Sunday, September 25, 2016

September 25, 2016 -

Luke 16:19-31

So last week’s assigned Gospel reading was very critical of the way we handle money for our own gain, and Jesus told us, “Make friends of yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.” Which, I think, is Jesus being sarcastic, since nobody can welcome us into the eternal home but God. Those wealth-motivated friends don’t have the power to welcome us into the kingdom of God, so I think Jesus is saying, Go ahead and do what you need to get by in this world but don’t think it will do you any good in the next. 

Today we have the story of Lazarus and the rich man, another critique of wealth. The Gospel of Luke is, you may have noticed by now, concerned about wealth inequity. Each Gospel has it’s own particular thing to say about Jesus - Matthew emphasizes Jesus’ connection to Israel, John emphasizes Jesus’ relationship with God going back to the beginning of time. The person who wrote Luke followed very much in the footsteps of the prophets of ancient Israel, like Amos and Hosea and Isaiah. These prophets, old and new, believed that nothing upset God more than to see the rich flouting their riches while the poor suffered and starved. God had given to everyone enough to live a good life, but some were taking more than their fair share with the result that others had less. The prophets had the same complaints as much of today’s poor and middle classes: the rich get richer and the rest of us get poorer. And in the gospel of Luke, Jesus came to tell us that God is extraordinarily unhappy with this situation. If you’re very rich and you’re not sharing, the story of Lazarus is bad news, and serves as a stern warning. If you’re very poor, it’s good news, and Lazarus is the hope for a better life after death.

But the problem with preaching this text today, to you, is that none of us here is particularly wealthy or particularly poor. Yes, we could talk about the riches of the First World on a global scale and how our consumption contributes to the staggering poverty of others in the world, but I already did that not so long ago. So how can we understand this text in a way that makes sense for us today?
Well, if we take the idea that God gives us enough of everything, but some of us try hoarding these gifts in order to keep it all for ourselves, we find ourselves challenged when we look at this story on a spiritual level. In other words, what if the point Jesus is making doesn’t have anything to do with food or material wealth, but has to do with access to God and entrance into God’s kingdom? What if it’s not about the riches of food, but about the riches of righteousness that we’ve received? You see, the audience for Jesus’ story is a group of religiously-observant folks. Jesus is talking to both his disciples and to the Pharisees. (And I have to stop and make a point here that the Pharisees were never, ever Jesus’ enemies, despite centuries of church teaching to the contrary. Jesus actually has much more in common with the Pharisees as far as their understanding of God than he does with any of the other Jewish sects that existed in his time.) Anyway, Jesus is talking to people who feel, for one reason or another, privileged in their access to God. They feel that they have the inside track to God, either because they are exceptionally-observant Jews or because they are following Jesus or simply because they are inheritors of God’s promise to Abraham and the children of Israel. They rightly believe that God has blessed them with an overabundance of righteousness, which enables them to walk straight into the kingdom of heaven, dripping with godliness, as it were. They have more than they need, actually, so much so that it spills onto the floor as leftovers.

We, as Christians and the more direct audience of Luke’s Gospel, are in the same place. We are recipients of God’s overabundant gift of righteousness. Through Jesus Christ, God has given us more righteousness than we could ever possibly use. The righteousness of Christ, made ours in baptism, is so much that it covers every sin we could possibly ever commit in a lifetime of sinfulness, with copious leftovers. That is one of the principles of our Lutheran faith––that there is no sin we can commit that is too big for God to overturn in light of Jesus’ death and resurrection. When we look at the second-most important text of the Lutheran faith, at Luther’s Small Catechism, as we’re now doing in the Ladies’ Group, we see that the righteousness and grace that ushers us through the gates of heaven comes from Christ and from the Holy Spirit, and that, by the power of God, it is so abundant that it cannot possibly be overcome by our own feeble misdeeds. The righteousness God has given us through Christ is so much that “our cup overfloweth.”

The question then becomes: given that God has gifted us with this overabundance of Christ’s righteousness and grace, more than we could possibly use, like the rich man’s table that spills over onto the floor leaving food everywhere, what do we do with the extra?

