Sunday, March 11, 2018

DAY OF REJOICING

A SERMON FOR THE 4TH SUNDAY IN LENT
MARCH 11, 2018



Numbers 21:4-9
John 3:14-21
Today is the fourth Sunday in Lent. The ancient church gave this day a name: Laetare (lay-TAR-ee). It comes from the Latin word “rejoice.” Here we are in the middle of Lent—a church season so somber we don’t even get to sing the Alleluia verse—and yet today is Laetare, the day of rejoicing. In the early church the prayers for this day all began with the word “rejoice”. Now this may seem odd but the happiness was about the fact that we’ve passed the halfway point now so Easter is closer than Ash Wednesday! Woo hoo! The resurrection is almost here! That’s why today’s scripture lessons are filled with joy. 

Or are they? They don’t necessarily seem like it. But I assure you, they were chosen to support the rejoicing theme for Laetare. So let’s explore them to uncover what truths therein might just cause us to rejoice.

We start out with a bizarre story from Numbers. What’s your favorite Old Testament story? You could probably name quite a few and my guess is that this one isn’t among them. It certainly wouldn’t make your top ten list. Maybe not even your top thousand. But here it is. 

It happens in the midst of the Exodus. The Hebrew people have been liberated from slavery and they’re on their way to the sweet freedom of the Promised Land. But let’s be honest: after years in the dusty desert the road trip has kind of lost its fun. They’re like little kids in the back seat whining: “Are we there yet?” They get mad at Moses and cry to him: “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? There is no food and no water, and besides we hate this food.” Wait. How can the food be bad? I thought you said you didn’t have any. I guess manna doesn’t count as food because it’s so gross to them at this point. In any case, they are grouchy about the whole situation (and we can hardly blame them—I don’t think any of us would tolerate a 40-year road trip on foot). Then along comes a herd of serpents or whatever it is you call a whole bunch of snakes that bite and kill people. The text calls them seraphim snakes but could also be translated: “fiery monster snakes.” Yikes! The people assume the arrival of these horror-movie-style serpents is God’s punishment for their complaining.  

Divine wrath and savage snakes with big, pointy teeth? Um…this doesn’t sound like a rejoicing story. The people of God don’t think it does either so they beg for help and guess what? There is mercy for them. God tells Moses to make a bronze snake—just like the ones biting them—mount it high up on a pole and carry it through the camp telling people who have been bit to look up at it. Add sculptor to Moses’ job description because he follows this instructive and sure enough, when the bitten look at it, they are healed. A great grace is given to the grumblers. It offers us a glimpse of God’s mercy. Cause for rejoicing? Yes! Still, it’s a snake story so you can see why it never gained the popularity of other Old Testament narratives.

Then, in the gospel lesson from John, we come in on the middle of a midnight conversation Jesus is having with a religious leader named Nicodemus. Jesus is trying to get through to this man that God is offering a new covenant through him. He says, “And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” See? He is making reference to the Exodus story we just heard. In the same way that God provided miraculous healing for the people through the snake sculpture, God is now providing healing from the burden of sin through Jesus who will be soon lifted up on the cross to pour out his life for all people.

Then, comes John 3:16, the verse that everyone knows. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” It is known as the “gospel in a nutshell”. Millions have memorized it, most misunderstand it. Have you noticed how often it is used to exclude or condemn people for not properly believing in Jesus? Once I saw the Rolling Stones in concert and one of the protesters outside the stadium was holding a sign that had John 3:16 on it. Seriously? I’m going to perish because I came to see the Stones?

But this verse is not about condemnation. It’s quite the opposite. Listen to what Jesus says next: “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” 

John wants us to contemplate the power of what Jesus did on the cross. In this self-sacrificial act he offers God’s redemptive love to the whole world.  This is grace in its most obvious form. And when we lift this message up, it is so incredible that it draws people in—not because of guilt but because of genuine love. 

