Sunday, September 30, 2018

INVITATION TO A CARING COMMUNITY


A Sermon for Pentecost 19

September 30, 2018
James 5:13-20

The book of James offers us a vision of a caring community—of people who are committed to the practice of their faith and in doing that, are committed to one another. Because of our faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ (James 2:1), it says, we put away anger, we listen, we care for the widow and orphan in distress, we act with gentleness, we treat poor and rich alike, we love our neighbor as ourselves. He covers all that and more in the first part of this letter.

Now, he moves on to describe other practices for a caring community and these include: prayer, the singing of songs of praise, being present to one another and when healing is needed, offering the laying on of hands and anointing—administered by the elders. So this is a group of people who not only believe but live it out their belief together. They look to God for healing but they realize something significant: They, themselves, are that healing presence to one another. God is always relational and so a Christian community is centered on relationship as well.

What do you lack? James writes at the start of the letter that whatever you lack, God will provide. Turn to God in prayer, trusting that God will respond “generously and ungrudgingly” (James 1:5). That confidence is now reiterated at the end of the message. He says that prayer has the power to “save” the sick, to “raise them up,” and to offer the “forgiveness of sins” (James 5:5). To pray in this way together as a caring community is powerful. If does not offer some wistful hope of the peace in the hereafter but of a praying, healing, vibrant community that transforms people right here, right now.

What do you think about prayer? How do you pray? We often think of prayer as an individual endeavor. In your quiet time alone, you pray to God. Most people I know are not confident about praying out loud anywhere. Ever. They much prefer to have the pastor pray for them. 

But that’s not how James is talking about prayer here. For him, it is not an individual thing to be done by yourself—I mean you can do it that way but it really is a communal thing. We pray together. So not only do we feel closer to God, but we feel closer to one another. We sense a deep belonging. 

Maybe that’s how it was in the first century church to whom James was writing, but that’s not very *today* is it? Today we’re an individualistic culture. Got a problem? Fix it yourself. Go buy a self-help book, try a little harder, grin and bear it, make better use of the happy face emoji. Even our social media doesn’t necessarily make us more connected to one another. It can easily become a way to showcase our individual identities and brag how many “friends” or “retweeters” we have. So instead of lifting others up by our posts, we just make them feel jealous. We, as a society, feel more alone than ever.

Let’s admit it: It’s hard for us to even imagine the kind of communal life that James is talking about. He’s not holding up an individualistic lifestyle at all. He’s not telling us we have to be awesome and get others to notice us. Instead, he’s suggesting the opposite. Want to belong? Want to be in a healing, relational community? Then be vulnerable. Be yourself. And let that true self be known. It’s an imperfect self loaded with shame, regret and self-doubt but that’s okay when you’re in a caring community. In fact, you can confess your sins to one another. Seriously? Confess your sins? That’s the last thing most of us would think about doing. It’s damn scary. But it opens the doors wide for forgiveness and unity. Keep in mind that the community to which this letter was written was one that was in conflict over class discrimination. They had many squabbles and it was hard for them to be kind to one another.  And yet, James advised that they risk being rejected and confess their sins to one another with radical openness.

And if that wasn’t enough, James told them to pray for one another and together. Why? Because it is effective and powerful. And it heals. 

Think of a time when someone prayed for you. How did it feel to know that someone, or perhaps a whole congregation, was praying for you? And now think of a time when you prayed for someone else. What was that like? Did it cause you to feel more connected to and loving towards the recipient of your prayer? Of course it did. We may not understand the mysteries of prayer and it may not always work in the magical way we want it to but we do know that prayer is social glue. It holds us together even when that seems like a miraculous thing to do.

If we take this letter seriously, it offers an important invitation to become a caring community. Like the community to which James wrote, we’re far from perfect. Perhaps you’ve been hurt by others. Maybe you don’t quite feel like you belong or that it’s safe to be your true self here.  You may well feel afraid.