It turns out that God is actually very particular about leftovers. When God blesses us, it is always with the assumption that we will share it with others, and so God always gives us more than what we need for ourselves. In both Leviticus and Deuteronomy, there’s an understanding that God blesses the farmer with crops, and that the farmer pays it forward, if you will, by harvesting only a portion of it. “When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. Do not go over your vineyard a second time or pick up the grapes that have fallen. Leave them for the poor and the alien.” [Lev 19:9-10] The remainder of the crops are meant to be leftovers, to be harvested by hungry individuals who have no food of their own, but who know that they can pick the edges of any farmer’s crops. This is the basis of the story of Naomi and Ruth and Boaz, when Ruth goes to the neighbourhood fields to pick up the leftovers, and meets Boaz. This was standard practice in Israel––that the rich should take only what they need, and leave the leftovers for the poor, so that all would have enough. If God were a mom, she wouldn’t say, “Finish everything on your plate because there are starving children in the world.” She would say, “Leave something on your plate and go find those starving children and give them the rest.” God wants us to share the leftovers.

And so we have in the story of Lazarus this anonymous man who has so much extra that it’s falling onto the floor. And what does he do about it? He builds gates to protect his leftovers. “There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man.” The rich man built walls and a gate around his property so that the poor couldn’t come to his fields or his house or his table and survive off his leftovers. He stuffed himself and hoarded the leftovers that God had given him to share.
And so, of course, I have to ask, what are the ways in which we hoard what God has given us? Specifically, what are the ways in which we hoard the righteousness and grace and love that God has given us?

Because I’m convinced that we do this. That we hoard God’s grace, and that, as Christians, we build walls and erect gates to keep for ourselves the gifts of forgiveness and righteousness that we have more than enough of. I’m not sure why we do it, although if I were to guess it would be because we’re not truly convinced that God really is that gracious and we’re always a little bit worried it will be taken away from us. I do know, though, that, for whatever reason, we do build these gates. Our Christian history is full of putting up gates that keep others out. We put up gates of doctrine: we say, you have to believe certain things about Christ and about Communion in order to participate in the Lord’s Supper. Make no mistake, having an open table at Communion as we do here is relatively recent, and not practiced everywhere. We know that some of our Christian neighbours erect gates of doctrine that keep others away from the grace of Holy Communion. We’ve been some of the ones lying at those gates longing for the crumbs from their table. We know that pain and yet we still erect our own gates: a previous pastor of this church told a church member that their spouse couldn’t have a Lutheran funeral if they were going to include symbols of a non-religious group they belonged to. That pastor was following this church’s constitution in that respect, but it was a gate that kept that family from having the funeral in the church. And that family never came back. The doctrinal gate we built kept them from the peace that Christ brings to those who are mourning, a peace God has given us to share.

We erect gates of behaviour: for instance, you have to go to church every Sunday to be a good Christian. I know that at least one pastor in the history of St. John has said that to people. Some of those people didn’t come back. In the old days, a gate was erected that said you have to be confirmed to have Communion. We erect other gates, like you have to wear the right kind of clothes, or you have to look as if you’ve combed your hair or showered to be at church, as if God’s gift of righteousness is dependent upon what we wear or the respectability of our appearance.

And of course, we erect gates of faith: we say, you don’t belong in God’s kingdom if you don’t believe what we do. You don’t belong in God’s house, and you don’t deserve Christ’s forgiveness, if you’re not a Christian. We, who are guaranteed a place in God’s kingdom, who are showered with righteousness and forgiveness and grace, turn to those around us who are spiritually starving and say, “Keep out. This righteousness is not yours.” And then we wonder why no one comes to church anymore.

But here is something to remember. Gates cannot contain the abundance of God’s righteousness. Gates cannot hold God’s grace and mercy from spilling out everywhere. Not our gates, not others’ gates. God’s abundance overruns gates entirely. We don’t need to hoard God’s love for us because it’s never going to run out. There is more than enough for everyone. As Paul says in our reading this morning from 1st Timothy, “As for those who in the present age are rich, command them not to be haughty, or to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but rather on God who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment.” [1 Timothy 6:17] It doesn’t matter what gates we put up to keep God’s righteousness for ourselves, or what gates others’ put up to keep us out, none of these will stand in the face of God’s love for us, or in the face of the forgiveness and mercy and grace that Christ’s death and resurrection has bought for us and the whole world.

