Tuesday, August 22, 2017


A Sermon for the 11th Sunday after Pentecost, Year A

Matthew 15:10-28

by Rev. Laura Gentry

I don’t know about you, but I find the story of Jesus and the Canaanite woman difficult. Painful, even. And right now is a painful time for our country, so how might this story speak to our current context? What does this story have to teach us about what we are to be doing today? That’s always the goal of our scripture study, isn’t it? So let’s fearlessly dive into today’s Gospel text in hopes that we can find some crumb of wisdom to guide us.

First, the painful part of the story: Jesus seems to treat the Canaanite women badly. He ignores her until she’s so annoying she can’t be ignored any longer. As an advocate for her daughter, she is persistent. You could say that “nevertheless, she persisted!”

But Jesus refuses to help her and then insults her by calling her a dog! Some commentators try to soften this by reminding us that the word he uses isn’t actually “dog” in the original language, but “little dog”. Personally, I don’t find it any less offensive. It just seems so not Jesus. Why! Why would he say this?

Well, the traditional interpretation goes something like this: Jesus isn’t actually being mean to her. No no, he’s just testing her so that we can all learn from this encounter.  And when she passes her test, he rewards her by healing her daughter. Maybe. But I’m not totally buying it.

The truth is that we don’t know why Jesus said this and we’ll never know for sure. So if we really want to understand this story we need to focus not on Jesus but on the persistent woman. She’s obviously the hero of the story, but why?

It seems like she “gets” Jesus more than anybody. Even more than his disciples do. She’s an outsider and a woman so she might not even expect Jesus to deal with her. But she is utterly desperate and she believes he can heal her daughter who has a demon. She’s got this audacity and this unrelenting drive to get him to help.

So when Jesus dismisses her and calls her a dog she responds in this way: “Yes, Lord. Yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”

She’s a marginalized person who has always been run over, left out, and discriminated against so I guess she’s used to getting the leftovers if she gets anything at all. But she believes that what Jesus offers—the mercy of God—is so amazing that leftovers are okay. Just a crumb would be sufficient. Just a crumb.

Perhaps this understanding does more than just teach us. It even seems to teach Jesus. Maybe it's just coincidence but his mission gets enlarged after this encounter with her. This Canaanite woman asks to be seen and heard—recognized as child of God. And through her her plea, she expands Jesus’ sense of mission. By the end of this Gospel, the commission is to take the good news to the very ends of the earth! Now it is clear that the good news of God’s healing mercy is not just for the Jews, not just for the “in” crowd, but for everybody—even little, run down, crumb-grabbing “nobodys” like this Canaanite women.

Why does this matter? Well, it is a human tendency to assume that God is on our side—that God looks like us, favors us, endorses our views and is most certainly a card-carrying member of our political party. I don’t know why we are like that but we are. We tend to imagine God is just like us. And it is wonderful that Jesus came to earth to be like us and to connect with us on a human level. The problem is when we imagine God is only like us and not like others.

And just as the Canaanite woman teaches Jesus that God’s mission and vision and love and mercy are bigger than he may have initially imagined, so might she teach us the same at a time when synagogues are threatened, mosques are being fire-bombed, and neo-Nazis and white supremacists march the streets: every time you draw a line between who’s in and who’s out, you will find the God made known in Jesus on the other side.

But here’s the thing: we already know this. Yet at a time such as this, simply knowing that God loves all people and shows no partiality is not enough. I think that this text and others like it in scripture when the outsider is lifted up remind us that we are called to action. We need to be more than not racist—we need to actively fight racism. We need to find ways to listen to, stand with and stand up for our minority brothers and sisters. We must demand that their interested be cared for, too. When one part of the body of Christ hurts, we all hurt. We are all in this together.

This is no new endeavor for us here in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. We’ve been fighting against racism for a long time now. The ELCA’s social statement “Freed in Christ: Race, Ethnicity and Culture” states: “Racism—a mix of power, privilege, and prejudice—is sin, a violation of God’s intention for humanity. The resulting racial, ethnic, or cultural barriers deny the truth that all people are God’s creatures and, therefore, persons of dignity. Racism fractures and fragments both church and society.”
That social statement, adopted by the ELCA 1993 Churchwide Assembly, calls on the church to make confession for complicity, name the spiritual crisis at the roots, commit to change and make pledges to public witness, advocacy and action to confront racism. 

“We recognize that the kind of violence we witnessed in Charlottesville last weekend is very real and affects all of us,” said ELCA Presiding Bishop Elizabeth A. Eaton. “We need to stand up firmly against racism and anti-Semitism, show up for and advocate with others. Jesus, who makes visible those who are invisible, is already there. We need to show up, and we need to listen in each of our communities.”

As it was stated in a press release that came out last week: "The ELCA is a church that belongs to Christ and Christ’s church universal, where there is a place for everyone. The job of Christ’s people today is to celebrate the diversity of God’s creative work and embrace all people in the spirit of love, whatever race or ethnicity, economic status or gender."

