people are bent on turning away from me. To the Most High they call, but he does not raise them up at all.
               8How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, O Israel? How can I make you like Admah? How can I treat you like Zeboiim? My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender. 9I will not execute my fierce anger; I will not again destroy Ephraim; for I am God and no mortal, the Holy One in your midst, and I will not come in wrath. 10They shall go after the Lord, who roars like a lion; when he roars, his children shall come trembling from the west. 11They shall come trembling like birds from Egypt, and like doves from the land of Assyria; and I will return them to their homes, says the Lord.

          This lesson comes at a fortuitous time.
          For months now, several of us have been meeting most every Sunday to talk about forgiveness.  I recommend it highly.
          Specifically, we’ve been studying a book by Archbishop Desmond Tutu and his daughter Mpho, called The Book of Forgiving.  The Tutu family has urged us to be on a fourfold path toward healing through forgiveness.
          I know a lot of us are a bit suspicious of appeals to forgiveness.  Forgiveness can be a tool for complacency and even complicity in evil.  For years, women and children were told to endure abuse at the hands of those more powerful than they, and to strive toward forgiveness, when what they needed was justice.
          But this book has not been that sort of appeal.  It has been a studied look at how we can choose to reset or release relationships that have been damaged by our own or someone else’s misdeeds.
          And why should we trust Desmond Tutu to bring us that message?
          Well there’s this.  His 1984 Nobel Peace Prize for his work against South African apartheid.  His presidential medal of freedom.  His close friendship with another of the most respected men in the world, the Dalai Lama.  That friendship led to collaboration on another book, appropriately titled The Book of Joy.
          But even more importantly, Desmond Tutu is afforded gravitas to speak about forgiveness because of this:  When the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was formed in post-Apartheid South Africa, President Nelson Mandela asked Tutu to chair it.  The commission is an exemplar for how to apply the principles of honesty, forgiveness, and reconciliation in order to move forward together.
          The system of Apartheid had brutalized people of color, especially black people, in South Africa for decades.  When world pressure and a moderate leader finally brought that system down, there was a collective holding of breath, to see what the Finally Free South Africans would do to those who had held them down with violence and political action.  And instead of a retributive system which sought simply to punish those who had been part of the evil, great leaders like Mandela, Tutu, and Sisi Khampepe sought to create a commission which would offer restorative justice.  Reparations were made to victims, and some perpetrators went to jail, after telling the truth about their deeds.  Many others were given amnesty, or allowed to work toward a more just national union in order to atone for what they had done.
          The Truth and Reconciliation Commission did exactly what its name implied:  It got to the truth and it fostered reconciliation…in a place as deeply divided as it could have been.
          And it is no accident that the architect of its success was the giggling Archbishop of Johannesburg, Desmond Tutu.  Many people were pessimistic about the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.  We are conditioned to expect vengeance, especially when crimes are heinous.  Would this touchy-feely process of testimony, amnesty, and forgiveness really bring healing to a nation so scarred by racist violence?
          I think it is fair to say that we ought to be paying attention to the answer to that question, don’t you think?
          And the answer is yes.  The Truth and Reconciliation Commission brought healing, forgiveness, reconciliation, and that was due in no small part to its chair. 
          Desmond Tutu believes in forgiveness, because Desmond Tutu believes in God, in very tangible ways.  Desmond Tutu understands God in ways few have, in what can only be called a prophetic way.  Tutu speaks of God in the way that Isaiah did, Amos did, Hosea did.  As someone who has truly understood God’s commands—someone who learned through them who God is. 
          It turns out that it is entirely possible to claim faith in God, Yahweh, Allah—and have little understanding of who God is.
          Tutu understands.  When asked about heaven, he replied, “We may be surprised at the people we find in heaven. God has a soft spot for sinners. His standards are quite low.” 
          That’s the sort of understanding of God that allows one to embrace sinners, to broker truth and reconciliation in a real way.
          Which brings us, finally!, to Hosea, and our lesson for this morning.  I was starting to wonder myself if I was ever going to get there.
          Hosea is an interesting book.  It seems that Hosea was an interesting prophet, too.  He seems to have gone to the Amos School of Prophetic Speech.  He doesn’t pull any punches.  If you read this book too quickly, you could come away thinking that God has given up on Israel.  The primary metaphor in this book is the wronged spouse, the one who has suffered under an unfaithful partner.  Look at verse seven in today’s lesson:  “My people are bent on turning away from me. To the Most High they call, but he does not raise them up at all.”
          There will be punishment for this people, God declares.  They will suffer at the hands of the Assyrian Empire, which does, in fact, happen.
          The punishment is laid out in lavish terms.  Right before our reading for today is this: [slide]
You have ploughed wickedness,
   you have reaped injustice,
   you have eaten the fruit of lies.
Because you have trusted in your power
   and in the multitude of your warriors, 
14 therefore the tumult of war shall rise against your people,
   and all your fortresses shall be destroyed,
as Shalman destroyed Beth-arbel on the day of battle
   when mothers were dashed in pieces with their children. 
15 Thus it shall be done to you, O Bethel,
   because of your great wickedness.
At dawn the king of Israel
   shall be utterly cut off. 