We are rich with God’s love for the world. We are draped in mercy and we feast sumptuously on God’s grace every day. Shall we not freely share this love and forgiveness and righteousness with all around us? Those whose spirits are poor, whose lives are impoverished when it comes to love, those who are desperate for even the crumbs of God’s love? Shall we put up gates that can only be opened with the right beliefs or the right behaviour or the right confession of faith? Or shall we instead do as Christ has so graciously done: throw open the gates, and welcome everyone not to the leftovers but to the table itself to feast on the abundant mercy and love that God has granted to all people. As Christ has done, let us do also. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

September 18, 2016 - Christ will Not Lose You

This morning I’m actually going to depart from the assigned Gospel and return to a few particular verses from last Sunday, and the imagery of the lost sheep and the searching shepherd. “Jesus told them this parable: ‘Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbours, saying to them, “Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.”’” (Luke 15:3-6)

So there’s this book that I both hate and love, and a movie was made from the book that came out in 2014. It’s called Still Alice, and it’s about a woman, who is a world-recognized professor in linguistics, teaching at one of the best universities in the world, who just after she turns 50 suddenly develops early onset Alzheimer’s. And it follows her in the space of just one year as she moves from someone whose identity is built on her ability to understand and flourish in the world of words and thoughts to someone who can no longer find the right word for anything, who no longer recognizes her children, and in one particularly moving scene, gets lost in her own house, trying to find the bathroom. I love Still Alice because of its brilliant portrayal of the experiences and feelings of someone losing themself in dementia, and I hate it for that very same reason.

Because it’s terrifying. The possibility of memory loss and dementia terrifies me. It’s one thing to forget a word here and there, or to forget where you put your keys, but to forget who your children are? To forget the way around your own house? To forget your wedding day, or the day your children were born? To not be able to think anymore? To read a book and understand nothing, or to hear a conversation and not be able to follow it? We are who we are because of our relationships, the people we know and the things we do in life, and the opinions we have, and our thoughts. We are who we are because of our memories––those pieces of our life that tell us who we used to be, and how we’ve changed, and who we are now. We spend our lives trying to make memories to reflect on when we’re older. These are what make up our identity. That make up who we are. And to know that it’s all slipping away? To be aware that you are *supposed* to know the faces, and the words, and that you *used* to be able to read and think and remember and speak but now it’s evaporating? To have people tell you that you’re doing and saying things that you can’t remember and that don’t make sense and that you could never in a million years imagine yourself doing?

It’s awful––completely disorienting. It’s like being lost. Like being the one sheep separated from the ninety-nine others, far from the flock, and lost in the wilderness. We might even say that dementia is like being lost in the wilderness of our own brains. We’re stuck inside our wild minds and nothing looks familiar and we don’t know how to get out and we’ve lost ourselves and something is going to eat us all up until nothing is left of us at all.

This is a fear we all share. There is no one here who would say that they look forward to losing their self, and there is no one here who has not been touched by someone else’s slide into dementia. Whether it’s a family member, or a friend, even someone from this congregation, dementia is a reality we face, and in the back of our minds, we are terrified: What if this is me one day? How will I live if I lose myself?

What I want to tell you now is kind of a vaccine. Something that I hope will vaccinate you against the fear and anxiety you feel contemplating this future, and that you might remember if you find that you are suddenly a sheep lost in your own mind’s wilderness. And yes, I recognize the irony of giving you something to remember for a time when you can’t remember anything, but the Holy Spirit works in mysterious ways. So, here it is:

You may lose yourself; God does not protect us from dementia. 
But Christ. Will. Not. Lose. You.
Christ will not lose you, and even more, Christ will notice if you’ve gone missing, and Christ will come and find you.

It’s remarkable, this story about the missing sheep that out of one hundred sheep, which is a *lot* of sheep, the shepherd notices that one is missing. One! Imagine being in a group of a hundred people. How long would it take you notice that one of you was missing? And we’re talking about sheep here! In order for the shepherd to notice that one of the sheep is missing, that shepherd has to really know those sheep. The ears, the tail, the fleece, the shape of the nose, the sheep’s favourite kind of grass to eat, whether a particular sheep likes to be in the middle of the flock or on the edge. In order to notice that one sheep is missing, that shepherd has to know who each single sheep is––really, truly, is.

Christ knows who you are. Really, truly. Christ knows the you that you are on the inside, the you that you are when you’re devastated and when you’re rejoicing, the you that you are when you’re furious and when you’re at peace, Christ know who you were when you were born, and who you became as a toddler, and a schoolchild, and a teenager, and an adult. Your secret hopes and your worst nightmares. Christ knows who you were, and who you are, and who you will be. Christ knows most surely who you are even when you yourself have forgotten. Christ can pick you out of a crowd of millions, and knows your name, and knows you better even than you know your self. Psalm 139 says, “O Lord, you have searched me and known me. You know when I sit down and rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away. You search out my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways. Even before a word is on my tongue, O Lord, you know it completely. ... For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth. Your eyes beheld my unformed substance.” The one who made you has known you from even before you were born, knows you as you grow and change, and will know you when you no longer know yourself.