The Canaanite woman was persistent. She stood her ground and demanded God’s mercy—even a crumb of mercy—for her child. How can we learn from her how to have courage and demand mercy, too? We cannot afford to sit this one out. Let us prayerfully consider how we as a church can stand with and for all of God’s children. And then get to work. Amen.

© 2017 Laura Gentry

Monday, June 5, 2017


This sermon was the second half of a sermon for Pentecost Sunday at a Heritage Service celebrating the 150th Anniversary of Our Savior's Lutheran Church in Lansing, Iowa. It followed a reflection of about the "giants" of the bible and the "giants" of the congregation's history who were channels of divine power. At the start of the service, worshipers were instructed to divide by gender and sit on separate sides of the sanctuary (with men on the pulpit side) to experience how the earliest members would have worshiped.

We are so grateful to Pastor Don Berg for being a part of our service today and reflecting with us on how God has worked through the “giants” of our congregation over the years. And on this, the anniversary of our church, celebrated on Pentecost, the anniversary of the coming of the Holy Spirit to launch the entire Christian church, it is fitting to look back at the events of the past—to muse, to marvel and to learn. We are enormously blessed by the work of our member and historian, Barbara Scottston, who uncovered such a rich history for us.

It is important that we grab hold of what we’ve learned to help us as we go forward. And so my portion of the sermon will focus on the future. In order to do so, we need to get you out of this historical, gender-segregated seating and back to modern seating, yes? Okay, then. When I say “go” you’ll get up and return to your original pew.  On your way, you are going to stop and shake the hand of at least one person you do not yet know. Introduce yourself and tell how you’re connected to this congregation. Don’t talk too long, though, because I’ve got a great message to preach. Ready? Go! (everyone moved back to their original pew).

Ah, that looks more normal doesn’t it? Men and women sitting side by side in the pews, reflecting equality because God’s word isn’t just for men any more. It’s for women, too.  And not only can women hear God’s word from any pew they wish, they can now proclaim it!

Do you realize that for more than two thirds of this congregation’s history, women were not allowed to be ordained as pastors? In April of 1970, the Lutheran Church in America voted to ordain women at their Fifth Biennial Convention, as did the American Lutheran Church at their convention that year. I’m going to reveal my age, but I have to tell you that decision by the LCA, was made a month before I was born. So I like to think that I embody the new era of female clergy. But even though the Lutherans that formed the ELCA have allowed women to be ministers for my entire life, I’m only the second woman minister this church has ever had. And I’m happy to say that the first pioneer, Pastor Debra Samuelson, is here with us today. We also have Pastor Diane Koshmeder and Pastor Terrie Rae Anderson, participating in our service today. Not only that, the Reverend April Ulring Larson is with us, too, and she was the very first woman in the entire ELCA to be elected as a synodical bishop. Oh, and our presiding bishop, the Reverend Elizabeth Eaton, as you might have guessed by her name, is also a woman. She has this to say about it: "I give thanks for all women in ministry. We are doing what Mary, the mother of our Lord, and Mary Magdalene did before us – proclaiming the gospel.” So let’s have a round of applause for women everywhere proclaiming the gospel!

That’s a big deal. A big, big deal. A gigantic change. Old Reverend Hjort (our church's first pastor) and the founding members of this congregation would have surely gasped in disbelief and rolled their eyes about in their heads if you’d have told them their church would have a sesquicentennial celebration in 2017 in which men and women would be allowed to sit together in the pews for a full half of that service and that a woman would be preaching. Yes, change happens. Even to Norwegians.

But you see that’s the problem of the Holy Spirit. That Spirit’s something else. We like to think the Holy Spirit—or the Holy Ghost as we used to call it—as a nice little thing. We often use a dove or a candle to symbolize it but the ancient Celtic church used a wild goose to symbolize the Spirit. Seriously? A goose? When I was a kid my neighbor had free ranging geese and I thought they were cute so I stopped my bike to pet one and you know what happened? It bit me! Took a chunk out of my arm. Geese are hard core. So a wild goose is a crazy symbol for the Holy Spirit. Crazy. But the Celtic church specifically chose this animal because they understood the untamable and dangerous nature of the Holy Spirit. It is powerful. Unexpected. Uncontrollable. Beware, my friends: it shows up and bites you!

Today is Pentecost Sunday—the day when Christians around the world celebrate this passionate, powerful, fiery Spirit that came upon the early disciples. It blew through them like a mighty wind and gave them new languages with which to proclaim the gospel. You see that? It immediately changed their agenda. They were planning on telling the good news but probably not to everybody. Then the wild goose of a Spirit comes honking in and bites them and *poof* they are the boldest proclaimers in the universe. Ordinary people became extraordinary and changed the world. It was outrageous! That’s why the cynics looked on and thought the disciples thought must have been drunk off their butts.