          Youch!  Not exactly Truth and Reconciliation, is it?
          But listen to the end of our reading for today, to hear the heart of God beating in love.
          Verse 8 and following:
          8How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, O Israel? How can I make you like Admah? How can I treat you like Zeboiim? My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender. 9I will not execute my fierce anger; I will not again destroy Ephraim; for I am God and no mortal, the Holy One in your midst, and I will not come in wrath.
          Admah and Zeboiim are two of the five “Cities of the Plain” which were destroyed along with their sisters Sodom and Gomorrah.  Recall that in last week’s lesson, we heard Abraham advocating on behalf of Sodom, trying to remind God that God’s name is mercy. 
          This lesson, from later in our relationship with God, shows how God’s commitment to humanity is growing.  God did destroy the Cities of the Plain, but once again we see God’s regret.  The people of Israel will be punished, but not destroyed. 
          All of this is interesting.  It’s fun to watch God fall in love with humanity.  But what is most important in this lesson, and what the great prophets—Isaiah, Micah, Jesus, Martin Luther King, Mother Teresa, Desmond Tutu—what all of those prophets have learned and taught about God—is the simple phrase in verse nine.
          “I will not execute my fierce anger,” says the Lord, “I will not again destroy Ephraim; for I am God and no mortal, the Holy One in your midst, and I will not come in wrath.”
          God forgives and reconciles because God is God.  The end of God’s journey of relationship with us—Creator to Created—is mercy.  Mercy is the name of God and mercy is the very being of God, forged in relationship to a people who can be stubborn, foolish, and even violent…but who can also learn truth, forgiveness, and reconciliation, especially as they know and love God.
          As our relationship with God has grown and deepened, God has tended toward mercy.  And as a people, we have tended toward war.  But there have always been those among us, the great prophets in our midst, who have called us toward the heart of God.  Who have reminded us that God’s name is mercy, and that no matter what we have done, God forgives us.
          And then they call us, just as God has called us, to be people of truth and reconciliation.  To forgive and love and serve because we are God’s.  Because God has loved and forgiven us. 
          God forgives because God is God.
          We forgive, and seek reconciliation, because we are God’s.  And we are forgiven.
          Or, in the words of Desmond Tutu:
“In the end what matters is not how good we are but how good God is. Not how much we love God but how much God loves us. And God loves us whoever we are, whatever we’ve done or failed to do, whatever we believe or can’t.” 

