Sunday, September 16, 2018

Word Power: James 3:1-12 - 17th Sunday after Pentecost

1Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. 2For all of us make many mistakes. Anyone who makes no mistakes in speaking is perfect, able to keep the whole body in check with a bridle. 3If we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we guide their whole bodies. 4Or look at ships: though they are so large that it takes strong winds to drive them, yet they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. 5So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits.
  How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire!
6And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell. 7For every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species, 8but no one can tame the tongue—a restless evil, full of deadly poison. 9With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. 10From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so. 11Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and brackish water? 12Can a fig tree, my brothers and sisters, yield olives, or a grapevine figs? No more can salt water yield fresh. (NRSV)

Simple by on Flickr. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

“It only takes a spark to get a fire going.”

This was the line from the hymn we sang last week called “Pass It On,” about sharing God’s love.

By Forest Service, United States Department of Agriculture, in cooperation with the Association of State Foresters and the Advertising Council -, Public Domain
You could also attribute this line to Smokey Bear, the icon of forest fire prevention.  It only takes a tiny spark from a discarded cigarette butt, an engine spark, or a power line to create incomprehensible destruction.  This year’s Mendocino Complex Fire, the largest in California state history, caused a quarter billion dollars in damage, incinerated half a million acres of forest, and took the life of one firefighter.  I should point out that this is only one of the five wildfires California has suffered this year alone.    

So consider that, then, in light of what James says about the human tongue: “the tongue is a fire.  It sets on fire the whole cycle of nature and is itself set on fire by hell.”

James certainly wouldn’t believe the adage “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”  I know I don’t.

Words kill.  Young people are dying of bullying.  Social media weaponizes the bully’s words to make their victim’s life a living hell—where there’s nowhere they can go to escape it. 

History has shown us that the words of a charismatic leader can brainwash nations, inciting apartheid, war, and genocide.

Politicians exploit your fears and anger to get your vote.  Advertisers use words to persuade you to buy their goods and services, even when you don’t really need them.  Talking heads use words to distort your sense of reality.  If you hear a lie repeated enough and spoken with conviction, you start to believe it.  Abusers use words to manipulate you into doing their bidding.  The human tongue truly can make hell on earth.

Words are the fastest and most effective way to hurt someone or build yourself up by trickery and deception.

But words are like fire in another way: fire, when spoken with care, they can be life-giving and life-saving. 

Think about it: we use fire to warm our bodies and cook our food.  Fire gives us light.  Fire is used to refine precious metals and mold steel.  You can even use fire and heat to cauterize a wound.  Humanity would cease to exist without fire.

In God’s kingdom, words also give life.  At the beginning of time, God’s spoken Word brought life into being.  The spoken Word brings human beings into faith in Christ.  It exposes human sin and the destructions that it wreaks and announces God’s forgiveness.  God’s spoken Word reconciles us to God and each other.  God’s spoken Word heals broken hearts and comforts tormented souls.  It conquers death and the devil.  God’s Word is truth in a world so full of lies.

And there are no words you will ever hear that are more important than these three: “Jesus loves you.”

James and Isaiah emphasize that words teach—and given that we are always bombarded with words that either destroy life or tell us that life is found in something other than Jesus, we desperately need to be taught.  It’s not enough just to read God’s Word.  God’s Word is a living Word and there is always something new to be learned from it.  The Church always needs faithful teachers: pastors, chaplains, lay leaders, Sunday school teachers, and more. 

As the Body of Christ, we’re all teachers.  You are all teachers.  Never underestimate God’s power to teach the truth of Jesus Christ by telling others of what Jesus has done for you.  Do not underestimate your power to teach the truth of Jesus Christ by speaking the words “I love you” and “I forgive you.” 

But like St. Francis once said, “preach the Gospel; if necessary, use words.”  Your actions teach.  They validate the truth of God’s Word.  The message behind everything we do from VBS to the clothing closet, GriefShare, Pink Day, Relay for Life and more is eternity’s most important truth: “Jesus loves you.”

