Sunday, March 19, 2017

BORDER-CROSSING LOVE

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

YOUR TRUE CALLING



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

HOW'S YOUR CONVERSION GOING?

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

AN OUTRAGEOUS SERMON ABOUT LOVE

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

Sunday, November 1, 2015

TEARS

A Sermon for All Saints Day
November 1, 2015


John 11:1-45

Today, on All Saint’s Day, we have lit candles in these luminaries to remember those loved ones who have gone before us. And while it is beautiful to have the sanctuary bathed in such soft light, it is also a sad reminder that they are gone from this world.

It’s hard to remember the dead—at least the ones closest to us—with dry eyes. My mom’s been gone over six years now and it’s still difficult for me to talk about her without crying (unless it is just a superficial reference). When I talk about what she means to me and how difficult life is without her, I weep.

The death of a loved one is too devastating to describe. Just because we’ve lit these candles doesn’t sentimentalize our grief. It doesn’t mean we’re okay with our losses. As Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote: “Sorrow makes us all children again—destroys all differences of intellect. The wisest know nothing.”

So before we dive into the Gospel story of Lazarus and Mary and Martha, let’s just admit how much our grief is with us. There are very real voids in our lives.

I think this helps us understand where Mary and Martha are coming from. Their brother has died. Grief has swallowed them up just as we become swallowed up in our grief. Why didn’t Jesus come right away and save their dear brother from death? Now, he shows up after Lazarus is four days dead and doesn’t even apologize. Keep in mind this is no ordinary friend. They knew Jesus could have done something to prevent this death. But he didn’t. He didn’t.

At funerals and visitations, the bereaved are usually very polite. They say things like: “Thank you for coming. I appreciate your condolences. Please sign the guest book.” 

Not Mary. No. She goes right for the juggler:  “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not be dead!” 

Seriously? She says this to her Lord? Where does she get such audacity,  especially in a patriarchal culture where women did not question men? But haven’t we cried out to God in our own pain? Haven’t we said basically the same thing? “God, we prayed so much, we are such faithful people, and yet you didn’t spare us from this loss! How you could have let my loved one die?” I’ve known many people who stop coming to church after the death of a family member. They allege that God has forsaken them. It certainly feels that way.

After receiving this harsh criticism from Mary, Jesus sees the grief of Mary and Martha and all those gathered for the funeral. There are tears and wails as they all grieve for their dear Lazarus. 

In the NRSV translation of verse 33, it says: “Jesus was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved.” And while this communicates intense emotion, the original Greek verbs has even more intensity. The first verb is associated with anger. Jesus doesn’t just have a disturbed feeling, he’s angry. Passionately angry. And the second verb is about being stirred up on the inside. It is the same word used to describe stirring of water to disturb its stillness. So this word expresses the internal, emotional disturbance that stirs a person up, sometimes even causing physical sickness. This is an apt description of grief, is it not? Many people can’t even eat for a few days after a loved one dies.

Then in the shortest verse of the Bible, verse 35, Jesus weeps. Jesus has the very same reaction that the mourners do—he weeps real tears. He’s angry and he’s disturbed—so stirred up in his heart that he cries aloud.

This is curious, isn’t it? If Jesus is the Son of God, then he knows that his friend will be resurrected. It is like knowing the end of the movie. So what’s going on? Why is he moved to tears? Probably for the same reason we are when we grieve. Despite our ardent theological convictions that there is life after life, death still stings. When we love someone deeply and we lose them, it cuts deeply.

Of course the incarnate God felt pain upon the death of his friend Lazarus. This seems to demonstrate that death even grieves God. Because Jesus cannot stand this death one moment longer, he calls upon Lazarus. He shouts: “Come out!” And just like that death is dead for Lazarus. He comes back to life despite the fact that his sister objects because he’s been dead so long he stinks (or as it says in the King James Version: “He stinketh!”). Indeed, that smelly corpse became alive again.

The first visitation I ever went to was for Mrs. Zurcher, a family friend. I was probably six. I had never seen a body in a casket before and I remember studying her chest from my chair at the visitation. I was absolutely certain I could see it rise and fall like the chest of a living person. I concocted an elaborate fantasy that she was going suddenly sit up and ask us to dry our tears, assuring us that she wasn’t really dead. It sure would have been nice for Jesus to have shown up and told Mrs. Zurcher to “Come out!” But he didn’t. She stayed dead, as have all the other bodies I’ve seen in caskets since.