And should you lose yourself, Christ will notice. Right away. And Christ will come and find you in the wilderness. Wherever you are. No matter how tangled up in the thickets you are, no matter what ledge you might be precariously perched on, no matter what crack in the rocks you might have fallen into, struggling to the point of exhaustion to get out of. Whether the wind is howling or the rain is sleeting down, whether it is the middle of the day or the darkest night imaginable, Christ will find you. Again, Psalm 139 assures us of this: “If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand hold me fast. If I say, ‘Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night,’ even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you.” No matter how far you go––no matter how tangled and precarious and dark it is in your world and in your mind, Christ will find you. You may lose your self, but Christ will not lose you.

I am losing several of my grandparents to dementia. A few years ago, during a conversation with my grandmother, a knife went through my heart when, out of nowhere, she looked at me and said, “Whose daughter are you?” She couldn’t remember that my dad was her firstborn.
I’m also starting to lose my dad to cognitive decline. Nothing big, just little things here and there that tell me he’s not who he used to be. I see the day coming when he will be lost, too. And, with so many generations suffering from dementia, I think it’s likely it will happen to me, too. It seems inevitable. By the time you’re 80, one in three people have dementia. By the time you’re 90, it’s one in two. So many people who have lost themselves in the maze of their own minds. It’s overwhelming to watch someone getting lost that way, whether it’s someone we love, or ourselves.

But Christ does not lose us. Christ is our shepherd, and when we have lost ourselves in the deepest recesses of our minds, when we have lost who we are, Christ will come find us, and lay us on his shoulders, and take us home, and rejoice. And Christ will whisper to us, “I have found you. I know who you are. You are, and always will be, mine.” Thanks be to God. Amen.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

September 4, 2016 - The Hard Choice of Discipleship

Luke 14:25-33

Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.” Okay, just so you know where we’re going with this one today, I have to warn you that this is not an easy verse to take. There is no magic trick or brilliant new translation of the original Greek that’s going to make the difficulty of what Jesus is saying go away. Jesus really means it. If you want to be his disciple, you have to turn your back on your family, your friends, and everything you hold dear, including your own life.

Now, Jesus doesn’t mean ‘hate’ the way we usually use the word. ‘Hate,’ the way we use it, means wishing, with violent intention, that something didn’t exist anymore. Hate is a “bad word” in our house. It’s about wanting to annihilate something or someone. And that’s not what Jesus means. In the case of this verse, ‘hate’ has connections with loyalty, which is highly valued in Middle Eastern culture. ‘Hate’ is kind of the opposite of loyal, not in the sense of treason, but in the sense that since we can only be truly loyal to one thing, we have to give up making anything else our first or ultimate loyalty, we must ‘hate’ it. Jesus is saying that if you want to be his disciple, if you want to be truly loyal to Jesus, then you have to give up your loyalty to everything else. In a way, when Jesus says we must ‘hate’ our family and friends and even our life, he’s saying that these things must be dead to us. They can no longer factor into our decision-making; they can no longer be significant enough to us to cause us to base our decisions on them. There can only be one allegiance, or one master, and if it’s going to be Jesus, then it can’t be anyone else.

That’s what it means to be a disciple, right? It means to pick one path to walk, one person to follow, and then to stick to it. Not to be swayed by other paths or other people, but to persevere and focus and do exactly what Jesus does, if that’s whose disciple we are, which of course is why we’re here. And the point of all of this, being someone’s disciple, is that by doing these things we will become just like the person we’re following. We will be transformed. We will become like Christ.

Which is why when we choose to be someone’s disciple, it can only be to that one person. Because we can only be like one person. We can’t be a little bit like Jesus and a little bit like our father, because then we wouldn’t be fully transformed. We would be only partially transformed, which isn’t any kind of transformation at all. Being a disciple of Jesus means that we can’t also be a disciple of our father or our mother, or our family, or our friends. Which is why Jesus says we have to ‘hate’ them. We have to turn our back on them as we turn towards Jesus. We have to let go of them.

Which is hard! Who wants to let go of our closest relationships? Who wants to turn our back on our family? Who wants to think of them as dead? We need our relationships to give us strength, right? And yet. And yet Dietrich Bonhoeffer, our great German martyr, said this about discipleship: “Each is called alone. Each must follow alone. Out of fear of such aloneness, a human being seeks safety in the people and things around them. Individuals suddenly discover all their responsibilities and cling to them ... [But] Christ intends to make the human being lonely. As individuals they should see nothing except him who called them.” [Cost of Discipleship, Bonhoeffer] We cling to our relationships, calling them our responsibilities, and yet Jesus is calling us to say goodbye to them, to treat them as dead, to walk on without them.