The benchmark of a good teacher of God’s Word is the fundamental confession of our Lutheran faith: God reconciling the world through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

At the same time, God is going to send teachers into your life who may not even be Christian.  They may be old and wise, or they may be little children.  They may or not be “nice teachers” (so to speak).  But they will teach you about life, about God, about yourself!  They will inspire your faith and spur you on to good deeds.  And God can speak above the nastiest words you’ll ever hear to speak the most important words you’ll ever hear: “You are loved.”

It only takes a spark to get a fire going, for better or worse.  A word can destroy; but God’s spoken Word brings life.  It’s God’s Word that brings comfort, healing, and strength—whether it’s taught, preached, or spoken by one person to another.  It’s the fire that lights your way and keeps your faith alive.  It’s God’s Word that anchors you in truth in a world so full of lies. 

Never underestimate God’s power at work within you to save lives and souls. 

What the world needs now are people who speak, through word and deed, “Jesus loves you…and so do I.”

Sunday, September 9, 2018

Seen and Heard: Mark 7:24-37 - 16th Sunday after Pentecost

From there [Jesus] set out and went away to the region of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice, but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. He said to her, "Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs." But she answered him, "Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children's crumbs." Then he said to her, "For saying that, you may go-- the demon has left your daughter." So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.  
Then he returned from the region of Tyre, and went by way of Sidon towards the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis. They brought to him a deaf man who had an impediment in his speech; and they begged him to lay his hand on him. He took him aside in private, away from the crowd, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue. Then looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, "Ephphatha," that is, "Be opened." And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly. Then Jesus ordered them to tell no one; but the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it. They were astounded beyond measure, saying, "He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak." (NRSV)
Shipwrecked VBS 2018.  Courtesy of Callie Bobo Photography.

As a child of the 1980s, I was brought up in the tradition of “children should be seen and not heard,” at least as far as my church was concerned.

Noisy children were not tolerated in the sanctuary during worship.  Period.  If you made any kind of noise, the usher would tell you to pipe down or take your child to the nursery.  Even the pastor was known to stop in the middle of his sermon and demand the parent to remove their crying baby.  (By the way, Sunday worship attendance exceeded 1,000 people back then).

I didn’t have my first communion until age 14—because I wasn’t confirmed, and therefore I didn’t understand its true meaning to receive it properly.

The only time a child could be both seen and heard was in when we sang in the children’s choir—or were given speaking parts in the annual Christmas pageant.

I know this rule was not unique to my childhood church.  Yet as I look around the church, it makes me wonder if my generation learned that rule so well that neither they—nor their own children—are seen or heard in church…

In Jesus’ day, there were unspoken but widely held norms about who got to speak—and who was supposed to keep their mouth shut.  It wasn’t just children—it also included women, and people of lower economic status and undesirable ethnicities.  In today’s Gospel, Jesus encounters a woman who was neither to be seen nor heard in the presence of Jesus.  She was a Syrophoenician woman…  A Gentile…

Her little daughter had an unclean spirit, and she begged Jesus to cast out the demon and heal her daughter.  Jesus, however, is uncharacteristically cold to her: “Let the children first be satisfied, for it is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs (like you).”

Jesus does have a point: Jews are the priority of his ministry.  He is the Jews’ Messiah, after all.  Speaking from my own experience, members of this church take priority.   Let’s not forget that Jesus was a human being—who was tired and in need of some space.  No human can be everything to everyone.

But then the miracles start happening: the woman does not ask for “the children’s bread.”  She accepts that her kind does not have priority with Jesus—and that it’s alright with her.  Some crumbs on the floor will be sufficient.  At this point, she has Jesus cornered.  He cannot turn away.  The girl is made well. 

The other miracle is that faith is found in a woman who’s totally unfamiliar with the teachings of Judaism; yet she hears about Jesus and has faith in him.  Here and now, God’s love and power cannot exist within ethnic boundary lines.  Here and now, the crumbs of his grace are transforming lives.  Here and now, everyone has a place at Jesus’ table.  Grace and faith are found where you’d least expect it.