Love is the theme that dominates John’s entire gospel. We hear that God is love (1 Jn. 4:8), that the relationship between Jesus and his Father is love (Jn. 15:9-10; 17:23), and that the nature of discipleship is love (Jn. 13:34-35; 15:12-14). 

Like the serpent lifted up by Moses, the love of God in Christ is healing. Even more that that: it saves. That is why they call John 3:16 the gospel in a nutshell: For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.

Saving love. Offered to everyone. Okay, maybe that is cause for rejoicing.

Nicodemus doesn’t quite know how to react to this message. He’s still metaphorically in darkness. His people—the religious authorities—are concerned about Jesus and his bold reinterpretations of their teachings. That’s presumably why he’s had to sneak off and have this conversation with Jesus at night. Now Jesus tells him he must be born again and live a whole new life of love. That’s an overwhelming request. It takes Nicodemus a while to come around and embrace that challenge.

What about you and me? How do we respond to the challenge? How do we let go of our old lives, our old priorities and be born anew in Christ? How do we really live in that loving way—not just believing in Jesus but continuing his work?

As I contemplated this question, I was offered a burst of inspiration. On Thursday, Luther College hosted a distinguished lecturer named Daryl Davis. A musician and author, Daryl has formed lasting friendships with a large number of people in the Ku Klux Klan. This might not sound so amazing if you didn’t know that Daryl is black. That’s right: a black man had the courage to talk with people who wanted to kill him. Not only that, he formed such transformative relationships with them that over 200 of them have renounced their old lives in the hate group and literally handed over their Klan robes to Daryl. His collection of them continues to grow and he’s proud of them because each one symbolizes a life changed. 


William Gentry, Daryl Davis, Laura Gentry

William and I went to Daryl’s lecture and were riveted by his simple message. He explained to the crowd that he’s no psychologist or anyone with special training in human nature. He’s just a musician with a curiosity. He wanted to understand these Klans-people even though they were dangerous and hated him. And by engaging in dialogue with his enemies without defensiveness or judgement, he's been able to change them. You could say that they have been born again.

It seems to me that’s exactly what Jesus is calling us to do here. What should we to do with the grace given to us? Like John the Baptist, we are to bear witness to the light. With our very presence we are to be Good News for all people.

Today is Laetare—a day of rejoicing. How will you respond to this message of joy? Maybe you don’t want to do anything. You just want to head straight to brunch and forget all about this difficult challenge you’ve been offered. And that’s understandable. Brunch is good. 

On the other hand, you might want to consider what it would be like to take the call seriously. You. Out there sharing God’s love with people. You. Crossing bridges to connect with people you might even consider enemies because you are different races or you have different ideologies or political views. You. Being the vehicle of God’s healing grace. Wouldn’t that be the makings of “eternal life” here on earth?

I think it’d be pretty cool. It’s not impossible. Daryl Davis says if he can build bridges with the Klan then all human connections are possible. With simple acts of kindness and deep listening, friendships can develop that transform people and transform the world. Just contemplating this opportunity should cause our hearts to rejoice.

You want to really celebrate Laetare? Then I’ll give you a special challenge. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is this: Sometime this week, forge a new connection with someone who is different than you are. If you want to go for the top level challenge to get extra credit points find a person who hates you and talk with them. Seek to understand them. Inch your way into an actual friendship. That’s what discipleship is all about and you’ve got the grace to do it. Go shine your light. Amen.




© 2018  Laura E. Gentry


Wednesday, March 7, 2018

EXPANDING GOD'S PRESENCE

A sermon for the 3rd Sunday in Lent, year B
John 2:13-22

Today we have John’s version of Jesus cleansing the temple. He braids a whip out of cords and dramatically drives the money-changers out along with all the livestock in the courtyard. Calling it a “cleansing” is a bit of an understatement, don’t you think? Jesus shut down the whole operation by his actions. No wonder the people were upset with him and demanded to know by what authority he had done this.