Those pioneers from Norway, well, they just thought there oughta be a church here in Lansing so they drew up the paper work in 1867 with nothing but a handful of faithful immigrants and a pastor with a five-point parish commuting to worship by horse and buggy. There’s no excuse for such behavior. It had to be the wild goose Spirit whispering in their ears (well, probably chomping on their ears) telling them they could do what could not be done, telling them to risk it all and trust God that their little church was going to last.

And that, I believe, is the most important legacy they’ve given to us: faith. Martin Luther wrote that faith is “a living, daring confidence in God’s grace, so sure and certain that believers would stake their lives on it a thousand times.” 

That’s what the Holy Spirit allows us to do: to trust fall into the arms of God’s grace. It doesn’t make sense to anybody else. It might make us look drunk. But it enables us to give up controlling things ourselves, to allow the undomesticated Holy Spirit to fly where it may, even if that means lots of changes ahead. 

In addition to being a pastor, I teach laughter seminars to get people laughing with abandon, tapping into the joy and freedom Christ gives us. So people give me a lot of jokes and bulletin bloopers. This one’s my favorite: “We pray for those who are sick of this church.” You know, after 150 years, you’d think we’d all be a little sick of this church. But when the Holy Spirit is allowed to reign supreme and take us where we didn’t plan to go, urging us:
• to live among God’s faithful people
• to hear the word of God and share in the Lord’s supper
• to proclaim the good news of God in Christ through word and deed
• to serve all people—all people—following the example of Jesus
• to strive for justice and peace in all the earth
And to carry all this out in ever outreaching ways: like having Holy Hilarity services were we laugh at death, and inviting donkeys to lead the Palm Sunday processional (even if they sometimes poop in the church) and worshiping on a boat and baptizing people in the Mississippi River if that’s where they want to be baptized and holding special services just to bless animals, and producing albums of worship music and who knows what's next?!

If we give the Holy Spirit freedom to do this and more—well, then we’ll never be sick of this church. Living the life of faith will be way too much of an adventure.

I don’t mean to say that it is not a challenge. This is an incredibly difficult time to be the church. Worshiping communities are shrinking across the country. It’s a constant effort to be seen as relevant. We have real struggles. But so did our ancestors in the faith. And yet they persisted and trusted that they had a mission to accomplish and with God, it was possible. 

As we go forward, let us do so with their tenacious spirit. I pray that we will have a living, daring confidence in God’s grace. And I pray that the wildness of the Holy Spirit will flap in here and take over our lives and our church and lead us forth with fiery passion, fearlessness and with great joy! Amen.

© 2017 Laura Gentry

The pastors who were part of the Heritage Service on June 4, 2017: back row—Pastor Peter Samuelson, Pastor Laura Gentry, Pastor Diane Koshmeder, Pastor Kris Snyder; front row—Pastor Debra Von Fisher Samuelson, Bishop April Ulring Larson, Pastor Judd Larson, Pastor Don Berg.

Sunday, March 19, 2017


A Sermon for the Third Sunday in Lent, Year A
John 4:5-42

Last week our lectionary text invited us into a conversation between Jesus and the Jewish leader, Nicodemus. He was a rather important leader in the community. It's probably safe to assume that he could go anywhere he wanted any time he wanted and as long as he didn't make the Romans mad, no one was going to give him a hard time.  He’s what you might call “privileged”. Nicodemus came to talk with Jesus in the dark of night.  The conversation they have isn’t long because Nick can’t quite wrap his head around the point about being born again that Jesus is trying to make. He remain in the dark about it.

Now contrast that scene with the gospel scene for today, which comes right after it. It’s not dark outside. No, it’s noon and it is in Samaria. Jesus and his disciples are traveling through this region—a place most Jews avoided because as the author says “Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.” But Jesus has gone out of his way to be here. He literally crossed a geographical border to be here.

Then the disciples leave Jesus at the well and head into town to get snacks. Now Jesus crosses another border—a symbolic border—to speak to the woman who arrives.  Wells are meeting places for future spouses so for Jesus to speak to this woman at this place is breaking tradition. It seems inappropriate even to the disciples when they get back. That’s why they balk to find Jesus talking to a Samaritan woman.

The Samaritan Woman 
at the Well, He Qi
She arrives to fetch water and Jesus asks her for a drink. This begins the conversation and it is interesting to note that it is the longest conversation Jesus has with anyone anywhere in the bible. It must be important.

She knows it’s weird for him to be addressing her so she responds, "How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?”

But he doesn’t drop the conversation. He goes on to offer her “living water.” Now that sounds pretty good to someone who carries a heavy jar back and forth from her home each day to get water. Is he offering to install a facet in her house? Great—somebody call the plumber. We can’t blame her for thinking literally. But that kind of water leaves you thirsty again. Jesus is talking about a gift from God that will satisfy her deepest spiritual thirst.