That’s understandable. But think for a moment why we are here (other than the coffee). I think we’re here because we believe in God and we want help to keep that faith alive. We know that the love God has for us is limitless. In Psalm 23 it says that goodness and mercy are following us—they are actually pursuing us and will not stop because that’s how much God desire us. This love is here for us. And it is so helpful to know that we’re not alone. Right next to us in the pews are other beloved children of God who are saved by grace. God deems us all worthy and like a loving parent, wants us to get along.

If we believe this, then let’s risk living this way. Why not? Let us endeavor to love one another as God loves us. Let us sing praises of thanksgiving, let us confess our sins to one another, and let us pray for one another and with one another, trusting that the healing of God comes to us most profoundly through one another. We have the chance to be a gift to each other. A healing, marvelous gift. Open your heart and be that gift.  Open your heart and be that gift.

Later in our service, we will follow this advice from James and you’ll have the chance to come forward for prayers of healing with the laying on of hands and anointing with oil. Normally, the pastor alone says the prayer but today, we’re going to try in the ancient church way and invite our church elders (in our case it will be our church council) to join in the circle or prayer for each person. May these prayers heal us  and bring us closer together, closer to being the kind of caring community we are called to be through the boundary-breaking love of our Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

© 2018 Laura Gentry

Monday, September 10, 2018

BE OPENED

September 9, 2018
Pentecost 16, Year B
Mark 7:24-37

In last week’s gospel reading, Jesus set the Pharisees and scribes straight about their ideas of impurity, reminding them that it wasn’t about following the rules but about the heart. Now, as if to prove his point, Jesus heads off into “impure” territory across the Sea of Galilee and into the Gentile region of Tyre.

At this point in his ministry, Jesus is exhausted and looking for a bit of down time. We know this because it says he “entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice” (Mark 7:24). Even in this Gentile region people know about Jesus. Everywhere he goes people demand his healing power.

A woman approaches Jesus and not just any woman, a foreign woman. Mark doesn’t give us details about her except that she is “a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin” (Mark 7:26). This mean that by the traditional religious standards, she is impure and unclean. She’s outside the land and religion of Israel and so she’s outside the law of Moses. She’s a descendant of the ancient enemies of Israel. Furthermore, she shows up without a husband or male relative, which was the norm. And she pushes her way into a conversation with a foreign man—Jesus—at a house to which she wasn’t invited. These are all major taboos. She’s so far out of line it’s hard to explain. Oh, and her daughter is possessed by a demon. Exactly how it’s affecting her, we don’t know but demon-possession usually made people act in very anti-social ways. 

You can see, then, that this woman is an outsider. And Jesus lets her know this. When the woman falls at his feet and begs him to heal her daughter, he says, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs” (Mark 7:27). The “children” in this statement are the children of Israel and the “dogs” are everyone else, which would obviously include this woman who has just come to him begging for help.

Wait a minute! Did Jesus just call this woman a dog?

I’m afraid so. It makes it a difficult text to tackle. Preachers—at least the ones I know—really wrestle with  it. At our minister’s text study on Tuesday, a pastor showed up late and asked: “What IS our gospel lesson for Sunday?” We told her it’s the Syrophoenician woman that Jesus calls a dog. She took a deep breath, then hung her head with a long sigh. We laughed because it demonstrated how we all felt. It would have been so much easier on us if Jesus hadn’t said such thing. I mean a dog? That was a racial slur.

But why?! Why does he say it? Mark doesn’t tell us. Scholars have offered various explanations over the years. Here are a few of them:

• Jesus is testing the woman to see if she has enough faith and indeed, she passes the test with flying colors.This doesn’t seem likely because he never says it was a test and it would certainly be a mean trick to play on her if it were.

• Jesus is just super tired and grumpy.  You know, we all say things we probably shouldn’t when we’re worn out. I mean traveling around healing the world is really takes it out of you. 

• Jesus was towing the company line by quoting Jewish folk wisdom. This isn’t meant to be a put-down as much as it was religious tradition.