Before we get to that question, however, let’s start with the question of why? Why would Jesus do this, and right at the start of his ministry in John’s gospel  (unlike the other 3 gospels, which place it at the end of his ministry)? Does Jesus need to enroll in an anger management class or does he have a legitimate reason for acting out in this way?

Perhaps you’ve been taught that he did it to protest the inequity and corruption that had developed in the temple. I mean the temple authorities were really fleecing the poor with the temple tax that had to be paid in special temple coins and the exchange fee nearly doubled the cost. On top of that the sacrificial animals available for sale—certified blemish-free to meet the demands of the law—were ridiculously over-priced. Such corrupt practices in the name of religion don’t sit well with Jesus—at least according to Matthew, Mark and Luke where he quotes the prophet Jeremiah by saying these scoundrels have made the temple a “den of robbers.”

In John’s gospel, however, this conflict has a different focus. Here he’s creating a stir that’s not unlike a performance art piece. That’s why the onlookers remember the prophesy about the coming Messiah whose zeal for God’s house would consume him and they say: Yep. Must be this guy. He’s got zeal.

Jesus completely shuts down the commerce in the temple. It’s a big deal. Then he says: “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up.”

Now they are totally confused. Destroy this temple? Is he out of his mind?!

Let’s take a quick history break here to brush up on the back story of the temple. God’s people *loved* the temple. They wanted it for so many years. They had longed for a holy place to meet God on Mount Zion where their sacred ark could reside. Finally, the great King Solomon got it built—declaring it a house of prayer for all people. Its glory was unparelleled. In Psalm 46 we hear these words about the temple: “God is in her; she shall surely not be moved.” They thought it would abide forever, like God.

When the Babylonians conquered Judah in 587 BC, they destroyed the temple and sent the important leaders off to live in exile in Babylonia. Their hopes were cut off. How could such a thing happen? Had God abandoned them? Was this the end?

Then half a century later Babylon’s power was broken by the Persian empire and incredibly, the Jews were allowed to return to Jerusalem and re-build their temple. It took 46 years to do it but they finally got it done. It was humbler than the first one but even more important to them because it was a symbol of God’s presence with them. It became the center of religious life and the remnants of the ancient nation would come there over and over as pilgrims. At the Passover festival there would have been as many as two and a quarter million people.
End of history break. Back to our gospel scene. When Jesus says, “Destroy this temple,” you can practically imagine their heads exploding. Destroy it? What are you talking about? Don’t you know how valuable this temple is to us?! This is our holy place. God lives here.

Then Jesus gets even more weird: “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up." What? First of all, they are thinking, we don’t want you destroying our precious temple and second of all, you could never raise it up in three days. It has taken forty six years to rebuild! 

But Jesus wasn’t talking about the temple building. “He was speaking of the temple of his body” the narrator of the gospel tells us. And he did so with divine authority.

God’s people clung their temple, their holy place where divine connection could be forged. They came from all over the region to gladly pay their temple tax and to offer animal sacrifices at festivals and special times in their lives like the birth of a baby.

Throughout John’s gospel, we see that Jesus’ body is the new “holy place”. At the beginning we read that “the word became flesh and lived among us.” In the incarnation of Jesus, God came to dwell with us as one of us. He embodied “grace upon grace”. It was no longer exclusively on Mount Zion that God lived, but in the person of Jesus. That is how the people could come to encounter God and receive mercy. And that was all very confusing to the people in the temple that day, especially since Jesus was new on the scene and even his disciples were unsure of what it meant until after his resurrection.

I suspect this whole history lesson is a bit removed from your life. What do we have in common with these ancient people? Why is it relevent to us? Well, like them, we are still concerned about where to meet God. 