Unlike Nicodemus who remained in darkness, this woman comes to enlightenment pretty quickly. She sticks with the conversation. You could say that nevertheless, she persisted. And she realizes this guy might be the Messiah so she asks him. He responds: “I am he.” In the original Greek, it is simply “I am”, which is the very way God responded to Moses. The disciples haven’t even gotten such a divine self-revelation out of Jesus but here in Samaria, this unnamed woman has. Perhaps Jesus mustn't have thought there was a glass ceiling for divine revelations. Anyone who believes women or foreigners or people of other religions or races are of less importance to God hasn’t read this story (or the rest of the bible for that matter). It’s an extraordinary moment!

Which is why she launches into a theological conversation. It may seem odd to us but she is asking about the pressing question that divided the Jews and Samaritans of her day—the hot-button religious issue that made them hate and fear one another: Where is the proper place to worship God?   Is it on the Samaritan's mountain or the Jews? Jesus’ response shows that God’s presence is much wider than they thought, for God will not be confined to one mountain or another, one temple or another, or even one group of people or another. 

To tell you the truth, is not a very pro-travel-ban answer Jesus gives. He boldly proclaims wideness of God’s grace. He says the time is coming when all people will worship God in Spirit and in Truth. All. People.

This is good news and this woman "gets it" probably because she is one of the excluded Jesus has come to include even though he has to break the rules to do it. She gets it and she gets fired up. That’s why she leaves her jar behind and runs back to town to tell others the good news. While the disciples are standing around wondering whether or not it is appropriate for Jesus to be speaking with a Samaritan woman, she’s out doing evangelism.

Apparently, she’s good at it because she realizes when you are given living water, you’ve got to share it. It is not for having a private spiritual experience you can savor alone. No, when you drink of deeply of the living water God gives, you want others to experience it’s life-changing effects, too. She goes to her townspeople and she somehow convinces them they need to check it out. I told you she was persistent. 

So here they all come to meet Jesus at the well: More Samaritans converts along with the female evangelist. It's not necessarily what the disciples had in mind when they signed up to follow Jesus. But that's what they get and it seems the revelation is bright enough to enlighten them, too, because they continue on with him in his mission. The darkness cannot overcome the light, which has come in Christ. Even Nicodemus will eventually figure this out.

The question this story begs is what does it ask of us? We who live in the light, who have been given living water as a pure gift from above—how are we called to share it as the woman at the well did? How are we to worship in Spirit and in Truth? How are we called out of our comfort zones about what is right or traditional or appropriate to really share God’s abundant gifts with all people? How can we have moral courage and persistence and a compassion that is much bigger than our own? Indeed, how can we have a border-crossing love like Jesus? 

I don’t know. In these divided political times, these challenges seem increasingly impossible. But we believe that with God all things are possible. So let us ponder this story anew. Let's let it go to work on us—this unusual story of the wideness of God’s embrace and the value of all people. Maybe, just maybe it will open our hearts and the Spirit will blow where it pleases. Amen.

@2017 Laura Gentry

Sunday, February 19, 2017


A Sermon for Epiphany 7A

The Sermon on the Mount—Jesus’ signature sermon—is incredibly long. I never preach that long (and I know you appreciate that)!

Today is the fourth week we’ve had a gospel lesson from the Sermon on the Mount. There is so much to consider that the lectionary breaks it up into bite-sized pieces and today is our last one. We heard about the Beattitudes and how we are salt and light and cannot lose the essence of who we are as God’s children and how we must flee from sin. All of those are difficult teachings but nothing like today’s. Here Jesus dishes up the hard stuff. Are you ready for it? Do you have your seat belts on? He hits us with the final doozy: “Be perfect as your father in heaven is perfect.” 

Okay, then. That about sums it up. What more can say? Go ahead. Be perfect! 

Are you kidding me? Be perfect?! Hold on—before this drives us over the edge let’s try to get a handle on what Jesus means by this. When he says what is translated here as “be perfect” he is using a Greek word with the root telos, which means: goal, end, or purpose. It is about reaching your intended outcome. For example, the telos of an arrow is to reach the target. The telos of an apple tree is to produce apples. Telos is the direction in which we are going. So what is your direction—in your life, I mean? Where are you going? Jesus wants to know.

Are you going to go with the flow and live a normal life like everybody else or will you raise your sights and look at your telos, your end goal? Do you even have an end goal? Is it a worthy one? Hope so because God is with you to help you get there.

This part of the Sermon on the Mound sounds like a demand—an impossible demand—at first but when read this way, it is more about promise. God has plans for you. God sees something in you, maybe more than you see in yourself. And God intends to bring something spectacular to fruition in your life. As you live into this telos, this purpose, you can help transform the world—which is the thing God’s already at work doing. That's an incredible promise.

But how do we do that? Well, Jesus has given us some concrete examples here. Unfortunately, he lived in a foreign land in an ancient time so for us to understand what he’s saying, we’ll need to do consider the context. There is a lot of misunderstanding about these teachings of Jesus’ precisely because people don’t know the context. They think he’s telling us to be doormats. I’m a Christian so I should let everyone walk over me, right? Wrong! That’s NOT what Jesus is saying.