Imagine that. Imagine if Jesus came to you, and said, “If you do not hate your parents, if you do not hate your children, if you do not hate your friends, if you do not hate the people in this congregation, you cannot be my disciple.” It’s this last one that hits home this morning. If you do not hate your brothers and sisters in this congregation, you cannot be a disciple of Christ. It’s almost ridiculous––if you do not turn your back on those sitting next to you, and in front of you and behind you, if you do not abandon your loyalty to those whose hands you shook in the vestibule this morning, if you do not consider dead to you those whom you go to the rail with to share Communion, you cannot be a disciple of Christ. And yet, that’s what Jesus is saying. In order to follow him, we must abandon our loyalty to one another and to this congregation. This is the cross Jesus calls us to carry.

So why? Why would we do this? Why have Christians throughout the centuries done this? Why did Dietrich Bonhoeffer ‘hate’ his parents and his fiancee and his friends in order to follow Christ into prison and to execution by the Nazis?

We do it because of what I said earlier––that being a disciple means we will be transformed. When Jesus said carry your cross, we know what ‘cross’ means. It means death, yes, but it also means resurrection life after death. It’s this point that we so often forget. Resurrection life. Yes, letting go of our family, and our friends, and our congregation, and our life means death. But that’s the way we get to new life. To resurrection life. To Easter life. To life which is so much better than the best we know now. Think about the most amazing memories you have of your family, or your friends, or here with people in this congregation. Who would want to let that go? But now imagine having those feelings of love and fellowship and community when each one there is really, truly, perfect. I mean, we know the shortcomings and failures and weaknesses of those we love, we know the ways they can hurt us without meaning to, and the ways we protect the most vulnerable parts of ourselves so they can’t. But imagine a time when those shortcomings and failures and weaknesses have all been healed––a time when we no longer hurt one another, when we just are, all the time, those wonderful people that God has made us to be––completely saints. That is resurrection life. Resurrection life is living completely open to the world because God makes us perfect. New and better relationships with those we love. No fear of hurt, no fear of betrayal, no fear of loss. This is why Jesus calls us to ‘hate’ our friends and family and life and to carry the cross. Because, as painful as it is to let go of our loyalty to them, as death-inducing as it is, it gets better. We carry the cross through Good Friday––through death––because we know Easter is waiting for us.

There’s an analogy I learned from one of my professors at seminary that I think I’ve shared before, but it’s worth sharing again. Our life before choosing discipleship is like a person in a flood, standing on top of their house, watching the waters rise and rise and rise. This is their house, one they’ve built from the ground up, and raised their children in, and gotten old in, but it’s disappearing under the water, and it’s going to take them with it. Then along comes a rescue helicopter, prepared to lift them away to safety and dry land and new life. But in order to grab hold of the ladder dangling in front of them, they have to let go of the house. They have to ‘hate’ their house, and all the memories that come with it, and their community, and even their neighbours, so that they can be carried away to a new life. They could choose to stay, and drown, and it’s a choice some people make. Or they could choose to let everything they know die and grab hold of the new life being offered.

This is the choice that’s laid before us. And it is a choice. We do not have to be disciples. We are baptized after all, our salvation is not in jeopardy. We will be with God when we die no matter what choice we make regarding discipleship in this life. But we can’t be a disciple without giving up our possessions, which includes our relationships. Just like if you want to drive to church, you can’t simultaneously walk to church, or if you want to wear brown shoes, you can’t also wear black shoes at the same time. They are mutually exclusive. We can’t be primarily loyal to Christ and primarily loyal to our family, or our friends, or even our congregation. We can’t let go and hold on. They are mutually exclusive. If we want to be disciples, we have to choose. We have to decide which we’re going to follow. We have to choose between this life, which ends in death, or resurrection life, which starts with death but ends with new life.  It’s our choice––God gave us this choice from the moment of Creation––but we can’t choose both. In the end, our choice may result in having both, because God is the God of life and love and restoration, and so in choosing resurrection life we may experience that new life in the form of family and friends and a new church, but all these relationships will be new to us. They will be transformed, too.