Yet despite the brutal stench of death, which we know all too well, Jesus comes to us through faith and proclaims to this day: 

“I am the resurrection and the life. 
Those who believe in me, 
even though they die, 
will live.”

This story from John’s Gospel is a more than a miracle. It is a sign that helps us see through our tears that Jesus is the Christ. He is the resurrection. And he comes to call us back to life—both now and at the time of our own deaths. 


And this is why we must rejoice today, no matter how deep our grief may be. Death stinketh, yes, but these saints we remember are not really gone. We miss them and Jesus weeps with us in our pain. But we believe they will be resurrected. Like Mary, we believe it. And so we can look forward to the glorious day when we shall be reunited with all the saints before the throne of God, a resplendent place where, at last, our tears will be wiped away.

Let me close with a poem called We Remember Them from The Gates of Prayer, a Judaism prayer book.

In the rising of the sun and its going down, 
we remember them.
In the blowing of the wind 
and in the chill of winter, 
we remember them.
In the opening buds and 
in the warmth of summer, 
we remember them.
In the rustling of leaves 
and in the beauty of autumn, 
we remember them.
In the beginning of the year and when it ends, we remember them.
When we are weary and in need of strength, we remember them.
When we are lost and sick at heart, 
we remember them.
When we have joys we yearn to share, 
we remember them.
For as long as we live, 
they too shall live
For they are now a part of us
as we remember them.

© 2015 Laura Gentry

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

A SERMON ABOUT DIVORCE

A Sermon for 19th Sunday after Pentecost

Preached on October 4 at Our Savior's Lutheran Church

 Mark 10:2-16


Divorce. Doesn’t that sound like the topic of a great sermon? I’ll admit it, I was tempted to avoid this Gospel reading and preach, instead, on Psalm 8 about God’s splendid creation and perhaps even talk about super-moon lunar eclipse we had last Sunday and how that show’s God’s handiwork.

I mean, why would I want to talk about divorce? I don’t think there is a person here whose life hasn’t been affected by divorce—whether it is your own divorce or that of your parents, children, siblings, or friends. The possibility that I could offend you with whatever I say about divorce is strong.

However, challenges are good and this text from Mark is, indeed, challenging. I think it is a good idea to wrestle with texts that are hard to understand or hard to accept or both.The hope is that perhaps we’ll find some new, helpful insight. It takes more more effort but then isn’t the possibility of enriching our faith worth it? 

In today’s text Jesus is responding to another trap laid by the religious authorities. As we struggle with Jesus' surprisingly hard words about divorce and remarriage, let's keep in mind the context. In the passage right before it (Mark 9:38-50) Jesus said we should be cutting off our hand or foot, or tearing out our eye, if it makes us "stumble." And in the passage right after it, the rich man asks Jesus if he’s done everything necessary to inherit the kingdom of God and Jesus shocks him by telling him to sell everything he’s got and give it to the poor. I mean, come on! Jesus is talking really tough in this section of Mark. Who can be saved?

Now the crowds have gathered and the religious leaders try to set Jesus up with a trick question. His answer, one way or the other, is going to offend someone.  That’s why it’s a set up. Although it seems that divorce itself was a given, there were teachers who allowed it under more conditions than others did. We have to go back to Deuteronomy 24:1-4 to understand where the Pharisees are coming from when they ask Jesus whether it's lawful for a man to divorce his wife. When he asks them what Moses said, he’s asking them to cite the law. They get this so they quote from Deuteronomy. But why would they ask Jesus if they already know what the law says and can quote it? It seems that they’re looking for Jesus’ interpretation of the Law and isn’t interpretation the whole thing? And the very thing that has people arguing about religion back then as we do today. How do we interpret scripture?

If we read the Deuteronomy text, we're immediately struck by the difference between the patriarchal culture of the ancient Middle East and the one we live in today, where women are no longer considered property and rarely if ever referred to as “defiled" and it's not acceptable for a man simply to get rid of a wife if he finds something objectionable about her (Deuteronomy 24:1-2). That seems pretty unfair, doesn’t it? The man could divorce his wife for any reason at all. “Honey, the dinner doesn’t taste good. Let’s divorce!” Can you imagine that kind of culture?