First, he says that if anyone hits you on your right cheek, you shouldn’t strike back—which might be your natural instinct. You should instead, offer him your other cheek, but you should do so without showing submission. The goal here is to bring shame on the one who is doing this evil. In the ancient world where honor and shame were important, doing this would demonstrate the shamefulness of the person’s aggression and this would humiliate him. It is a nonviolent resistance Jesus is talking about, like what Dr. Martin Luther King, Junior did in the civil rights movement. Don’t physically fight back, but don’t let your opponent win either. Bring them down with your clever action.

Then, Jesus recommends a solution to injustice in the courtroom. You see, if a poor person was sued for his garments, the law in Exodus and Deuteronomy forbid the taking of that person's last piece of clothing. Jesus advises that if a rich person sues you for your next-to-last garment, you take off your other garment in court and give it to them as well. In other words, get stark naked and require this rich suitor to experience the shame of requiring a person to have no clothes and thereby break the law. And here’s a fun factoid: it was considered more shameful to see a naked person than to be a naked person! Even without Facebook, the gossip channels would get a hold of this one and everyone would hear about how unfair the suitor had been. This would shame your greedy adversary immeasurably—as long as you had the courage to strip in court.

Jesus also talks about the carrying of soldier’s bags the “extra mile.” We’ve heard this saying, perhaps as a cliche, but do we know what it means? Again, a bit of context helps. At that time, the Roman soldiers traveled by foot and they had heavy bags (as much as 85 pounds) to carry. Because the Romans had occupied Israel, the soldiers could just grab a random person on the street and force him to carry the bag, but only for a mile. There were sign posts at each mile so soldiers knew when to relieve their bag-carrier. Well, Jesus is saying that if this injustice happens to you, do something unusual: when you get to the end of the mile, go on carrying it. Why? Because it’s nice? No. Because it is illegal for the soldier to make you do this and if his commanding officer finds out you’ve been carrying to more than a mile, it could get him in trouble. Again, you can bring down your oppressor by your clever actions. 

In each of these examples Jesus is not recommending passive response. He doesn’t say we should endure whatever humiliation or injustice an evildoer heaps upon us, nor is he recommending a violent counterattack. Jesus’ recommendation is to find a third way that demonstrates nonviolently the injustice of what is being done and seeks to right the wrong.

What does this all mean for us today? How can we heed his advise when his examples are all for the ancient context?  Can we trust that if we don’t fight back our enemy will be put to shame? Can we safely assume that we are right and our enemy is wrong? I mean what if we are the one oppressing someone and we don’t even realize it? It’s all very complicated. It’s hard to know for sure and we must wrestle with our response to it.

So here’s the part that I think is relevant no matter what: Jesus tells us: “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” He not only said this, he demonstrated it by his own actions. He was quick to love foreigners and outsiders, people who would have been considered Jesus’ dangerous enemies. He didn't deport them, he healed them. In doing so, Jesus demonstrated that God’s love is for ALL people not just people like us.  As Dr. King said: “Darkness cannot drive our darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”

It boils down to love. When in doubt, LOVE. That’s what Jesus did. Here’s where we like to whine: “But he was Jesus, he can’t possibly expect us to do the same!” Ah, but he does. Be perfect as your father in heaven is perfect. Go with the plan God has for your life. Live your true calling. Keep your end goal in mind. That’s what he’s telling us.

Living this plan for our lives is important. We like to call it our “baptismal vocation,” which means the extraordinary life to which God has called us in our baptisms. In baptism we have been set free. We are promised the unconditional love of God, forgiveness of sins and everlasting life. That’s incredible freedom. Do we really believe it? Do we live like it is true? You see, as I reflect on why we don’t always follow Jesus’ advise to love our enemies, I think it is because we’re insecure. We somehow think we have to hold on to our ego, we have to keep ourselves from looking stupid or wrong. So when someone does something awful to us, our urge is to fight back because that other person is threatening our perceived sense of security. It feels like our identity is at stake.

But let me assure you that your identity is secure. We are God’s own children, claimed in the waters of baptism and nourished at God’s table. We are salt and we are light. We’re not perfect yet but we are on our way with our end goal ever before us and the Holy Spirit filling us.

When we receive the bread and wine at communion, we know that it is more than just bread and wine. We believe that when Christ said “this is my body and this is my blood” he meant it and is somehow truly present. Saint Augustine explained that this sacrament was about identity and so when people were given the bread and wine, he would say to them “receive who you are.” Receive who you are. Yes, you are the body of Christ and so you are simply receiving who you already are. And this will strengthen you to go out there and do the many loving actions that need to be done. So Augustine would say to the people after they’d received the sacrament: “Go become what you have received.”