In Celtic spirituality there is the notion of “thin places,” those places and experiences where it feels like the distance between our finite world and God’s infinite presence collapses and becomes very thin. Now that Jesus has come to unleash God’s presence in the world, to expand it beyond the temple walls in Jerusalem and to make it available to all people everywhere, it seems to me that the thin places, the holy places, are more abundant than we may realize. They could be absolutely anywhere! 

Where are your thin places? Where do you directly encounter God’s holiness? Maybe it’s here at church in our beautiful, historic sanctuary. It is certainly in the symbols of our faith, like the cross. We can encounter holiness in the reading and preaching of scripture, in the hymnody and other music, in the water, the wine and the bread of the sacraments. But of course, you meet God in places outside church as well. Most people profess to experiencing the divine in nature and in deep connections with loved ones. Perhaps you have had moments of “thin places” just walking down the street with an awareness of God’s gracious love for you.

Jesus showed us that God’s presence was in his body and in his life, death and resurrection. His body was the temple. Zeal for God’s house wasn’t about the temple in Jerusalem but about his bodily presence with us, opening up the way we connect with God. Then Jesus sent the Holy Spirit to fill the bodies of his followers and so we believe God is in our bodies as well. We are temples. Wherever we are, there is God. 


You might even argue that since God is everywhere at every moment you don’t need to both er coming to church. And if you did make the argument, it would be valid but I wouldn’t like it.

I would argue back that though Jesus has come into the world to expand God’s presence, we still need to be reminded so that we can more fully live into that reality. We still need comfort, strength, hope and direction. We need training to discern God’s constant presence in our everyday lives. We don’t technically need a church building but we are the church. We are the body of Christ as a community. We need to build one another up so that we can continue the work of our Savior.

That’s why we invite others to church. We want others to have the opportunity to experience the grace upon grace given to us in the risen Christ and available always. And in this way, we can also be about the work of expanding God's presence in the world. As we journey through Lent, may we search for such opportunities.

Sunday, February 25, 2018

TAKE UP YOUR CROSS & FOLLOW

A SERMON FOR THE 2ND SUNDAY IN LENT, YEAR B

BY LAURA GENTRY

MARK 8:31-38

Peter was an awesome disciple. That’s why he was called the Rock—and no, he was not a pro-wrestler. Jesus called him that because of his rock-solid faith. 

Like the other disciples, Peter had left his old life behind to follow Jesus and now, after working alongside this amazing teacher, he had a revelation. 

“Why do you say that I am?” Jesus asks him. 

“You are the Messiah,” he says.

Obviously, Peter was a faith rock-star. Pun intended. But maybe not. There was something Peter wasn’t getting. He thought back to words of the prophets who foretold the coming of the Messiah who would deliver them. In this line of thinking, the Messiah would be like the great King Solomon. Only better. He would come in power and flex his political muscle and send those foreign occupiers packing.

Yes, it will be fabulous, Peter was probably thinking. And when Jesus usurps Rome and is put on the throne, well, I’ll probably get to be Chief of Staff or some other high office. I am his right-hand man, after all. I’m his Rock. I ought to be wealthy and powerful when all this goes down. God rewards faithfulness, right?

There are a lot of preachers out there who say: Yes! Yes, of course! If you are a Christian—if you love Jesus—then you will be healthy, wealthy and beautiful. You’ll always smell nice. Divine providence will rain riches upon you and your family. 
This theology is popular these days. It’s known as “Prosperity Gospel” and it sounds great, doesn’t it? Who doesn’t want an easy life with, you know, lots of toys? And it makes sense: if God is God of all and God loves us, then we should have everything we want.

This kind of thinking was also popular 500 years ago and Martin Luther found it extremely disturbing. He called it a “theology of glory.” It declared that God works through things and people that are powerful. If things are going well for you it must be a sign that God is with you. So if you’re suffering or weak or poor—well, you must be doing something wrong. But then along comes Jesus and he’s all of that: he’s so weak and powerless that he’s put through the incomprehensible suffering and the shame of death on a cross. So, Luther concluded, this must mean that contrary to popular thought, God works through weakness. God isn’t punishing the suffering for some alleged wrong-woing. No, in fact God is most profoundly with the suffering. In the midst of our brokenness God is with us and is working to call us back to life. This is what Luther called the “theology of the cross.”