• Jesus is human and because it is early on in his ministry, he hasn’t quite grasped the scope of his own mission. Even the son of God can’t get a handle on the expanding kingdom he’s come to proclaim.

While we don’t know for sure what Jesus was thinking, it is clear that when approached by the Syrophoenician woman, Jesus’ immediate response is to appeal to the limits of his mission, his call to serve his own people. In Matthew’s version of this story, Jesus begins by saying, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matthew 15:24).

But back to the woman. She’s just been called a dog. What would you do if that had happened to you? I’d expect her to burst into tears and run away. Or perhaps she could get angry with him and read him the riot act for being so insensitive. Instead, she is persistent. She wants healing so desperately that she uses his metaphor against him. I’m a dog? Fine. Have it your way but Lord (and by the way, she’s the only person in the entire gospel of Mark that calls Jesus Lord). Have it your way, Lord, but even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs. She believes there is enough for everyone even if it is only crumbs. That’s how abundant God’s kingdom and God’s mercy are. 

She’s sharp. Jesus can’t argue with that. He responds: “For saying that, you may go, Jesus says. The demon has left your daughter” (Mark 7:29). Jesus can only agree that God’s love and healing power know no ethnic, political, or social boundaries. “So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone” (Mark 7:30). 

It certainly does look like the woman changed Jesus’ mind, doesn’t it? I mean what does he do next? He heads off to the region of the Decapolis, also Gentile territory with a new and expanded vision of his mission. Again, he’s met by people in search of healing. “They brought to him a deaf man who also had an impediment in his speech, and they begged him to lay his hand on him” (Mark 7:32).

Like the Syrophoenician woman, this man is an outsider. He is cut off from the world by his inability to hear and communicate with others. This time Jesus doesn’t hesitate to respond to a request. He takes the man aside, puts his fingers in the man’s ears, spits, and touches the man’s tongue, and then says “Be opened!” Immediately, the narrator tells us, “the man’s ears were opened and his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly” (Mark 7:35). This man can now communicate with those around him. Not only is he physically healed, he is also restored to his community. 

Be opened. Mark places these stories back to back for a reason. Jesus encounters  the Syrophoenician woman, then says “be opened” to the man who needs to hear. It seems to be the “be opened” is as much about Jesus’ own heart as anything else. Could it be that this unnamed Gentile woman has just opened Jesus—opened him to truly understand the ever-expanding mission God has given him? We don’t know but Mark thought it was significant enough to include in his gospel.



If Jesus can be opened, I think we can too. Where is the surprising kingdom of God, the reign of God, expanding for us today? Where is God pushing us to be more generous in sharing this abundant grace mercy? We are starting Sunday school and confirmation today. It’s a priority to nurture our children but our congregation’s mission can’t end there. Like Jesus himself, his disciples are continually called to a larger vision of mission—one that aims to embrace the outsiders and not only to embrace them but to value them and learn from them and be changed for the better.

That’s what we want from our faith, right? We want to be changed! I’m not sure that’s always true. Change is hard. It means laying down our old ideas for new ones. It’s hard to wrap our minds around things like that, even painful. This year, the ELCA Youth Gathering in which 31,000 youth and adult chaperones came together in Texas to encounter God. The theme was “This Changes Everything.” That theme was picked up by Sugar Creek Bible Camp for it’s summer programing as well. The point is that if we are followers of God, we have to prepare ourselves to change completely, to be utterly transformed by the Spirit, even if that means laying down our old prejudices and dearly held beliefs. If Jesus can change, we can too. 

We must never forget that we are all beggars at the table, and it is by grace alone that we are fed.  But it’s an amazing table, one that is larger than we can possibly imagine. May we be opened.

© 2018 Laura Gentry

Sunday, September 2, 2018

DOERS OF THE WORD


James 1:17-27

A sermon for the 15th Sunday after Pentecost, 2018

Our Epistle lesson for today comes from the book of James. We don’t get passages from James in our lectionary that often. When the bible cannon was being formed, James was nearly left out and even when it did make the cut, it was regarded with suspicion. Martin Luther, for example, would have happily banished it altogether, referring to it as the “Epistle of straw”.  As you know, he was a grace guy and this book, with it’s emphasis upon doing good seems almost anti-grace. He was worried it would confuse believers. 

