A Block On The Way

Sunday, September 30, 2018
Good Shepherd Lutheran Church
Mark 9:38-50 & Numbers 11:4-29

 

Our faith as Christians is not an individual endeavor, but one that is done in community. That’s why we all gather this morning to praise and worship God. We come together to hear God’s word for this journey of faith that we are on together as the body of Christ. Lutherans believe that God’s word is both law and gospel; it convicts us of those things for which we need to repent, and promises us God’s grace to begin anew. We start out as individuals, but through our baptism we are united with the entire Christian community around the world. Yet, we don’t always remember that. It’s easy to fall into the temptation of believing it’s only about us individually, or as an individual congregation, or even a select group. If left unchecked, God’s mission is quickly replaced by the congregation’s mission, or an individual’s mission or goal. It’s not something that happens just today, but since humans first started interacting with one another. Our Scripture readings from both the Old and New Testaments give us two such accounts.

In the reading from the book of Numbers we hear about Eldad and Medad, two men in the camp who unlike the other elders still prophesied through the gift of the Holy Spirit. Right away Joshua told Moses to stop them. Instead, Moses replied, “Would that all the LORD’s people were prophets, and that the LORD would put his spirit on them!” God called Moses to care for the people of Israel, yet after a while it was too much for Moses to do all on his one. So when Moses prayed, God heard him and seventy elders were filled with God’s Holy Spirit for a particular situation. Yet Eldad and Medad were still prophesying God’s word to the people. Instead of being thankful, Moses called them out for being jealous.

Moses wasn’t the only one. When John told Jesus that he and the other disciples saw someone casting out demons in Jesus’ name and said they tried to stop that person, Jesus also replied not to stop him. Jesus then went even further than Moses in calling them out. He said not to be a stumbling block to those on The Way, to those who believed. He even exaggerated to the point of saying if your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off.  If your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off. If your eye causes you to stumble, cut it out.  Harsh words for sure. No one could ever accuse Jesus of being subtle, but he had no time to waste. He had to get them to cut it out, to cut that kind of thinking out of their minds and out of their hearts. He didn’t want them to lose sight of the mission – God’s mission – not theirs.

Instead of a stumbling block, Jesus wanted them – and us – to be a source of healing – a healing block, of salt to be precise. Salt is pretty significant in the ancient Mediterranean society where Jesus lived. It was a precious commodity. Living so close to the Dead Sea put them in touch with a great supply of it. The Dead Sea has a salinity of 33.7 per cent, which is almost 10 times saltier than ordinary seawater. Salt was used to flavor food and preserve it. It was used for medicinal purposed. It was used as “salary” because Roman soldiers were often paid in salt rations. It was that important. And salt was used to seal covenants with God and one another. Lev. 2:13 says, “You shall not omit from your grain offerings the salt of the covenant with your God; with all your offerings you shall offer salt.” Salt therefore was a purifying agent and made things clean and holy. Salt sealed covenants. It was life-giving.

Today you can buy block of salt to cook on to improve the flavor of food. Salt reduces bitterness. It helps bread to rise. It’s a critical ingredient in ice cream. And salt has medicinal implications as well. Himalayan salt rocks give off positive ions in the air to improve emotional health and breathing. More and more studies are finding that a diet that is too low in salt is almost worse than a high salt diet. Salt allows the nerves in our body to send and receive electrical impulses. It makes our brain work. It supports every cell in our bodies and is needed for the healthy functioning of our heart, for strong muscles, for absorption of critical minerals. Salt is essential for life.

When Jesus says to have salt in ourselves it’s a serious matter because what Jesus is saying is that we have within us what is essential for life. We have within us what it is that seals covenants. We have within us the gift of the Holy Spirit. We were sealed with that covenant from God in our baptism not for ourselves, but for the good of the whole people of God. Our journey of faith is not an individual one. We are called to carry the burdens of our neighbors, to really listen to each other, to believe them when they are hurting, to ease their pain if possible, and to lift them up not tear them down. Our journey of faith is not a race individually to the top, but a collective journey to grow and love along the way. God gave us all different gifts and by being our authentic selves we best show the wideness and vastness of God’s love and mercy.