Hmm, maybe Luther got it wrong. Weakness, shame and death. Doesn’t sound all that fun. That’s certainly where Peter was coming from. In today’s Gospel text from Mark, Jesus tells his disciples quite openly that he must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elites of the faith: the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. 

That’s stupid! At least according to Peter, so he speaks up and tells Jesus not to talk like that. The text says he rebukes him. It could be translated: “Shut up!” Peter’s that vehement in his opposition to Jesus’ plan of suffering and death. Shut up, Jesus! Don’t do it. You’re supposed to be the triumphant king, not die like a shameful criminal. I won’t stand for it.

Then Jesus lashes back at him with even more force. “Get behind me, Satan!” he says, “For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” 

Satan? Yikes! This is forceful language but Jesus doesn’t mean in a name-calling way. He’s addressing Peter as “tempter” because he’s tempting Jesus to turn away from the path of humility, shame and death and go after worldly glory instead. This had to be tempting even for the Son of God. Peter is very devilish in this regard. He’s setting his mind on human things and trying to throw off the entire divine plan. Jesus won’t stand for it.

As if exasperated that his own rock-solid disciple has missed the point, Jesus calls the crowd together to teach them. Maybe they’ll get it this time. They need to hear it (and we do, too). Here’s what he lays on them: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?”

Mark Twain once wrote: “It ain’t those parts of the Bible that I can’t understand that bother me, it’s the parts that I do understand.” This here is one of those passages that bother us because it’s so clear: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”

Or is it? What exactly does Jesus mean when he asks us—his followers—to deny ourselves, take up our cross and follow him?

It certainly isn’t a get-rich-quick scheme or a magic ticket to the easy life as the prosperity preachers would tell you it is. It is a call to complete devotion. It asks us to give up our selfish pursuits and follow Christ. And I believe that’s what we’re all trying earnestly to do. But how!? How do we do it today in our hurting world?

Well, we could look at how Jesus did it. His first century world was different from ours but it was hurting, too. People were oppressed, crushed and crying out for deliverance. God could have looked at all that suffering and decided to keep it at arms-length. You know, it’s too awful. But instead, God decided to enter the world and walk with—suffer with—those broken people all the way to the cross, even though Peter begged him not to.  Isn’t that incredible? I can never quite wrap my head around it.

We all suffer. The older we get, the longer our list of suffering—loved ones die, spouses leave, health declines, disappointments and failures accumulate. We hate to think about how vulnerable we are but indeed, suffering is a pretty constant companion on the road of life.

Take up your cross and follow Jesus. Maybe that means first admitting we suffer. Like Christ, we have our crosses to bear. At times we are broken in two by them. 

A friend of mine, whose child died, recently posted this quote by Leonard Cohen: “I greet you from the other side of sorrow and despair with a love so vast and shattered it will reach you everywhere.” I was touched by it because it reminded me that when we are broken, there is the opportunity for our shattered hearts to expand with love. We’ve suffered, so now we can empathize with other people who suffer. Despite the pain—actually because of the pain—our compassion can grow. 


This is what Jesus did. He suffered and in doing so, he suffers with each one of us. He proves to us that God gets it. God is there in not just in our happy moments but in our weakness and hurt. And we are called to do the same. 

Take up your cross and follow Jesus. Maybe that means entering into the suffering of others rather than pushing it away. We can make space in our hearts and our schedules for those who are suffering. We can listen to and believe the victims of abuse, we can allow grievers to grieve as long as they need to, we can look at discrimination and understand how the system is rigged against some people rather than blaming them for their situation, we can get outraged when we discover injustice, and this can stir us to action to advocate on behalf of our brothers and sisters in pain.