Turn the other cheek, give your last cloak, go the extra mile, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. Yes, Jesus wants you to do it all because that’s what being a Christian means. We cannot shrink from this huge responsibility and stay on the couch binge-watching Netflix shows. But we do not muster the will to do this on our own. We do it in the power and the identity given to through God's word and the sacraments—and therefore, we CAN do it. Our calling is enormous, our end goal is epic, but isn’t that exciting? 

Okay, the Sermon on the Mount is finally finished. Now go out there and live it!

© 2017 Laura E. Gentry

Sunday, April 10, 2016


A Sermon for the Third Sunday of Easter, Year C
Acts 9:1-20

He had a bright sparkle in his eyes, rugged skin and impressively long, dishwater blond hair that he always held in place with a bandana tied across his forehead. Scott was the proverbial hippy guy, which I thought was really, really cool given that it was the 1980s when I met him. 

I had only read about the hippies in history class and seen one once. Just once. On a ten-speed bicycle whizzing through my neighborhood, his long hair in two thin pigtails. The neighbor boy yelled: “Look! It’s a hippy!” But by the time we all ran out into the road to get a closer look, all we could see were his pigtails flying out behind him. An elusive, mythic creature.

Scott, therefore, afforded my very first opportunity to talk with an actual hippy. I was stoked. 

My best friend, Martha, had driven me in her oversized chavelle to a little, fundamentalist, store-front Christian fellowship called The Narrow Gate. While our peers were presumably out getting drunk, Martha and I spent our high school days hanging out with the hippies and assorted weirdos of The Narrow Gate. It was awesome.

I remember the first conversation I had with Scott. He’d been a major drug addict and then had gotten himself clean because of Jesus. Scott didn’t hold back any of the lurid details of what it was like to be a junkie. My innocent eyes were opened.

But then he talked about how God saved him. Literally. Saved his life. And his sparkly eyes practically popped out of his head. 

I had never heard anyone speak with such a first-hand knowledge of God. He talked like he knew God. Really knew God. The way you know your best friend. Or your mom. And he was just so happy. It seemed like he glowed. Yes, yes, I could perceive the forcefield around him. Scott was a radiantly glowing happy hippy. I didn’t know what to make of him.

Later I said to Martha: “Can we ever have that kind of faith—like Scott has? I mean, do you have to be bad to be that good?”

And Scott’s wasn’t the only conversion story. I heard lots of them down at the Narrow Gate. They always had stories.

“I was lost but now I’m found. I was blind but now I see.” I grew up singing those lines in Amazing Grace but I had never met a Lutheran who talked like that for real. It was more like: “I was Lutheran and then I was Lutheran.” What did we know about conversion? 

And, frankly, I was a bit jealous of those bad-gone-good people who seemed to get grace a whole lot more because they used to be so far away from God.

In today’s passage from Acts, we hear the conversion story of Paul. He, who had been a zealous persecutor of Christians, is dramatically struck down in a lightning storm on his way to Damascus, spoken to by the voice of Christ and blinded by the light. 

I love the painting of this story by the artist Caravaggio (pictured above). Paul is depicted—in Caravaggio’s signature theatrical lighting style—lying flat on the ground, hands in surrender to the overwhelmingly bright presence of Jesus. He’s low down on the picture plane, implying he’s fallen clear off his tall horse. And it seems like the most prevalent thing in the painting is the rear end of the horse as it stands there in the light. Maybe I’m reading into it but I get the sense that Caravaggio was giggling to himself as he painted this indicating that backside of the horse—that’s what Paul was until Jesus struck him down. 

But this incredible moment changed him. Even his name changed from Saul to Paul. He stopped killing Christians. Quit cold turkey. And became the writer of about half the New Testament, the major shaper of Christian thought, and the world’s most famous missionary.

Okay, I’ll admit it. I was a little bit jealous of Paul, too. What a conversion experience! Come on, I was a drama geek. Now that’s a conversion.  No wonder Paul was hair-on-fire-crazy to share the news of Jesus’ resurrection with the whole of the ancient world. I mean, who wouldn’t be?

But poor little me. Poor me. I never got to be bad like Persecutor Saul or like Hippy Scott in his drug days. 

My problem, I decided, was that I’d always been Lutheran. How in the world was I going to have a conversion of my own?

Paul later wrote to the Christians in Corinth: “If anyone is in Christ, they are a new creation and the former things have passed away. Behold all things have become new.” (2 Cor. 5:17)

According to Paul himself, you don’t have to have a fall-off-your-horse, hear-the-voice-of-Jesus, blinded-by-the-light encounter like he did to become new. You just have to be in Christ. That’s it. That makes you a new creation whether you were ever a hippy or not. That makes you risen with Christ. That converts you.

Do you ever reflect upon your conversion? How were you converted? 

Do you even consider yourself converted, particularly if you were raised in the faith—baptized as an infant like Jazlee-Jo and her toddler brother, Carszn will be today? How can we be converted if we have always been in Christ, even before we were aware of it?