Fortunately, you’re not the kind of believers who would be confused about something as important as grace so I think I can safely preach on this passage today. You know full well that your salvation comes from the grace of God in Christ and it is not your own doing at all. So don’t boast. But now that you’ve got grace, what are you supposed to do with it? Well, that’s where the book James comes in with advise for how to live. Spoiler alert: it does not advocate couch potato Christianity. It exhorts us to get up off our duffs and do God’s work.

The manuscript of this book attributes the authorship to James, the son of Zebedee but later it was traditionally held that it was James, the brother of Jesus. While the authorship is still disputed, whoever wrote it was passionate about helping the believers of the early Christian community live our their faith.

The Christian life is an ongoing journey according to this book. You don’t ever arrive but you keep on trucking, following in the footsteps of Jesus no matter how much you stumble and fall short. Mother Teresa understood this. She once wrote: “Keep in mind that our community is not composed of those who are already saints, but of those who are trying to become saints. Therefore let us be extremely patient with each other's faults and failures.”

The entire book of James is only 108 verses long and each one is dense with wisdom to help us follow Christ more faithfully. So let’s examine each of the 10 verses in today’s passage with the hope of gaining new inspiration for our journey.

Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. 
—James 1:17

Did you hear that? It says giving is a gift. Did you ever think of giving as a gift? It is. The old saying is true: it is better to give than to receive. God gives to us and all the gifts are good, so when we share this goodness with others, we are generous and God’s blessing expands. Thrivent Financial has T-shirts that say “Live Generously” and I love seeing people wearing them because that’s the advice of this verse and so many other in the bible. 

It also refers to God here as the “Father of Lights.” This refers to the lights of heaven—the sun, moon and stars—which God has created. These lights change throughout the day and the season. Now as we enter the autumn season we notice the hours of daylight diminishing. Yet God is the creator and author of all this light and, therefore, does not change, even as the shadows fall. This is a God we can rely upon and trust to supply us with all the gifts we need. That’s why we can always be generous.

In fulfillment of God’s own purpose God gave us birth by the word of truth, so that we would become a kind of first fruits of God’s creatures. 
—James 1:18

James reminds us that we have been given new birth by the “word of truth.” This refers to the good news of the Gospel. The world may give us words of discouragement, but God doesn’t. The word of truth which our Lord speaks is all positive, all good because it is about redemption through Christ.

And so with this new birth as children of God, we become the first fruits of God’s creatures. In biblical tradition, the first fruits are the first ripe sheaves of grain or the first fruits that appear on a tree. They are signs of a greater harvest that is to come. They give hope. That’s why these first fruits were offered to God to show that they trusted in God for not just these fruits, but the entire harvest. So for US to be first fruits is to be the sign of HOPE. Are you a sign of hope? Is that how you live? Do people look at you and say: “Oh the world’s going to hell but look at her! She give me hope!”

It reminds me of the abolitionist Wendell Phillips, who had the courage to fight against slavery at a time when it wasn’t the popular or accepted thing to do. Yet he found the Holy Spirit’s wisdom guiding him onward. One day, after giving an impassioned speech condemning slavery, somebody asked him, "Wendell, why are you so on fire?" 

He said: "Brother, I'm on fire because I have mountains of ice before me to melt." 

You can call the book of James ancient wisdom but I think it was never more relevant. Just take a look around and you’ll see that there are mountains of ice that need melting. There is growing hatred and injustice and despair. Yet God is here and we trust that God is love. Are you shining forth that love? Are you on fire? Do you provide the first sign of hope to people looking for a spark of light? Well, if you’re looking for something to do with the grace that is within you, this would be a good start.

You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; 
—James 1:19

This one is so straight-forward and so powerful we should commit it to memory: “be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger.”