And I don’t want to make it sound easy. Choosing to follow Christ, choosing to walk the path to resurrection life is painful and messy. It is our crucifixion. It requires ‘hating’ and turning our back on that which we have loved for so long. Sometimes the road feels endless, and when you’re in the middle of it, it can be hard to remember why you’re doing it or to see the value in following Christ. It’s tempting to want to stop and say, like Jesus in the garden, “Take this cup from me.”  It’s temping to suddenly remember, as Bonhoeffer puts it, “all our responsibilities and cling to them.” To walk back to the beginning, rather than forward to the end.

But Christ asks this of us, because Christ has walked this same road. He knows how much farther we have to go, and he knows what we will receive when we have walked all the way and truly let go. We will receive resurrection life. New life. Transformed life. Better life. This is why he calls us to follow him, to be his disciple. Because this is what awaits us, and those we love, if we let them go and pick up and carry the cross, instead. Thanks be to God. Amen.

August 28, 2016 - First, Last, Everyone's Invited

Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16; Luke 14:1, 7-14

I’ve noticed that whenever there’s a potluck at a church, everyone stands around awkwardly after grace is said, waiting for someone else to go first. And, here, you all insist that I go first, something about the shepherd leading her sheep, and so I, feeling self-conscious, line up first and you all follow. So here’s my question––are you all secretly hoping that by making me go first and yourselves last that I’ll end up last and you’ll end up first?

It’s a risk we take with this passage, right? When you’re invited to a wedding banquet, don’t waltz your way up to the head table, in case you’re asked to move to the back, and then you would be disgraced. Instead, take the most humble spot, and then your humbleness will be noticed and you will be rewarded by being asked to move up closer. “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” 

But we’ve all heard this so often that it becomes easy to game the system, as it were. If we want to end up first, we start by going last, and vice versa. My kids’ preschool would have a graduation lunch every year and everybody knew that the tables farthest from the food were always asked to go up and serve themselves first, so, naturally, everyone would cram into the tables at the back and leave the tables at the front empty.  We all knew how the system was rigged.
It becomes so easy to turn this passage on its head. Well, if I humble myself, then I’ll be exalted, so I’ll go last, in the hopes that I’ll end up first. Which, of course, begs the question of how often does this cycle repeat itself. If I humble myself in order to be exalted, doesn’t that mean I’m trying to exalt myself, in which case I’ll be humbled? And then exalted? Where does it end?

And then, when we read this parable with the one right after, where Jesus says, When you host a party don’t invite people who would invite you back to their party, but invite people who have no hope of even hosting a party to invite you back to, because then you will be “repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.” And so what it sounds like Jesus is saying is that we should humble ourselves in this world in order to receive exaltation in the next. And this begs the question of why are we doing all this in the first place? If we’re humbling ourselves and inviting the poor and all of that good stuff simply for the sake of getting ourselves a better seat in the world to come, is that truly righteous? Or isn’t it just a fancy way of being self-serving? When we get into the world of Christian ethics––Christian ways of living morally and rightly in this world––we always run into the question of motivation. Are we truly doing this for others, or are we ultimately doing it for ourselves?

Well, today I want to suggest that those two things––doing it for ourselves versus doing it for others––actually go together. That is, when we do something good for others, it benefits us, and when we do something good for us, it benefits others. That we are all so interdependent on one another as God’s children that it becomes impossible to isolate my own well-being from yours, or yours from someone else’s. This is the idea behind the letter to the Hebrews and the first verse we read today, “Let mutual love continue.” The emphasis in this verse is mutual. Mutual love is back-and-forth, where the good of one contributes to the good of the other and vice versa. In a community built on mutual love, strangers become friends, and enemies become those whom we would die for. God’s relationship with us is with the community as a gathering of individuals. God does not have a relationship with only one of God’s children but not with the others.

Now this is important when it comes to our Gospel reading of who is exalted and who is humbled. Because we often approach this passage with a bit of panic, trying to figure out a way to make sure that somehow we’re first, because we don’t want to get left out altogether. The danger of being last, of course, is that the seats might all be filled by the time we get there, and there will be no room left for us at all, and we’ll be sent home again, hungry.

But that is not what this passage is telling us. The writer of Luke uses the word “parable” to describe what Jesus is saying, and that is our clue that Jesus isn’t talking about an actual wedding banquet. In the Bible, whenever there’s a reference to a feast or a great banquet, it’s usually the case that we’re talking about God’s great feast for all of God’s children at the end of time. And here’s the important thing about God’s feast. We get so caught up in who’s going to be first and who’s going to be last that we overlook the fact that, first or last, everyone is going to be there. Those who are first and those who are last. The remarkable thing about God’s feast is that everyone is invited––the rich and the poor, those who can afford to host banquets and those who don’t even have a place to call their own. We see this in the letter to the Hebrews, too. After talking about mutual love, the writer talks about strangers, and then angels, and then prisoners. We are to build a community that includes angels and prisoners, just as God does. Martin Luther makes it a constant point to talk about the sinners and the saints, each one us being both. At God’s great feast, absolutely everyone is invited––those who have followed Christ their whole lives and those who show up at the last minute. Those who know they are God’s children and those who don’t.