Your Name Is Mercy--Pentecost + 7, July 28, 2019

Sermon for SMHP, Year C, Proper 12, July 28, 2019
Genesis 18:20-33            
          20Then the Lord said, “How great is the outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah and how very grave their sin! 21I must go down and see whether they have done altogether according to the outcry that has come to me; and if not, I will know.” 22So the men turned from there, and went toward Sodom, while Abraham remained standing before the Lord.
               23Then Abraham came near and said, “Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked? 24Suppose there are fifty righteous within the city; will you then sweep away the place and not forgive it for the fifty righteous who are in it? 25Far be it from you to do such a thing, to slay the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?”
          26And the Lord said, “If I find at Sodom fifty righteous in the city, I will forgive the whole place for their sake.” 27Abraham answered, “Let me take it upon myself to speak to the Lord, I who am but dust and ashes.28Suppose five of the fifty righteous are lacking? Will you destroy the whole city for lack of five?” And he said, “I will not destroy it if I find forty-five there.” 
          29Again he spoke to him, “Suppose forty are found there.” He answered, “For the sake of forty I will not do it.” 30Then he said, “Oh do not let the Lord be angry if I speak. Suppose thirty are found there.” He answered, “I will not do it, if I find thirty there.” 31He said, “Let me take it upon myself to speak to the Lord. Suppose twenty are found there.” He answered, “For the sake of twenty I will not destroy it.” 32Then he said, “Oh do not let the Lord be angry if I speak just once more. Suppose ten are found there.” He answered, “For the sake of ten I will not destroy it.” 33And the Lord went his way, when God had finished speaking to Abraham; and Abraham returned to his place.

          So this is a lectionary text, so it comes up every three years.  But it feels particularly relevant this year.  Anybody else feel that way?  Maybe you were wondering, too, as you listened to the conversation between Abraham and God,
          How should God respond to a people who have utterly forsaken the Word of God?
          What is God to do with people who claim to be faithful, but who operate out of their basest instincts, ignoring the call to hospitality and love of neighbor?  Who turn away the refugee at the gate and ignore—or even denigrate—the poor in their midst?  What shall God do with those people?
          If you know your scripture, you know that the answer to that question is complicated.  There have been different answers at different times, as our relationship with God has grown and evolved.  There was a time when God was pretty smite-y.  Not much grace in the Garden, for instance.  Eat one forbidden fruit and go straight to lifetime detention. 
          And then there was the time that God destroyed the whole world except for Noah and his family and a very smelly ark.  We’re going to touch on that later, sans the smelly ark part.  It’s part of the baptismal liturgy.
          But then there was the time after that time.  After God surveyed the earth, utterly destroyed, God established the first covenant, with Noah and his descendants.  God promised to refrain from destroying everything again.  As a mark of this covenant, God “set a bow in the clouds.”  Still today, the rainbow is a mark of promise, inclusion and love.
          God promised to love us.  God made covenants of love and fidelity, with Noah, and then with Abraham, and then with Jacob.  Those covenants are much like the covenants we make with one another today—
·       The marriage covenant
·       The adoption covenant
·       The baptismal covenant
          In those covenants, we promise to love each other and be faithful to one another.  In a few moments, CeCe’s parents and sponsors are going to make covenantal promises to her and to God.  They will promise to raise her in the faith into which she is being baptized, with full knowledge of what that faith means and its power over death.
          These sorts of promises and vows--these covenants of love and fidelity--are important.  They remind us that relationships are not to be taken lightly—not to be picked up and put down easily.  It has been wonderful to work with Joanie and Duncan on their wedding, because they have taken the promises they make that day seriously—investing as much time in thinking about the wedding ceremony as the reception.