When Jesus was telling his disciples about what he must undergo, he got to the part about being killed but did you notice, he didn’t stop there? He went on to say that after three days he would rise again. I wonder if Peter even listened to that part. Maybe if he had, he wouldn’t have objected. Jesus suffered and died, yes, but that wasn’t the end of the story. God raised him to new life and in doing so, promises us the same. The cross, you see, leads into suffering and death but ultimately it leads to resurrection.

Take up your cross and follow Jesus. Maybe that means setting our sights on the risen life. The world might offer comfort and power but Christ offers risen life both now and in the world to come. But you have to deny yourself, take up your cross and follow him. You have to suffer yourself and with others. You have to serve instead of seeking priviledge. You have to love instead of hate. And this may seem like it’s such hard work that you’re giving up your whole life but surprizingly, Jesus says the opposite will happen: “those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.” It sounds counterintuitive but the selfless way is the best way. It will save your life.

I’m sorry to break it to you, but I’m not a prosperity preacher. I just stick to the Bible so I’m gonna give it to you straight: following Jesus is hard work. Don’t even bother if you’re not for real.  We are called to follow Christ—to completely, wildly, passionately, and recklessly give over our lives. We are asked to take up our cross and follow Jesus: to give up pursuit of wordly power, to embrace our weakness and suffering, to enter into the suffering of others and let it expand our hearts that we may be and transformed into new people, risen people who love God and are eager to go wherever the Spirit leads. This Lenten journey reminds us that’s what it’s all about. Now get out there and follow Jesus.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

OUR TIME IN THE WILDERNESS

A Sermon for The first Sunday in Lent
Mark 1:9-15
February 18, 2018 

Every First Sunday in Lent, we encounter the story of Jesus being tempted in the wilderness. This year, we read it from Mark’s Gospel. Now you may be familiar with Luke’s version of this temptation story, or Matthew’s. These are longer narratives which set up Satan offering Jesus three different temptations and Jesus giving wise, scripture-based answers to each question, thus thwarting the tricky tempter.

Mark’s version is much shorter. It begins with Jesus’ baptism. The Holy Spirit—uncontrollably urgent to get to Jesus—tears the heavens apart and descends upon him. This is a classic image from scripture signifying divine disclosure. Then God says to him “You are my beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

But there’s no time for a baptismal reception or even a moment to bask in the beauty of sacred affirmation. In keeping with the Spirit’s pressing agenda, Jesus is immediately driven into the wilderness to be tempted for 40 days. 

It’s not a leisurely drive. This is no Sunday afternoon in the minivan. The Greek word here is “ekballo.” I don’t normally quote Greek because unless you’re fluent it doesn’t really matter but this is my favorite Greek word. Not only does it sound funny—ekballo—but it carries a tremendous intensity. It literally means “to throw out.” It is the same word used when Jesus casts demons out of people. It implies a reckless sort of flinging. That’s what the Spirit of God does to Jesus right after his baptism. He doesn’t get to relax and enjoy his blessing. He’s kicked out—catapulted right into the depths of the wilderness.

Why would the Spirit do such a thing? The wilderness of the Middle East is the desert—a desolate and dangerous place. But remember that the desert wilderness is the very place God called Moses and led the people of Israel through on their way to the Promised Land. Far from being a bad place, the desert wilderness is a holy place of divine deliverance in the biblical story.

Still, it’s not fun. I don’t even think Jesus would sign up for it. Nevertheless, the Spirit of God has hurled him out here and he must undergo arduous testing. We don’t know the details of this testing but Mark’s does give us two interesting tidbits (they both show that Jesus was not alone): he was with the wild beasts and that the angels waited on him. 