But this glorious feast is not something we have to wait for. One of the important things that Jesus tried to convey to us, over and over and over again, is that God’s kingdom is breaking into this world now. Today.

And so we find in our Communion liturgy, when we sing the offertory, “Grace our table with your presence, and give us a foretaste of the feast to come.” Holy Communion is our foretaste of the feast to come. The reason I always invite you up to Communion by saying, “The gifts of God for the people of God; all are welcome to God’s table,” is because our Communion table is God’s table. Our holy meal is God’s meal. I look like I’m the one hosting it, but I’m just a proxy. God is the one hosting this meal, as an earthly symbol of our heavenly meal-to-come.

But don’t misunderstand what I mean by the word “symbol.” A symbol is something special. Karl Rahner, possibly one of the greatest Catholic theologians of the twentieth century, said that a symbol is the very thing that it represents. When we celebrate Communion, as a symbol of God’s great feast-to-come, Communion becomes God’s great feast. In the moment that we celebrate Communion, we are experiencing the unity and presence and love of God that we will experience at “the resurrection of the righteous.”

And that is why we, as a church, are compelled to invite everyone to God’s table. Without exception. Whether they fully understand what’s going on or not, no matter their age, church background, cognitive ability, whether or not they can fully appreciate the grace they are receiving in the meal (and who among us can really truly fully appreciate it). There are very few things in the church that I get angry about, but restrictions around Communion are definitely one of them. If you want to see me get angry, ask me what I think about the Catholic church not allowing divorced people to take Communion, or about other denominations having closed Communion, or even about churches that deny children Communion until they’re old enough to understand what’s going on, or churches that no longer commune those who are suffering from advanced dementia. Because Communion is a symbol and foretaste of God’s heavenly feast, and because we know that God welcomes everyone to that great feast, we have absolutely no right to deny anyone access to Communion. It is not our table. It is God’s table.

So, now, whether we sit farthest from the buffet so we can be first, or closest so we can be last and therefore most exalted in our humbleness, whether you sit at the front of the church so you can go to Communion last, or at the back of the church so you can go first, in the end it doesn’t matter. We are all invited to the feast. Those of us who exalt ourselves and those of us who humble ourselves, those of us who are exalted by others and those of us who are humbled by others. At this table, and even more so at God’s table in the kingdom to come, all are welcome, invited by Christ to be one of the innumerable exalted saints, sharing freely in the goodness of God, whose abundance knows neither limit nor end. Welcome to God’s table. Thanks be to God. Amen.

August 21, 2016 - God is Not Ashamed of You!

Luke 13:10-17

When I was Grade 8, I remember sitting in science class one day, and some boys weren’t listening to the teacher––they weren’t doing anything seriously wrong––they just weren’t paying attention, and all of a sudden the teacher started speaking to them in a very sarcastic voice and belittling them. He asked them why they had bothered to come to class, and said things about their intelligence level, and really basically humiliated them in front of all the other students. I don`t know why I remember this incident so clearly, except that I felt angry that they were being so publicly shamed. And I wonder, to this day, if they remember that day and what they felt, because my experience has been that you never forget being shamed in public.

Shame is something we rarely talk about, and even more rarely admit feeling, and yet it’s an emotion that lurks underneath the surface of much of what we do. It’s different from guilt. Guilt is the feeling we have when we’ve done something we know is wrong. But shame is the feeling that who we are is somehow wrong––that who we are is somehow deeply flawed, or woefully inadequate, or doesn’t measure up at some fundamental level. The important thing to know about shame is that it usually starts from the outside. That is, we aren’t born with a sense of shame. Shame isn’t something that naturally arises within us––look at babies and young toddlers. No shame whatsoever. They feel joy, they feel anger, they feel sadness and excitement, all without us prompting them to, but they don`t feel shame. Shame is something we are made to feel, something other people put on us. 