Are we a stumbling block in the way of someone’s journey of faith, or are we a block of healing in The Way, following Jesus? May the God of grace and glory grant us wisdom and courage. And may the love and light of Christ will flow through each of us as freely as salt, and the mercy and compassion of Christ flavor the lives of each person we encounter. “Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.” Amen.

Advertisements

A Question For Peace

Sunday, September 23, 2018
Good Shepherd Lutheran Church
Mark 9:30-37 & James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a

 

“I’m afraid to ask.” We’ve all said it at one time or another. “I’m afraid to ask.” And at that moment we are. It happens with children at school. They don’t understand what’s being discussed, but they don’t want to ask the question because everyone will know they don’t know the answer. They’re afraid the other kids will look at them. Maybe they’ll make fun of them or laugh. And so giving in to their fears, they don’t ask. They stay lost because they are afraid to ask. Adults are no different. So often adults are afraid to talk about our Christian beliefs or theology. Individuals might be afraid to join in a Bible Study because they don’t know all the answers – as if that is even possible. So they don’t go. They don’t speak up. They’re afraid to ask out of fear.

And our fears go beyond lacking knowledge about something. Maybe we’ve had a particular ache or pain, but rather than go to the doctor we keep putting it off because what if the news is as bad as we fear? We’re afraid to find out. And so we don’t take care of ourselves, and we don’t ask. It’s common – human in fact – to avoid those things we fear. Fear is a natural and necessary safety mechanism to alert us to danger, but we can’t let it rule our lives. If something has the potential to hurt us the typical reaction is to avoid it at all costs. In today’s Scripture reading we hear how the disciples ran into just this situation. Jesus told them several times that he was going to be betrayed, tortured, and killed. The disciples heard it – over and over – but they didn’t understand why it had to happen. They were afraid. They didn’t know exactly what that meant for Jesus or for them. They were afraid of what was really going to happen to Jesus. And they were afraid of what implications being a follower of Jesus had for them. Rather than open themselves up to being vulnerable and asking Jesus to explain it further, they didn’t say anything. And that always causes problems.

They allowed their fears to control their actions. They didn’t understand and so they fought. They argued over who was the greatest, who was the best, who had all the answers….but their arguing was because they allowed their fear to be their focus rather than on trying to understand the truth. It’s easier to give in to fear, rather than trying to understand. Fear does that. It distorts the truth and turns it into something often far worse than reality. Allowing fear to guide us leads us to a very dark place where one fear leads to another and soon we find ourselves hiding in fear instead of truly living. We constantly are waiting for the other shoe to drop. Wondering what terrible thing is going to happen next. Worrying that our situation will never get better. Losing sleep because we can’t figure out what to do next. Fear can drive us mad if we let it. It drives us away from each other and God.

That’s why in last week’s Gospel text Jesus called Peter, Satan. Because it wasn’t Peter that was talking at that moment; it was Fear. Fear was causing Peter to go against God’s will. Fear was urging Peter to get Jesus to save his own life rather than save the lives of everyone in the world. Fear was telling Peter to get Jesus to turn away from God’s will and play it safe. Fear was causing Peter to behave in ways that he wouldn’t normally do. Just like the text this week where the disciples are arguing over insignificant things rather than receiving the words of grace that Jesus was offering to them. Jesus was telling the disciples that he would die, but that he would also rise again. But they couldn’t hear that promise because they were so focused on their fear.

What promises from God are we not hearing or are we not experiencing because we are focusing on fear and worry. Fear is ramped in our country right now. Individuals and groups are giving in to their fears rather than trying to understand one another. As a whole people are not communicating with each other. Instead of listening, they’re only thinking of their next sentence. Yet, if don’t allow fear to control our thoughts and actions, we can all come to a better understanding of each other and open a space for new creative possibilities to arise. All people are God’s Beloved Children – not just the people like us – but all the people of the world. And the Holy Spirit speaks through all of us. As the writer of James points out, “We don’t have because we don’t ask.” We aren’t asking and focusing on God’s mission. We don’t have peace because we haven’t opened ourselves up to really listen to each other and hear God’s response.