But here’s the thing: The Holy Spirit is never done with us. There is never a moment when the Spirit looks at us and says: “Yep! Got that one finished.” and moves on. No, the Spirit doesn’t knock off at five o’clock. The Spirit never tires of the work-in-progress projects called you and me.  Always. Always. We are being reshaped into the likeness of Christ. 

Paul needed ongoing work after his big conversion. He struggled immensely, whining in his letters with things like: “I do the thing that I do not want to do but the thing I do want to do, I do not do. Horrible guy am I!” (from Romans 7:15-20) I think Paul understood that conversion is a life-long process not just one memorable moment. Even for him.

So if someone asks me about my conversion, I ask: “which one?” Now I realize that I have been being converted all along. I don’t need to be jealous of anyone else’s conversion. Martin Luther explains in the meaning of the Apostles Creed that day after day a new self should arise to live with God. I’ve had lots of conversions because every day is a new one. Every day God draws me away from my selfish ambitions, knocks me off my high horse and sets me on a different course—a course of Love. Beyond my wildest imagination. That’s what God opens my eyes to. That’s life in the risen Christ.

Paul didn’t choose his conversion. He didn’t set out to do some kind of self-help 21-day faith challenge he could post about on Twitter. He was going his own, angry way when he was struck down, blinded, and sent into Damascus like a helpless little child instead of the avenging warrior he had intended.

Christ said to him: “Go into the city, and you will be told what to do.”  That must have been terrifying for Paul because it seems he had never been told what to do—he was the one telling you what to do. Now he would be taking the marching orders. Not giving them. And from then on he did march in a new direction.

Still. Paul’s not extraordinary as he was quick to admit.  Yes, he was God’s vessel but more like a cracked pot. Throughout scripture, we see God’s many weird choices for servants. The fact is: God can use anybody. Even you. Even me. 

My friends, this isn’t about us. It is about the call to be converted to the extraordinary and altogether different way of God. It’s the call to listen and obey when God tells us what to do. And it comes to us because we are God’s children, claimed in the waters of baptism. It comes to us day after day, regardless of our worthiness—whether or not we’ve been a horse’s behind.

Even though you don’t often get this question in a Lutheran church, it is a valid one that deserves asking: How's your conversion going? How is God transforming you? How are you becoming a new creation as you are risen with Christ? 

You might want to be on the lookout for this divine action in your life. Just sayin'. Because it often happens when you least expect it. As God’s child you can be certain that the Spirit is busy each day converting you because there’s a lot of work out there to be done. And Christ is counting on you.

May you say YES to this ongoing conversion and may you sally forth into the future to do this work with courage, a joyful twinkle in your eye and perhaps even with your pigtails flying out behind you. Amen.

@2016 Laura Gentry

Sunday, January 31, 2016


A Sermon for the 4th Sunday after Epiphany

 Corinthians 13:1-13 • Luke 4:21-30

Our Epistle reading for today from I Corinthians 13 is America’s most popular wedding verse. I’m sure you’ve heard it at many a wedding. And because it is so popular, you might kind of think of it as cliche and tune out when it’s read, assuming it to be the feel-good Hallmark card of the New Testament. 

But here’s the thing: this text is not about romantic love. Sorry, happy couples, this letter wasn’t written for you. No, it was sent to the early church in Corinth, a community in conflict. What’s love about? Paul says love is actually most important when people can’t stand each other. If we want to be followers of Christ, we need to learn how to love even though it’s not the fun or easy thing to do.

Just before this passage about love begins, in verse 12:31, it says the love is “a still more excellent way.” In the Greek, this phrase has even more punch. It could be translated something like “love is beyond measuring.” In this troublesome congregation, people were busy measuring their worth against each another. It was all competition and backbiting. They wanted to one-up one another with their great spiritual gifts but Paul wants them to see that they need to move past this way of relating and into a different way, a way that is not about such measurement but instead, is a steeped in love beyond measuring. 

That’s the kind of love that ought to shape our lives together as the church. If we do great things but don’t have love, Paul proclaims, we are like a clanging gong. It’s empty. We’ve missed the point. Today’s our annual meeting. We will be looking at our church business, our budget, our various ministries. Let’s keep these words in mind as we conduct our meeting. What do our building and our budget and our missional strategies matter if we don’t have love? First and foremost, we are called to be a community that lives out the love of Christ.

Okay, okay, so we’re supposed to love but what does that look like? According to this letter, it is active. Love is the subject of 16 verbs in a row here. In English it kind of sounds passive: “Love is patient. Love is kind.” Don’t start yawning yet, though, because in the original Greek it is more like: “Love shows patience. Love acts with kindness.” See the active tense of the verbs? Throughout these phrases, love is an action-filled thing, not a warm gushy feeling that we have for people who are like us. So you see, this passage isn’t so Hallmarkish after all! It’s a very difficult teaching. Love requires a lot of us.