Are you quick to listen? Most people aren’t. Here’s a bit of brain science: the average speaker says about 125 words a minute in normal conversation and our brains have the ability to comprehend 400 words a minute. Our brains are bored. They’re busy doing other things. We aren’t listening, we’re thinking of the next thing we want to say or making a to-do list or contemplating the forms.

And that doesn’t result in real communication or connection. In America today we have become especially good at not listening to each other when we have differing opinions. Yet when we listen, we begin to understand each other and walls fall down. Fear fades and enemies can even become friends. So be quick to listen and slow to speak.

If you do that, you’ll be slow to anger as well. 

For your anger does not produce God’s righteousness. 
—James 1:20

Living a life of anger will not produce God’s righteousness. Holding onto anger against people is bad for our bodies and souls. It can cause hypertension, high blood pressure, heart disease, depression and more.  As people of faith, it’s not like we’re not angry, but we should be angry at injustice and heartlessness, not people. So we need to let the Holy Spirit direct our anger to fighting evils rather than our fellow human beings. Because plain old anger just tears up our communities. And that’s not how God wants us to live.

Therefore rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls. 
—James 1:21

As with anger, we are also to let go of other wicked behaviors. In the original language the word translated here as “rid” was more like “strip”. The way you’d quickly strip off dirty clothes to go into the washing machine, you ought to strip off wickedness. Then, free of such filth, you can really welcome the implanted word. This is a wonderful image of how God’s word is given to us and dwells in our hearts, like a seed that has been planted.  It is a gift and it must be nurtured just as a plant must be watered and given light. When we focus our hearts upon God’s word, then the word within us can grow and guide us from within.

But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. 
—James 1:22

This is the poster-child of the passage. See? It made the cover our bulletins this week. James is all about action. When we believe God, it changes the way we live. We should be doers of the word.  As Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote: ”Go put your creed into your deed. What you DO speaks so loud that I cannot hear what you SAY.”

If someone didn’t know you were a Christian, could they figure it out based on your actions? Hmmm, that’s a tough question to ask yourself. James would prefer we ask if of ourselves often. Chances are we could be much better doers. Time to get to work.

For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like.  
—James 1:23-24

What if you looked into a mirror after eating lunch and saw a big glob of mustard on your nose and then walked away and said: “Hey, I forget: did I have mustard on my nose? Or was it ketchup? Maybe it was on my chin. I just can’t remember.” If you did that we’d say you were pretty stupid, wouldn’t we? 

James’ point here is that God’s word is like a mirror—it shows you who you are. So when we look at God’s word what does it say you are? In these few verses of James alone it has a lot to tell you about who you are. It says you are blessed—blessed with God’s unchangeable love and gifts. You have been given a whole new life and you are like a first fruit of creation, giving hope to everyone around you. 

Now if that’s who you are and you believe it, then you’re going to be living out that reality. You’ll be a doer of the word and not someone stumbling around in the dark forgetting their purpose.

But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act—they will be blessed in their doing.
—James 1:25

More doing. We did say James was big on action, didn’t we? Here, he talks about God’s perfect law. It is hard to follow but it brings liberty. Persevere in your efforts to follow God’s law and that will make you a doer. It will make you happy to live in God’s love.

If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless.
 —James 1:26

James has a thing against tongues and he’s often on about their danger as is the book of Proverbs. For example, in Proverbs 13:3 it says: He who guards his mouth preserves his life; he who opes wide his lips comes to ruin. Think about the cliche: Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me. What an idiotic notion! Words totally hurt.  Think for a moment about something hurtful that was said to you. How did it shape your view of yourself? Have you healed from it? Maybe it was said when you were a child but it still hurts and shames you. That’s the danger of words and that’s why followers of Christ shouldn’t just “tell it like it is.” We shouldn’t be “Midwest Nice” and gloss over our concerns, either. If we’re quick to listen, slow to speak as it advised a few verses back, I think it is possible to communicate authentically but still keep from hurting people with our words. 

Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.
—James 1:27

Here we are at the final verse of today’s lesson. James pushes us onward to compassionate action. To live in God’s love—to be doers of the word—means that we must help those most vulnerable in our society. In biblical times, it was widows and orphans. They would starve if it were not for the kindness of others. The why all the ancient prophets called on people to care for them. If we want God’s kingdom to come, we must not ignore the helpless and marginalized. Who is that today? There are a lot of groups you could identify as marginalized, as pushed to the side and not given fair justice in our system. What’s been on my heart so much lately is the immigrant children who our government separated from their parents at the border, some of whom were abused while in federal custody.

Keep yourself unstained by the world. That’s really hard to do when we hear political messaging and want to believe it. But when our primary allegiance is to God we not stand for children being caged in the name of national security. Like Wendell Phillips we’ll have the moral courage to fight against oppression. We will remained unstained by the world and on fire because we have mountains of ice before us to melt. 

—————————————

As you can see, there is a lot for us to contemplate in these ten short verses and you should probably go home and read the whole book of James. It’s only 108 verses so it won’t take you long. I pray that this book of timeless wisdom challenge us to not just say we’re Christians but to act like we are, to continue faithfully down the path of faith and really walk the walk of love. Amen. 

Sunday, June 24, 2018

HAVE YOU STILL NO FAITH?

5th Sunday after Pentecost, Year B
Mark 4:35-41
June 24, 2018

Painting by He Qi

I have always enjoyed teaching today’s gospel story of Jesus calming the storm to kids. It’s a really dramatic story and an important one. We know this because all four of the gospels include some version of it. So what is the pressing message this story is supposed to teach both children and adults?

In Mark’s account Jesus had been teaching about the kingdom of God. Then they decide to head across the Sea of Galilee to the Gentile territory—an area that no self-respecting rabbi would want to go. But Jesus wants to go and he wants to go right now. It would have made more sense to wait until morning but they don’t. Obviously, crossing over to do ministry there is urgent for Jesus. So it ways they take him just as he was without any further preparation. 

As they go a great storm materializes, which threatens to sink the boats. Now these disciples are mostly fishermen. It’s not like they don’t know storms. So if they think it’s a great one, it probably is. The original language says the disciples began to “fear with a great fear” or you could even translate it: “mega-fear”.

Have you ever been in a great storm? I have. When I was 19 I worked as a camp counselor at a Lutheran camp on the shores of Lake Vermilion in northern Minnesota. We would take our campers out on the lake in big Northern Canoes. It was always a challenge, mostly to keep the campers motivated to keep paddling and to do so in cooperation with the others (you know, not whacking each other with the paddles). One day, as we were returning from an overnight trip, a huge storm blew in and immediately our canoe was threatened by giant waves. Our boat was taking on an alarming amount of water. I panicked and started strategizing how I could possibly get the all kids to swim to shore if the boat sank. I imagined how I could possibly explain to my boss how I’d lost the massive canoe at the bottom of the lake. No matter how I played out the scenarios in my head, it didn’t look good.  Oh, I played it cool but I was totally freaking out like the disciples, overcome by mega-fear.

But as the leader, I was working like crazy trying to steer the canoe in the best possible way and motivate the adolescents to paddle harder. That’s not how Jesus behaved in his storm. It says that he was asleep. Asleep! Can you believe that? Mark adds the odd little detail that he was asleep on a cushion. I wasn’t even aware boats in biblical days had cushions. Crate and Barrel hadn’t yet been invented but there’s Jesus sleeping on a cushion. Isn’t this the perfect picture of his calm? He’s not seized by mega-fear. He’s not giving up hope. He’s comfortably catching some Z’s. 

The disciples wake up Jesus. They don’t politely say: “Oh Jesus, we’re really sorry to rouse you from your cushion nap but there’s a mega-storm brewing and the guys and I were just wondering if you could, you know, kindly save us from certain death.”