Jesus is offering us the promise of resurrection – not just in the afterlife, but right now. Life is at times filled with sorrow and tragedy, pain and death. God never promised that our life here on earth would be easy, but Jesus came to show us that God is always with us. We have the assurance of that. Jesus modeled through us that through our baptism we have the assurance of eternal life that begins right now. So why are we letting fear instead of faith rule our lives?

If we want peace in the world, we must begin with peace in our hearts. We must be willing to name our fears, listen with open hearts, and ask the important questions for the sake of the gospel and for peace. Peace requires hard work. Through open and honest communication, our fears are diminished and we can move forward with faith. Fear leads to dead ends, but faith leads to resurrection.

A story from the Native American tradition illustrates this very well. A Native American elder was talking to her grandchildren about life. She said to them. A constant struggle is going on inside me. It’s a terrible fight between two wolves. One wolf is angry, selfish, greedy, and manipulative. The other wolf is kind, compassionate and wise. The children thought about this, then one asked the grandmother, “Which wolf is winning?” The grandmother replied simply, “The one I feed. The one I feed will win.”  What will you feed the most – Fear or Faith? May the Holy Spirit give us the wisdom to choose the way of faith, kindness, compassion, and peace. Amen.

Who Are You?

Sunday, September 16, 2018
Good Shepherd Lutheran Church
Mark 8:27-38

Did someone you know ever do or say something so unexpected that you just turned to them and said, “Who are you?” You thought you knew them so well and their response just seemed unbelievable. Maybe it was your children, or your spouse, or your best friend and you just felt at that moment that you didn’t even know who they were! That is the situation both Peter and Jesus found themselves in on that day in Caesarea Philippi.

Caesarea Philippi is a place of breathtaking beauty. Located 25 miles north of the Sea of Galilee it sits at the base of Mount Hermon, which rises over 9000 feet between modern day Syria and Lebanon. The seasonal snowfalls in winter and spring, feed the many large springs that eventually flow freely into the Jordan River.It’s a place of beauty, but also one that in the time of Jesus was the center of diverse religious temples and pagan rituals. The springs and the mountain today are still contested by the nations of that area for the use of the water. So amid the backdrop of beauty mixed with conflict we get to overhear Jesus ask his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” It was fitting question to ask among the various other gods that were worshipped there. And given the recent confrontations with the Pharisees, it was important for Jesus to know just what people were saying. So the disciples said, “John the Baptist, others Elijah, and still others one of the prophets.” But Jesus had been with these disciples for a long time now – day in and day out – and he wanted to know what they thought. “But who do you say that I am?” he asked them.

Peter answered, “You are the Messiah.” You would have expected Jesus to be overjoyed at this profession of faith by Peter, but instead Jesus tells the disciples not to tell anyone. That’s an unexpected response until we delve deeper into the text because Jesus knew that Peter’s idea of a Messiah was different than what Jesus was really all about. Peter, the disciples, and most of the people who heard Jesus’ message wanted an earthly Messiah. They wanted a powerful ruler, who would overthrow the Roman Empire with force and take control. They wanted a Messiah who would end all the years of cruelty and fear due to the Roman occupation. They wanted a Messiah who would save them from ridicule, rejection, pain, and suffering. Peter and the other disciples were going to follow Jesus to a glorious celebration, a grand victory where they would no longer feel like losers. That’s the Messiah they thought they were following.