This reference to the wild beasts in the wilderness is curious. It says he was “with” them and that suggests they were not eating him, which is always good when you’re among dangerous beasts. Years earlier, the prophet Isaiah had written God’s words: “Behold, I am about to do a new thing...I will make a way in the wilderness...and wild animals will honor me.” (Isaiah 43:19-20) Mark probably wrote the wild beast part as proof that Jesus is the fulfillment of this ancient prophesy.

Then the angels waited on him. You can almost imagine an angel standing there in the desert with a notepad and pencil saying, “Okay Jesus, do you want fries with that?” Joking aside, this shows that even the Son with whom God is pleased—the one whose birth was heralded by angels—needs help in times of trial.  And God provides what he needs. The angels carry him through this trying wilderness experience. They keep him strong as he wrestles with temptation.

Clearly, the baptism story and the temptation story go together. There would be no surviving the wilderness if Jesus had not first been filled with the Holy Spirit. In fact, it is because of his baptismal blessing that he is driven—ekballowed into the wilderness—where he not only survives but becomes focused, refined by fire and ready for his public ministry.

And that story is connected as well, for you see as soon as Jesus emerges from the wilderness he declares that the reign of God has come near. The time is now! The dawn of a new age, when God’s mighty power will put all that is wrong in the world right. That’s what Jesus has been called to do and his whole ministry, death and resurrection will revolve around this. 

Baptism, testing and calling. These three are knit tightly together in Jesus’ life as they are in our own.

And here we are in the midst of our 40-day journey through the season of Lent with that same life-giving Spirit driving us. Has it thrown you out into the wilderness? Are you overwhelmed by temptations?

I think one of the temptations is to think that God isn’t present or powerful enough. As you know on Ash Wednesday—the start of our Lenten season—there was a school shooting in Florida in which 17 young students lost their lives. So many kids on such a holy day. It reminds us again of what a violent country we have become, how many innocent lives are lost. And though we can all agree this is tragic, we haven’t figured out how to come together to address the issue, to stop all the killing. This leaves us with the sense that we're helpless. We may feel like Jesus—out in the wilderness struggling with evil.

Because of our baptism we know, however, that we are not alone. We are filled with the Holy Spirit. We may be in the the wilderness but we are we are not alone. We may even find angels waiting on us. Don’t think of angels as the  cute winged figurines you find in the Christian book store. The biblical definition of angels is messengers of God. Do you know any of those? Have they helped you along your way? Perhaps you’ve been an angel to someone else.

Just last Sunday, a member of William’s congregation said, “I see a lot of hurt among the high school-age boys around here. They’re really struggling and they need a safe place where they can just talk. I think we need to start a group for them.” And he got to work forming the group. That was several days before the Florida shooting and yet he could see the need and acted on his urge to help. He used to be one of those hurting boys and now as an adult, he’s gone through more than his fair share of suffering. More than most people, this man knows how important it is for people to have a support group.

That’s just one example of how a desert experience can empower someone to find their calling and move forward in their ministry. Maybe it would actually be easy to change the world if just a few more people allowed the Spirit to drive them to find up local solutions like this.

Another way we may discern our calling is to advocate on behalf of people in need. Pushing for sensible gun law, for example—ones that don’t curtail hunting but save lives. This takes moral courage. It’s so much easier to be silent and not rock the boat. The Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who was instrumental in setting up the Truth and Reconcilliation Commission in post-apartheid South Africa says: “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutality.”

Maybe the church has been too neutral. Too nice. Too afraid to take a stand for fear of offending someone. Our time in the wilderness can help us struggle to figure out what needs to be done, to discern where the brazen Holy Spirit is flinging us and give us the strength to do it. I encourage you to struggle with these questions, especially in this season of Lent, which is a season of repentence. How are we being shaped by our time in the wilderness to turn around and go in a new, more faithful direction? We have been baptized, we are being tested and we must continue to find our calling.



May God bless our journey.  Amen.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

DEMANDING MERCY

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

A PENTECOST ANNIVERSARY CELEBRATION

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.