No, that’s not how it goes. They immediately accuse him of negligence, saying: “Don’t you care that we are perishing?” I think they actually shout it. That’s how I always have kids act it out when we are exploring this story in bible study. They shout it at the top of their lungs and it’s really fun: “Don’t you care that we are perishing!?” You know it’s fun for all ages to really enter the story. Let’s try it together right. Shout it with utmost commitment. Ready? “Don’t you care that we are perishing!?”

I don’t know about you but I say that to Jesus all the time. Don’t get me wrong. I have faith—I know he’s in the boat with me—but he seems too comfortable on the cushion. When storms hit, it seems like there is not enough divine support to get us through.

Right now our nation is in the midst of a great storm. Refugee children are being cruelly traumatized by being taken from their parents at the border and detained in unsafe circumstances. How has our country become such a heartless place? This is a moral crisis. As ELCA presiding Bishop said in her statement: “Even with the new executive order, there is no provision for reuniting children already separated from their families, nor for children whose parents have already been deported. The executive order also allows for the possibility of future family separations.”

How can we stop this human tragedy and the many other injustices in our country and around the world? Our boats are taking on water in the storm and we fear with a great fear. We feel powerless like the disciples, even angry with Jesus for not rescuing us.

Saint Augustine said life throws you some terrible storms—you are tossed about by the wind and waves, your heart takes a battering and you feel shipwrecked. “Why is this?”  he wrote, “Because Christ is asleep in you. What do I mean? I mean you have forgotten his presence. Rouse him, then; remember him, let him keep watch within you, pay heed to him.”

When the disciples wake up Jesus, what does he do? He calms the storm. He overpowers it in he same way he casts out unclean spirits by commanding: “Peace, be still.” And it is. It’s not just calm, it’s a great calm, a mega-calm that takes over the tumultuous sea.

The fact that Jesus can do this just makes the disciples more afraid. They are wracked with mega-fear, perhaps even more fear than they had in the storm. That’s wwhy Jesus says to them: “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?”

“Who is this guy?” the disciples wonder, “Even the wind and sea obey him!” Are they playing with fire to be hanging out with a person that has more power than nature itself?

And this is where the passage ends. It’s disturbing, isn’t it? If the disciples—who had all the advantages of hanging out with Jesus and had been given the power to cast out demons—can’t overcome their fear, how in the world can we? We live in a world gone mad with fear and we rightly have our own fear but Jesus says to us: “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?”

These are important questions for us to consider. Why are we afraid? Well, we know why we are afraid in this violent and uncertain world, but we don’t we have faith? Faith is what gives us the power to face our fears, to speak truth to power, to stand up against injustice like little children being torn from their mother’s arms in the name of “zero tolerance” immigration policy in our own country. Faith makes the impossible possible, just like the tiny mustard seed that turns into a mighty bush in which birds of the air can find safety. Jesus wants us to understand that we can live in faith because he lives in us. We are never alone. Our boat may be battered but Christ is in here with us.

All scripture has the power to call us to repentance. Perhaps the thing this story reminds us is that we’ve allowed Christ to fall asleep within us. We’ve forgotten that his power is strong enough to tame the threatening waves, to cross borders and bring love and healing to all. The Spirit of God resides within each one of us. If we say we cannot do the work of the Kingdom of God, we’re deceiving ourselves. Christ is with us. We need to wake him up.

And once the sleeping Christ awakens, our eyes and our hearts open as well to the possibilities that might occur if the inclusive, border-crossing love of Christ is set free to touch the lives of people. 

The preacher Frederick Buechner has said:
"Christ sleeps in the deepest selves of all of us, and whatever we do in whatever time we have left, wherever we go, may we in whatever way we can call on him as the fishermen did in their boat to come awake within us and to give us courage, to give us hope, to show us, each one, our way.  May he be with us especially when the winds go mad and the waves run wild, as they will for all of us before we're done, so that even in their midst we may find peace...we may find Christ.”

This is what the world needs now. I pray that the presence of Christ will be so alive and awake in our hearts that we cannot hold it in, that we will have the strength to speak God’s truth and carry it out into the world so that love will be the thing that triumphs. Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?

© Laura Gentry 2018


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