So when Jesus said he must undergo great suffering, rejection and be killed they were shocked. This was not where they thought this journey was headed! When Peter took Jesus aside, he must have had quite a conversation with him. I’m sure he told Jesus to snap out of it, calm down, wait a minute… This is not the person I have come to know as the Messiah. I’m sure he looked at him and said, “Who are you? What are you talking about? We are not going to let anything happen to you. Sure, you’ve upset a lot of people by your radical ways of teaching and your miracles, but death on a cross? Tortured and publically humiliated like a common political criminal? Absolutely not! We’re not going to let that happen! We’ll fight to the death to protect you Jesus!” And I’m sure Peter expected to hear Jesus say, “You’re right, Peter. I don’t know what I was thinking. I’m just tired, worried and not thinking clearly.”

But instead………“Get behind me Satan!” I can assure you, Peter didn’t see that coming. Satan? Peter left his former full-time occupation as a fisherman behind to follow Jesus.
Peter was with Jesus 24/7 traveling from village to village sometimes without a warm welcome. They were friends. What kind of friend calls you Satan?…A friend who is compelled to speak the truth in love. A friend who had to set the record straight. Peter may have asked Jesus, “Who are you?” but now Jesus is really asking Peter the same question, “Who are you, Peter? I thought you knew me. I thought you understood by now what my mission was? I thought you were my disciple, my follower. Who are you?” Jesus was the Messiah, but not the Messiah they were looking for. Jesus was following the will of God and the consequences of that would result in suffering and death.

Suffering, however is not always redemptive. Ask any group of people who have ever been oppressed and they will tell you their suffering was not redemptive. Ask anyone who has suffered a medical illness or lives with an incurable disease and they will tell you their suffering is not redemptive. Talk with someone who cries day after day, year after year to have their affliction of poverty, abuse, – whatever it may be – taken away from them and they will tell you their suffering is not redemptive.

But Jesus’ suffering was redemptive. God took the evil that was meant to destroy Jesus and transformed it. Evil thought it would bring everything and everyone down, but God raised Jesus up. And God through Christ raises us up too. Jesus is with us in our suffering. He is with us in our pain. He is with us when all seems hopeless. Jesus is our hope. He is our Messiah- not the kind that will rescue us from all trouble, but who will bring us through it.

The question Jesus asked then is the same question he asks all of us. “Who do you say that I am? Do we believe Jesus is a messiah who will do whatever we want? Or is Jesus The Messiah who shows us who God is? How we answer that determines who we are as followers of Christ.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu once asked, “If being Christian became a crime, would there be enough evidence to convict us?” It’s a challenging question because the life of a Christian is counter-cultural. Like ancient Caesarea Philippi, we are surrounded by a myriad of other gods who try and lure us away from the one true God. The voices of deception urge us to retaliate when we are hurt, but Jesus says we must love all our neighbors. The voices of narcissism try and deceive us to put ourselves first, but Jesus modeled for us that we are to care for others in a self-sacrificial way. Our culture needs to see the true Messiah and we need to be Christ’s hands and feet, his voice and his face in this world.

Who are we? We are followers of the Messiah. Sealed with the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever. Through our baptism we know who we are and whose we are. As a community of believers, who transformed by the body and blood of Christ, become the body of Christ in the world. What if our church is the only body of Christ that someone will ever encounter? The answer to Jesus’ question “Who am I?” must be evident not only in our professions of faith, but in our actions. Amen.

 

Be Opened

Sunday, September 9, 2018
Good Shepherd Lutheran Church
Mark 7:24-37

Last week the focus of the scripture readings was on listening. In order to be doers of God’s word, we first need to listen to God. I spoke about how God’s word can be discovered through the scriptures, through various signs, and through each other. The Holy Spirit’s voice can speak to us through other people. In fact, Mark begins his gospel with the voice of John the Baptist crying out in the wilderness to “prepare the way of the Lord.” At Jesus’ baptism in Mark’s gospel when the Spirit descends on him, the voice of God speaks from the heavens. “You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.” That same Spirit drove Jesus into the wilderness as though he himself was possessed only not by a demon, but by the Holy Spirit.