The church, actually, is pretty good at shaming. The shadow side of our Lutheran legacy, this emphasis that we are all ultimately curved in on ourselves and sinful, is that the corresponding proclamation that God through Christ forgives us and restores us to purity and righteousness and goodness too often goes unspoken. As a result, the church has too often become a place where people are shamed. Shamed for who we love and for who we can’t love, for what we do and for what we don’t do. Shamed for how we worship, for what we pray for and for what we don’t pray for. The church has even been a place where we are shamed for what wear, for what we look like, for how our children behave. Where we are shamed for not going to church often enough, for going to the wrong church, or for changing churches. In our Gospel reading, the religious leader shames the woman Jesus healed by telling her that she should have come on a different day to be healed! As a religious leader, I admit that we clergy have done more than our fair share of shaming people who come to God in need. I am fully aware that pastors have a legacy of shaming congregation members, a legacy that congregations as a whole have sometimes inherited.

But that’s the bondage of shame. Because it’s such an ugly feeling, one that makes us deeply uncomfortable, we bury it deep inside and don’t think about it, but in order to feel better, we end up shaming others. We all have the kid inside us, who tries to get rid of the pain of being hurt by hurting in return. Only as adults, we do it with shame. And then, we become ashamed for shaming others, and the cycle repeats itself. It traps us. It drags us down, it pulls at our necks like a millstone, and bends us over until we are quite unable to stand up straight, like the poor woman who came to Jesus for healing. When we have a strong sense of shame, we can feel it’s impossible to be ourselves, to speak our mind, to stand up for ourselves or others. We can feel trapped by our ailment of shame.

But this is not how God intends for us to live. It never has been. God’s plan for us has never been that we walk through our lives feeling bowed down and ashamed of our very existence, of our very being. For goodness sake, when God made humans from the dust of the earth, God said, “This is very good!” God wants our lives to be a delight to us, as Isaiah says, not a miserable walk of shame. This is why God forgives us, and heals us, and redeems us, and crowns us with steadfast love and mercy––all the things that we read in our psalm today.
But God knows that it is hard for us to escape shame so easily. Shame affects us more deeply than other emotions. And so God sent Jesus––God-incarnate, embodied in one of these bodies that we think are so shameful, to set us free from our shame, to heal us, to help us to stand up straight again. 

Jesus does three things in healing the woman in our story. First, he sees her. Now this is scary. When people feel shame, a typical reaction is to want to hide. We don’t want to be seen––we want to be invisible––some people talk about hoping the ground will open up and swallow us. Because we are afraid of what will happen if people see us. We are afraid that they will recoil from us, reject us, run away from our shame, be ashamed of us. But Jesus doesn’t do that. Jesus sees this woman, bent over from the shame of her illness, and then Jesus calls her over. Jesus doesn’t send her away, to carry her shame with her. Jesus calls her over. Come to me, he says. Not so that he can shame her even further, not so that he can put her up on a bench in front of the congregation and hold her up as an example of how not to be, but so that he can lay his hands on her.

There is something almost overwhelmingly powerful in that moment. To be touched with love when you feel ashamed is… well, it’s life-giving. Because it’s acceptance. We live in these bodies, they are the only thing of us that exists, and when we are touched––hugged, embraced, or even just someone else’s hand laid on ours––it means that we are not as shameful as we thought. Our shame is not an insurmountable barrier between us and the world. We do not need to hide, or make ourselves small, or make our voices quiet, or hunch over so no one can see our faces. And to be touched by God’s own hand? It is an undeniable move of God towards us, it is an affirmation that our very existence in the world––in our bodies––is a good thing, and in that move, our shame disappears. God is not ashamed of us. No matter how crippled our bodies are, no matter how far they have fallen from where they used to be, no matter how sick or old or how much we weigh, no matter what shameful things we have done with our bodies or what shameful things have been done to us, God is not ashamed of us.

Of course Jesus no longer walks this earth the way he did two thousand years ago, but God is not done. God sends us. God sends us out, to see those around us who are bowed down in shame, to see them, to call to them, and to touch them. To affirm them as God’s creation, to see them as pure and righteous, to proclaim to them that God is proud of them, to free them from their burden of shame by saying to them as I say to you, “God is not ashamed of you!”

And what happens then is what always happens when God sets us free. We stand up, we look around us, we see that God delights in us, we see that there is reason to rejoice, and we lift up our voices! This is, actually, one of the reasons God has given us the sabbath. So that we might proclaim God’s love to one another, be freed from the bondage of our shame, and then together turn to God to give praise and thanks and rejoice at all the wonderful things God is doing. And so, on this sabbath, I say again to you, God is not ashamed of you, you are set free! Thanks be to God, Amen!