Then, at the end of this reading, it makes the boldest claim of all: “Love never ends.” Paul names three most important values to the church: faith, hope and love. These summarize the life of the church, which is why we chose them to be in the Our Savior's Lutheran Church mission statement: “Making Christ known by inviting all to grow in faith, hope and love.” Yet, Paul reminds us that even among these three great things, love is the greatest. Love is what will remain. We are drawn into that love which is offered by God and we are reformed into people who work together despite our difference to share that love.

It is too bad that we as a society assume love feels good because the love to which we are called rarely feels good. It’s a demanding task that is set before us. And it is not a request, it’s a mandate that we love. 

I think this talk of love is still too abstract. So let’s turn to Jesus to see more clearly what it means to love. Did you check him out in today’s Gospel lesson? There he is chilling with his own peeps in his home synagogue. This is his community, the place he was raised. He’s come back now as an adult, as a rabbi, and he’s teaching the scriptures. Jesus opens the scroll and reads to the congregation from Isaiah. They are poetical words the people would have known well. They speak of God’s promise to release, redeem and heal those who have been cast off by society. And then Jesus declares that this scripture has been fulfilled in their hearing. Wonderful! They all rejoice and think highly of their hometown boy because they think it means they are the ones who are going to get released, redeemed and healed. After all, they have been living under the oppressive Roman occupation for so long and now their time of political liberation has finally come. No wonder they are excited.

Jesus, however, doesn’t mean it this way. He goes on to clarify. No, he basically tells them, when I talk about God coming to free the oppressed and bless the poor, I’m not talking about you! I’m talking about God blessing the people you don’t like, the people you don’t want to be near, the people you are afraid of, the ones you call enemies.

Just to drive the point home, Jesus recalls a couple of familiar stories from the scripture where God gave a blessing not to Israel, but to Israel’s enemies. Then suddenly the hometown crowd is no longer happy with him. In the same way they were all initially excited about Jesus’ teaching, they are now all upset with him. Upset doesn’t capture their outrage, you see, because they turn into a lynch mob and try to kill him. This is Mary and Joseph’s boy—the village kid they’ve watched grow up—but he’s made them so mad they want him dead.

Their sudden violence is hard to understand. Why do they get so furious so fast? It’s because Jesus is redefining God’s love. It’s not just for you, he reminds them. It is for everybody. Everybody. Now Jesus brought up Israel’s enemies in the stories he told, but what if he were here today in our context and he talked about our enemies? What if he said something like: 

“American People, I know you are afraid, but your persistent desire to keep people who aren’t like you away, your disdain for the poor, the addicts, those in prison, those with a different sexual orientation, your discrimination against people of color, your attempts to keep Syrian refugees and Latin American immigrants out of your country, your hatred of Muslims, your desire to build walls instead of bridges—well that’s just wrong! That’s not God’s way. That will never be God’s way. God loves all people—even dangerous people. There are no exemptions. Listen to me: God loves all people and you have to deal with that!”

This is an offensive message, right? Can you hear the offense? It is truly outrageous! That's why it sends Jesus’ congregation into a rage and they try to throw him over the cliff of Narareth. See? Love is not a sentimental thing in the way Jesus lived it. There’s no Hallmark about it. It’s actually—dare I say it—a political thing. It calls us to take a stand, to move beyond our fear and to love in word and deed without discrimination. Do they deserve love? Doesn’t matter. Love them anyway. “Love,” as Mother Theresa used to say, “until it hurts.”

Now I have been your pastor for almost 15 years and I have been preaching this message of God’s radically inclusive love but I am going to apologize to you today. I’m afraid I haven’t preached it forcefully enough. If I had preached it like Jesus did, I bet you’d have thrown me into the river by now. That's how outrageous Jesus' message is. I’m afraid you think I’m nice. Well I’ve got news for you: I am trying to un-nice myself! As your pastor, I am called to a prophetical role. I’m bound by Christ to preach his message. When I took the vow of ordination that’s what I promised to do. So I’m standing with Christ and telling you that you’re all wrong. I am too. We do not love as we ought. We are so so discriminatory and afraid and so we only love the people we already like. That’s not love. That’s not the more excellent way. That’s just a clanging gong.

But love never fails. And that’s good news, since we’ve apparently gotten an F on the love exam. God’s love overrides our failure to love. In verse 12 of this chapter of I Corinthians, it asserts that we have already been fully known. God sees right through us and knows how much we have fallen short of our calling to love all people. The Lord knows and yet loves us anyway. That means you and I, despite our earnest attempts, are saved not by our works but by grace. We must always come back to that self-understanding that we are saved by grace. That is the only hope we have of widening our hearts. If God can love me, I can love others, I must love others.

Let us pray: O come, Holy Spirit, and fill our church anew, that we may stand together and we may courageously and actively love all people with your radical, all-inclusive, never-failing, beyond-measuring love. Amen.

© 2016 Laura Gentry