In today’s excerpt from Mark’s gospel that same Holy Spirit led Jesus to Tyre, a relatively wealthy area north of Galilee. It was Gentile territory where those who were not Jews and who were not followers of Jesus lived. Jesus wasn’t planning on preaching to the Gentiles there. In fact, he had already stated that he felt his mission was to the Jews. But one encounter, one woman, changed all that. She changed the course of history that day and no one even knows her name. Mark only refers to her as the Syrophoenician woman. Yet what she said and did that day will never be forgotten.

That Syrophoenician woman pushed her way through the crowd into the private house where Jesus and the disciples were staying in and begged Jesus to heal her daughter. She spoke up despite the fact that women at that time dared not speak directly to a man without first being asked. She spoke up despite the shock from the crowd. The Syrophoenicians were called dogs. It wasn’t a good term. Just like the derogatory terms that are used for different ethnic groups today. It’s easy to justify labeling people with derogatory names when that’s the accepted norm of society or when you feel they’ve hurt you or someone you care about in some way or another.

And shockingly, when this woman approached Jesus he identified her as a dog too. Every time I read this passage it’s hard for me to understand why. Why would Jesus call her that? He was always defending the outcasts. Was he just saying that to open the original disciples and our ears a little, and get us to listen to how it sounds when we call people by derogatory names? Was he saying it because she was a part of a group of people who were wealthier than the rest, and she was asking for something to be taken away from those who had less? Or…. was Jesus momentarily tempted like he was in the wilderness, this time to go along with the norms of that time regarding the Gentiles? Was he actually being tempted to believe that God’s mission was only for the house of Israel? If he was being tempted, the Holy Spirit provided a way out through the voice of the Syrophoenician woman herself.

Jesus said, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” He felt God’s mission was for the chosen people of Israel, and they came first. But the unnamed woman really listened to Jesus, and she got Jesus to listen to her through her persistence. Her daughter’s life was at stake and that meant putting herself out there and risking it all for the sake of love.

We’ve all been there. We know what it feels like when someone we love is suffering.
We’re willing to do whatever we have to in order to try and help them. Like this woman, we’d beg if we knew it would help. And this woman was no different from any of us, except that she had a lot to risk. She knew her status in society. She knew she was an outcast in the eyes of the Jews, but the prospect of losing her daughter was worse than anything anyone could say or do to her. And so she opened herself up to the possibility of losing even her own life if it meant saving the life of the person she loved. She opened herself up for the sake of someone else. And when that happens, the Holy Spirit is present. It opened up a space for the Holy Spirit to speak – through this outcast – and tell everyone – including Jesus – that God’s plan of salvation and healing is not just for a certain group, but for everyone – even those we think don’t deserve it.

The Holy Spirit spoke through this woman and Jesus listened, and hearts were opened that day. Jesus’ own heart was opened up by the encounter with the Syrophoenician woman, and as a result he opened up the ears of the man who was deaf and had a speech impediment. After that man could hear, he then could speak of God’s grace.  We are all able to speak the words of God’s healing love when we allow ourselves to be opened up by the Spirit of God too. This story shows us the power of speaking up for others, for persisting, and for listening. Jesus lived his life in response to God’s mission. And through his own humanity he showed us how we need to constantly be listening for direction from the Holy Spirit to open our hearts.

That’s what the Holy Spirit does. The Holy Spirit opens up the hearts of those who are willing to listen to God’s word and then everything changes. It gives us a way out of temptation. It changes our prejudices to compassion. It moves us from fear to courage.  It transforms our doubt to faith. It changes our very lives and brings healing not only to ourselves but others if we are willing to listen and open our hearts.

People are still begging for crumbs today – crumbs of compassion, crumbs of justice, crumbs of hope, crumbs of love, crumbs of peace. This story shows us how easy it is as humans to be tempted to comply with the unjust systems we live in. We can become so accustomed to societal norms that we don’t even realize we are a part of an unjust system. Yet, this story also shows us that God always provides a way out. God can always open hearts by empowering us through the Holy Spirit to speak the truth, to speak up for others, to persist in seeking justice, and to truly listen and allow ourselves to be opened up to new possibilities that God is calling into being.