          God’s covenant with Noah was important. It marked God’s intention to enter into a long-term relationship with humankind.  And each successive covenantal step—the covenant with Abraham, with Jacob, and finally the New Covenant in Jesus Christ—those were marks of our deepening relationship of mutual love and fidelity with God.
          It’s important to keep that progression in mind, as we consider the Genesis text before us this morning.  This text reminds us that there has indeed been a progression in the relationship between God and human beings.
          When Abraham and God had this little negotiation about the future of the legendary cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, that relationship was still in its early stages. 
          To put it another way, God was a new parent in those days.  God’s children were misbehaving something terrible, and quite frankly, God was kind of at a loss for what to do.  It happens.  Even to seasoned parents.  But new parents often have the look.  You know the one.  [Make bewildered, frustrated look]
          Or to put it yet another way, God’s gettin’ ready to pull this car over, Sodom and Gomorrah, and you are not going to like it one bit.
          In order to understand this lesson, we have to cast ourselves back to when God and humankind were still learning to love and trust one another.  Because we know God the seasoned parent.  We know the God who can hold a child being baptized and comfort a grieving spouse, and create a beautiful sunset.  All without breaking a sweat.
          We know the God of incarnation—who so loved the world that God was willing to enter into our experience and even take on our suffering.
          That’s the God we know. 
          That is not the God having a conversation with Abraham on the road from Mamre to Sodom. I mean it is, of course.  You’re still the same being you were in middle school, right.  But you’re probably glad to have left a few things about yourself back in that time.
          The God conversing with Abraham is the same God we know, but with some edges that are still being worn smooth by love and mercy and practice.  Abraham is talking to the God whose fiery, destructive tendencies have been scaled down, but not eliminated.  The God who is still incarnate—witness God having a conversation with Abraham—but who has not entered fully into human experience.
          So as Abraham and God and having this conversation on the road, God is pretty matter-of-fact about old Sodom and Gomorrah. “Abe,” says God, “I am getting terrible reports about Sodom and Gomorrah.  I’m going to go down there, and see if I have some smiting to do.”
          God and Sodom are in a Game of Thrones, and you know who’s going to win.
          Winter is coming.
          Abraham is playing a different game.  Abraham is cast into a role we see every so often in scripture.  Let’s call it “attorney for the accused.” 
          We see Moses play this role in the desert.  We see the prophets intervening on behalf of the people.  When Jesus talks with women from Canaan and Syrophoenicia, we see them doing it—reminding Jesus that God’s name is Mercy.  Love.  Inclusion.
          I am so in awe of single parents, because I know how much I rely on my wife to play this role for me.  And I know my responsibility is to play it for her.  We have to remind each other that as the parents of that little boy back there, our name is Mercy.  Smiting is strictly forbidden, even when he spits at your face, which is a fun little behavior that came back this week.
          Abraham is playing that role for God in this story.  “Oh God, I know you’re really mad at Sodom and Gomorrah, but remember how some of them are nice?  Maybe fifty of them are nice…well, fifty might be high, but at least forty of them are good…well, forty might be a bit of a stretch, but thirty—yeah, thirty of them are decent folks…maybe.  How about ten?  Would you take ten?”
          Abraham speaks a word of mercy to a God whose name is mercy.  Or whose name will be mercy, as God continues to fall even deeper and deeper in love with the creation.
          Lucky us.  We are the youngest children of the very large family of God.  By the time God created us, God had been really strict with a bunch of our older siblings, and God settled in to just love the stuffin’ out of us.  To forgive us all manner of things.
          But also to gently remind us, every so often, as Abraham reminded God, as God reminded Jonah, as the Syro-phoenician woman reminded Jesus:  “Your name is Mercy.” 
          People of God, as we baptize this child today, let us be a community willing to remind her, “Your name is mercy.  You belong to a God of mercy.  And that God of mercy has a church.  
          Here you will be loved, no matter what.  Here you will be accepted, no matter what.  Here you will be welcomed, no matter what!  Because we belong to a God of mercy, and that makes us a people of mercy.”
          Let us say those words over CeCe at the font, and let us remember to whisper them to each other, every so often. 
          Do that now:  turn to the people around you and whisper, “Your name is mercy.”
          Let us remind one another, and let us remind the world.  Let us shout it out, drown out the cries of those who have forgotten, call them, and us, back to God’s tender embrace of love and inclusion.
          Shout it with me:  “Our name is mercy!”  “Our name is mercy!” 
          Let it be so. 


Rise up, people of God, and let us sing together hymn #657.

"Lord, Do You Care..."--Pentecost + 6, July 21, 2019

Sermon for Shepherd of the Hills Lutheran Church, St. Ann, MO, Year C, Proper 11, July 21, 2019
Luke 10:38-42
               38Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. 39She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. 40But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.”
          41But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; 42there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”

          I don’t generally like to begin a sermon with a warning, but today I am making an exception. 
          This little story is a dangerous text. 
          It seems so simple, doesn’t it?
          Mary and Martha.  We make little jokes about them:  “Oh, look at Judy—she’s such a Martha!  Always in the kitchen.  Ha ha ha.”
          But this—this little five verse story about the sisters of Lazarus—this is a deceptively complex Bible story masquerading as a sibling spat. 
          In order to understand the story of Mary and Martha—and Jesus, who never gets included in the little headings in our Bibles—we’ve got to do a couple of things.  We’ve got to think about where and how we read it. 
          Now, by where, I don’t mean where you sit when you hear it. Sit where you want.  But pay attention to where the story falls.
          Where is this story?
          Luke’s gospel.
          Chapter 10.
          There are three key places to start if you really want to understand Luke’s gospel:

1.  The Magnificat—Chapter One.  Mary’s song about how God’s justice turns the world upside down.
2.  The Missionary Journey in chapters Nine and Ten
3.  The post-resurrection story of the road to Emmaus.  Final Chapter, twenty-four.
          The rest of the book is important, of course, but those sections are essential.  You probably already know the Magnificat and the Road to Emmaus story.  (If not:  google!)
          But what the heck is The Missionary Journey?  Or what is probably better called the Narrative of Missional Journeying?  Isn’t pretty much all of Luke a travel story about mission?
          Right in the middle of a gospel in which Jesus seems to be constantly on the road, are two chapters which basically lay out the work of discipleship and mission.  We’ve been reading from them for a few weeks now.  See if you recognize some of these stories:
          Chapter Nine begins with the sending of the twelve disciples, with the instruction to “take nothing for your journey, no staff, nor bag, nor bread, nor money—not even an extra tunic.  The chapter goes on to include the
        Feeding of the 5000
        First and second Passion Prediction
        The Transfiguration of Jesus, which gets its own Sunday in the late winter, so we forget that it is also in Chapter 9.
        James and John, the Sons of Thunder, complaining that someone is doing ministry in Jesus name:  “Lord, we saw someone casting out demons in your name.  So of course we told him to stop!”
        And then the turning point of the whole gospel, at verse 51, when Luke announces, “When the days drew near for Jesus to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.” 
          Everything before this is Prelude.  Everything after this is Passion, or at least the Road to Passion.
          Chapter Ten begins just like Chapter Nine, but with the mission expanded.  Now Jesus sends out seventy apostles, with very similar instructions—don’t take anything with you.  Just preach and teach and heal.  No travel pillows.  No little bottles of shampoo.
          The other two highlights of Chapter Ten are the parable of the Good Samaritan, last week’s gospel text, and, finally, the climax of the Narrative of Missional Journeying:  this little story about Mary and Martha.
          Better read it carefully.  Not reading it carefully enough is the other danger that this text presents.  The key to this text, and honestly to this whole section of Luke, is figuring out where to focus. 
          This is a story about Martha.  Mary is present, but from the beginning—"Jesus entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him”—this is Martha’s story.
          So what’s going on with Martha?
          She seems a little upset.
          Why is she upset?
          Because we always call this the story of Mary and Martha, it’s always tempting to make it a contrast story.  Martha is upset that her sister isn’t helping her, that she’s doing all the work.
          But what does she ask Jesus?
          “Lord, do you not care?
          Is she upset that Mary isn’t helping?  Yeah, it looks like it.  She does ask Jesus to tell Mary to help.
          But what she wants to know first of all is whether Jesus cares.
          Do you care about what is happening to me today, Jesus?
          Do you care about me, Jesus?    
          We see this question only twice in the gospels.  Anybody remember the other time?       
          Mark, Chapter Four.  Jesus and the disciples are out on the Sea of Galilee, and a storm brews up.  Jesus is curled up in the back of the boat, fast asleep, when they wake him to ask, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?”
          Don’t you care about us, Jesus?  The disciples want to know.  Martha wants to know.  We want to know.  Don’t you care about us, Jesus?
          What’s the answer?
          Yes.  If you hear nothing else I say, hear that.  Jesus loves you.  To death.
          Jesus cares about all of his disciples.  And he cares about Martha.  But less about whether she is not getting enough help from her sister.  He cares that she is worried.  And distracted. 
          He wants her to focus.  (There’s that focus thing again!)  Mary is focused on what Jesus is saying, and that’s important, because this is the Road to Jerusalem part of this story.  Jesus isn’t going to have time to come back and say this stuff a bunch more times.  They’ve got to get it today.
          They’ve got to focus.
          That’s why this story concludes the Narrative of Missionary Journeying.  Because the point of these two critical chapters is that we have to focus on the mission.  Cut out the distractions.  Drop our baggage—no staff, no bag, no bread, no money.”  The mission will be about feeding people with what is there already, with food we collect and with the word of God.
          By the way, I really appreciate the way this congregation is committed to both of those missions, as evidenced by your wonderful hunger ministry.
          The point of this section of Luke, and all of Luke and the whole gospel narrative Is that what we disciples need to know what Jesus cares about.
          Martha is asking the right question, albeit in perhaps the wrong way.
          What do you care about Jesus? 
          The whole point of the Narrative of Missional Journeying—these two chapters from Luke that we’ve been in for the past month—the whole point is for the disciples to learn where to focus.  And where do we need to focus?  On what Jesus cares about.
          Because when we understand that, we understand the mission that Jesus is on, that he left in the hands of both the Holy Spirit and *us*.
          So what does Jesus care about?