Jesus acknowledges that the Mosaic Law permitted divorce, but only because of the "hardness of heart" of the people. But he then puts Scripture in conversation with Scripture, holding up the ideal of God's intention for partnership as expressed in Genesis—two people in faithful, lifelong, intimate relationship that should not be severed.

In this patriarchal Jewish society where husbands  had all the power and they alone had the prerogative of divorcing their wives, a prohibition of divorce, it seems, is about safeguarding the disadvantaged person. Marriages were business deals. It was never about choosing a spouse based on romance like modern marriages. No, marriages then were about making a political and financial affiliation. So if a man were to find a better deal later on, like a women with bigger tracks of land, he could just divorce the first wife and move on to the next. But what of the first wife? She would be left out in the cold with no opportunity to make her own living and little chance of remarriage since she’d been defiled. It was practically like leaving her for dead. 

Now that was legal according to Jewish law at the time but Jesus brings a higher consideration. What about the vulnerable one? Divorce is not an abstract action—real people are hurt. 

Marriage today and marriage in ancient society can hardly be compared because they are so different. But we still have the same word to describe when the marriage ends: divorce. So it is tempting to take this teaching of Jesus at face value and say that Jesus prohibits divorce. All divorce. Now and evermore. It’s clear because you can quote this verse from the Gospel. So if you are in a second or third marriage, you are committing adultery and should be shamed by the church. And this has been done for a long time.  

There is often a lot of pain after a divorce. I’ve seen it and I’m sure you have too. So the church heaping more stigma onto the divorced person doesn’t seem to be consistent with Jesus’ loving message of grace, does it?

If Jesus is so concerned about the vulnerable people and how we should not victimize them, then would he really endorse the shaming of people whose marriages have ended for one reason or another? And wouldn’t he be pleased, for example, if a victim of domestic abuse got out of a destructive relationship for her own safety? And wouldn’t he be happy for the person who had languished in a loveless marriage to have found love the second time around? All good questions to explore in a Bible study. A little more difficult to preach.

With biblical interpretation we tend to like to cherry pick which teachings we want to uphold literally and which ones we don’t. As I mentioned, this passage about divorce falls between the one about cutting off your limbs to prevent sin and giving away every single thing you have to follow Jesus. So unless you’ve done all of those things properly, you probably don’t have any business judging someone who has divorced. 

But with all these impossibly hard demands Jesus brings forth, what’s a person to do? I guess we’ll have to recognize we cannot fulfill the law’s demands on our own and we’ll have to reach out for the help of grace. God alone can save us. It is passages like these that help us get the humility to accept such grace.



Which leads us to the second part of this passage. At first, it may seem disconnected from the first, when Jesus once again uses children as an illustration of how to receive the reign of God. We remember that only a few verses earlier Jesus urged his disciples to become the servant of all, and to receive even little children, who had no standing in the world, as they would receive him (Mark 9:36-37).

In this week's story, we can imagine parents bringing their children for a blessing. Like women, children in this society did not have power or status but clearly these parents love their children and want them blessed anyway. Since kids were involved, there may have been a lot of hullabaloo 
like recess. Maybe that was grating on the disciples nerves or maybe they were just grumpy after all that talk about divorce. For whatever reason, they spoke sternly to the kids. That's when Jesus enlightens them once more. It seems like they needed that a lot. Here the "lowly" children receive God's reign as the unearned, "pure gift" of God's grace, while grown-ups don’t seem to get it so easily.

So what’s my point? I don’t really know if I know, other than I’ve tackled a really tricky text in a sermon and that it probably brings up more questions than answers. There is a lot going on in this text.  Among other things, it seems Jesus was trying to help us understand our need to care for the vulnerable. And he was trying to help us see ourselves as vulnerable—like children—in need of God’s unconditional love and grace. And I hope that my treatment of this passage has helped you see how important but also how difficult biblical interpretation can be. 

I always laugh at the book of Jonah because it ends so abruptly. Do you know what the last line of that book is? “And also many cattle.” Since I can’t quite find the exact words to end this sermon, I will triumphantly end it like Jonah. “And also many cattle.”  Amen.