As we leave here today, may we all listen like Jesus to hear the voice of God through each other in order to bring healing and peace to those around us. May we listen so we can truly do God’s Work through Our Hands each and every day. Amen.

Listening For God’s Word

Sunday, Sept. 2, 2018
Good Shepherd Lutheran Church
Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21 -23
James 1:17-27 & Deut. 4:1-2, 6-9

 

“Listen to me, all of you, and understand.” These words spoken by Jesus centuries ago, are meant for us today as well, perhaps even more so. Listening today is becoming rarer as in this ever increasing age of technology people are constantly surrounded by the noise of cell phones, televisions, traffic, loudspeakers, endless advertising, and endless noise. There’s hardly a moment of just pure silence. People have become so accustomed to noise that they don’t even know what to do with the silence. After about 30 seconds many people start fidgeting. The wheels begin turning in their minds, and they quickly start thinking about anything to get rid of the discomfort of silence.

That’s what silence has become – a nuisance, something to be avoided at all costs. Ever since I was little I would go to sleep with the sound of a fan to lull me to sleep, and as an adult that practice continued. The sound was comforting. Total silence was disturbing, until I spent a year on the plains of North Dakota on seminary internship. It was there that I experienced in that rural setting the beautiful sound of silence. Eventually, the silence allowed me to hear what I had been missing.  The sound of the wind, the chirping of the crickets, the echoes of a distant animal, the sound of my own breathing.

Our avoidance of silence has caused us to lose touch with ourselves, and with our Creator. Listening is more than just hearing, it’s understanding. That is what Jesus tried to teach us. “Listen to me,” he said, “and understand.” Listening goes deeper than simply hearing the sound of something – whether it is a thing or a living creature. Listening opens our heart and enables us to really grasp what is actually happening. It keeps us focused on the present moment. Listening is hard work though, but it’s worth it because it creates a space for something new to be born. Ideas, solutions, inventions, and possibilities all begin to grow in the soil of listening.

How many arguments, conflicts, and wars would end if we listened especially to one another? If instead of planning our next words, what if we simply listened first to what the other person was saying, and really let ourselves be opened to their point of view? We don’t have to always agree with one another in order to listen. Yet, through listening we can be opened a new understanding.

This is what James is addressing in his letter when he says we must “be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves.” God commands us – yes, a law –to “care for orphans and widows.” God commands us to love. Yet, in order to be doers of God’s commandments we have to truly listen to God’s word first. God’s word comes to us in many ways. It comes to us through scripture, through worship, through music, through signs all around us, and through conversations with each other – including people, and perhaps most especially with people we don’t always agree with. We hear God’s word through the concerns and cries of those around us.  How can we do God’s will and care for the needs of others if we don’t even know what those needs are? How can we mend relationships if we don’t even take the time to listen to what is in their heart?

There’s a real connection between listening and the heart. Medical research has recently discovered a link between hearing loss and the health of the heart. They have found that the blood vessels of the inner ear need an oxygen rich nutrient supply and if it doesn’t get it due to cardiovascular health problems, hearing can be affected. In fact, they say that the “ear may be the window to the heart.” And hearts can become hardened, not by what we put in, but by what we allow to fester than is already inside – anger, hatred, resentment, and so many other negatives emotions growing out of control. When Jesus says that “it is from within” that all our sinfulness resides rather than what is on the outside, he is calling us out to look into our own hearts for the problems we are often so quick to blame on external circumstances and people. Jesus is telling us to go deeper than what we hear and see, and listen to our own motives, listen to what God is calling us to do and be, listen to the concerns of others and we will renew our own hearts. And in the process healing and connection with each other can take place.

“Let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger, for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness.” What does produce God’s righteousness- God’s justice and mercy – is an open heart, a forgiving heart, a compassionate heart, a loving heart. Listening has the power to heal. God wants to feed the world physically and spiritually, to heal the world, to bring peace to the world. When we open our hearts and truly listen to God and one another amazing things can happen. May the Holy Spirit open our ears and our hearts that we may be doers of God’s word. Amen.