Outsider Voices--Pentecost + 5, July 14, 2019

Sermon for SMHP, Year C, Proper 10, Pentecost + 5, July 14, 2019
Luke 10:25-37
               25Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 26Jesus said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?”
          27He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” 28And Jesus said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.” 29But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”         
          30Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. 31Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. 32So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. 34He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. 35The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’ 36Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?”
          37He said, “The one who showed him mercy.”
          Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”

Amos 7:7-17
               7This is what the Lord God showed me: the Lord was standing beside a wall built with a plumb line, with a plumb line in his hand. 
          8And the Lord said to me, “Amos, what do you see?”
          And I said, “A plumb line.”
          Then the Lord said, “See, I am setting a plumb line in the midst of my people Israel; I will never again pass them by; 9the high places of Isaac shall be made desolate, and the sanctuaries of Israel shall be laid waste, and I will rise against the house of Jeroboam with the sword.”
               10Then Amaziah, the priest of Bethel, sent to King Jeroboam of Israel, saying, “Amos has conspired against you in the very center of the house of Israel; the land is not able to bear all his words. 11For thus Amos has said, ‘Jeroboam shall die by the sword, and Israel must go into exile away from his land.’” 
          12And Amaziah said to Amos, “O seer, go, flee away to the land of Judah, earn your bread there, and prophesy there; 13but never again prophesy at Bethel, for it is the king’s sanctuary, and it is a temple of the kingdom.” 
          14Then Amos answered Amaziah, “I am no prophet, nor a prophet’s son; but I am a herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore trees,15and the Lord took me from following the flock, and the Lord said to me, ‘Go, prophesy to my people Israel.’ 16“Now therefore hear the word of the Lord. You say, ‘Do not prophesy against Israel, and do not preach against the house of Isaac.” 17Therefore thus says the Lord: ‘Your wife shall become a prostitute in the city, and your sons and your daughters shall fall by the sword, and your land shall be parceled out by line; you yourself shall die in an unclean land, and Israel shall surely go into exile away from its land.’”

[Slide 2]
          Fannie Lou Hamer was born October 6, 1917, the last of twenty children.  Her parents, Ella and James Lee, were farmers in Mississippi.  They raised pigs, until all of the pigs were poisoned by a white supremacist.  Then they became sharecroppers.  Fannie Lou started working in the fields picking cotton when she was six years old.  She went to school from age six to twelve, but had to leave to support her parents.
          She continued to study at church, where she developed a deep love of the Bible and spirituals.  After her marriage, she and her husband worked on the Marlowe plantation, where Fannie Lou was the timekeeper, because she could read. 
          [Slide 3]  In 1961, Fannie Lou was admitted to the hospital for the removal of a uterine tumor.  While performing that operation, the white doctor also removed her uterus, without her consent.  The procedure, meant to control the population of people of color, was so common in her home state that it was called a “Mississippi Appendectomy.”
          That summer, Fannie Lou went to her first meeting of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (or “SN(i)CC”).  There she realized that it was possible to demand rights for herself and other people like her, people without much power by conventional terms. 
          In 1962, she led a delegation of women to the county courthouse in Indianola, Mississippi, planning to register to vote.  She was denied, based on a literacy test that asked her to explain “de facto laws.”  When she returned to the Marlowe plantation, she was fired for trying to register.
          She kept at it, though, working from the margins to improve her own life and the life of thousands like her.  On her third attempt, she was able to register to vote.  In 1964, she founded the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party out of her frustration at the state Democratic party’s refusal to allow black participation.  [Slide 4] The Freedom party soon became a force in American politics.  In 1968, she turned to matters of economic justice, starting a “pig bank” which gave swine to black farmers, then the Freedom Farm Collective, which bought 640 acres of land for farming, a co-op store, a sewing collaborative, and 200 units of affordable housing.
          She was a poor black woman in the rural American south.  An outsider to the American political and economic systems.  Without access to any of the conventional means of power and privilege in this country.  And she accomplished more than our entire Congress has gotten done of late.
          Sometimes it takes an outsider.  You will find, I believe, as we consider our Hebrew scripture lessons more fully in the next couple of months, that the voices and experience of “outsiders” are prominent. 
          This morning we have heard two outsider stories, one about a Samaritan—the ultimate outsider in Jesus’ day—who steps in to help when the insiders—a priest and a Levite—cross to the other side of the road.
          Jesus holds up the Samaritan, the outsider, as an example of love for the neighbor.
          And then there’s Amos.  Amos, “a herdsman and a dresser of sycamore trees” from the southern kingdom of Judah, whom God called to prophesy in the northern kingdom of Israel. 
          How excited was the northern kingdom to receive this unusual prophet?
          Not so much.  The first thing that happens, according to Amos, is that he runs up against Amaziah.  Who is Amaziah? [Slide 6]  “the priest of Bethel”  Priest of Beth-El, the house of the Lord.
          Amaziah is an insider.  There are still some insider priests today.  (And some outsider ones.  I think our call is to be the latter, but whatever.)
          The first thing Azaziah the Insider does?  Writes to the king, Jeroboam II.
          “Dear King, [whiny voice] Amos is prophesying bad stuff.  He says God is mad at us and we’re going to be sent into exile.  Tell him to go back to Jerusalem, please.”

          You don’t win a lot of prizes for truth-telling.  People often don’t want to hear the truth.  Our planet is in rebellion, but most people still don’t want to hear about it.  Our country is keeping little kids in cages, but our officials would prefer to argue the semantics than the policy.  “Are they ‘concentration camps’ or is that an exaggeration?”

          That is why from the beginning of recorded history, and certainly from the beginning of Biblical history, the truth has so often been brought by outsiders.  Moses.  Abraham.  Joseph in Egypt.  Amos in the Northern Kingdom. 
          The Syrophoenician woman.
          People who stand on the margins with the lepers and the ones left to die by the fundamentalists who cross to the other side of the road—those are the ones God calls to speak truth. 
          Sometimes people start to listen and heed their truth.  Pharoah eventually heeded the cry of Moses and let the people go.  Yeah, he changed his mind quickly, but it was too late.
          A later Pharoah listened to Joseph the Israelite and stored up food for the coming famines.  Egypt became the most powerful nation in the world because of the Pharoah heard Joseph.
          Oftentimes, voices from the margins are not heard until late.  Sometimes too late.
          The Civil Rights leaders of the fifties and sixties are hailed as heroes today.  That was not the case in the day.  And we are still reckoning with our legacy of white supremacy.
          One of the things we are called to do as disciples is to make a way for voices from the margins.  To find ways to amplify the voices of the Fannie Lou Hamers of our time, the prophets among us.
          As children of liberation—which we are—we are also called to stand at the margins ourselves.  To speak from the marginalized places within us.
          And to listen from our privilege too.  It’s a balancing act, one which takes practice.  Repetition.  Humility.
          Fannie Lou Hamer died in 1977.  Her eulogy was delivered by Andrew Young, the US Ambassador to the United Nations.  She shares a stamp with civil rights leader Medger Evers.  She is a hero today, because she found her voice and stood on the margins to speak for truth and justice.
          Just as Moses found his voice, Joseph found his voice, Amos found his.
          And we will find ours.