So what does this mean for us?

One of the worst things people say is that our churches are empty because there aren’t any Lutherans around—as if we exist only for people of our own kind.  I’d bet that if you ask someone who wasn’t born in a Lutheran Church why they came to this church, it probably wasn’t because we’re a Lutheran Church, or because we’re ELCA.  You may be surprised to learn that I only joined the ELCA when I began seminary—but not because I was attracted to the ELCA.  It’s because of people who followed the example of Jesus and said, “you belong here.”

Now, more than ever, we need to look at our church and ask ourselves, “who do we exist for?  Who belongs here—but isn’t here?  What persons in our community aren’t being seen or heard?

This Sunday, our church made history.  We let the children take over a worship service.  And why not?  It’s their church too! 

Therefore, they should be seen and heard!  Don’t say, “the children are the future of the church” if they’re already here.  It’s their church now!  See them!  Love them!  Show them that church isn’t some building you go to but a family you belong to!  Learn their names.  Send them birthday cards. 

And hear them, too.  Children are naturally curious.  Tell them about the man you see in the pictures and stained glass!  Teach them about this Jesus you love and trust.  Let them ask questions—and if you can’t answer them, bring them to me and I’ll give it a try!  Listen to their stories about what Jesus has done for them.  Let them serve and make a difference.

Young people deserve to shape the church that is already theirs.  They deserve music that comforts and inspires; a liturgy that magnifies Christ’s presence; preaching they can understand; and mission that allows them to bless others by what they’re most passionate about.  We can be a strong church that’s faithful to Christ’s mission, which our children and grandchildren are excited about inviting their friends.  Not to be entertained, but to encounter Jesus in the Word, the Sacraments, the worship, and the people.

Jesus’ ministry was all about seeing the unseen people, giving them a voice, and loving them lavishly.  The future of the church consists of the unseen and unheard persons of our community. 

The future of the church is made up of the people whom we have yet to welcome into God’s family and yet have a place at our Lord’s table.  There don’t need to be Lutherans out there for this church to grow; just people who long for unconditional love and belonging; people who need the encouragement of the Gospel; people who need the good works we can do.  We follow Jesus out into the world to seek them, find them, hear them, serve them, and love them.  In God’s kingdom, everyone gets seen and heard—especially the children.

Sunday, September 2, 2018

Clean From the Inside Out: Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23 - 15th Sunday after Pentecost

1Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around [Jesus], 2they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them. 3(For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; 4and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles.) 5So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” 6He said to them, “Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written,
 ‘This people honors me with their lips,
  but their hearts are far from me;
 ‘This people honors me with their lips,   but their hearts are far from me;7in vain do they worship me,
  teaching human precepts as doctrines.’
  teaching human precepts as doctrines.’8You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.”
14Then he called the crowd again and said to them, “Listen to me, all of you, and understand: 15there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.”
21For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, 22adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. 23All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”
Washing hands before entering the temple by gwaar on Flickr.  CC BY 2.0

You can have the cleanest house on the planet—but that doesn’t mean that pests won’t find their way into your home.

Elizabeth and I try very hard to keep a clean house.  But somehow, a mouse found its way into the kitchen cabinet above the stove.  When I first noticed the unpleasant signs of its presence, I quickly removed all the food, sanitized all the surfaces, and set two traps.  Wouldn’t you know it, the mouse keeps coming back—even though there isn’t anything for it to come back for, aside from the bait in the traps, which it doesn’t take.

We go to great lengths to keep pests out of our buildings and germs out of our bodies.  Pests destroy our buildings; germs destroy our bodies.  Don’t believe me?  Go inside any public building, and you’ll have better luck finding hand sanitizer dispenser than a drinking fountain.  We value cleanliness that much. 

So I’m not that put off by the scribes and Pharisees who criticize Jesus and his disciples for eating with unwashed hands.  Yet, nobody knew about the existence of germs back then.  In fact, germ theory wouldn’t emerge until late in the 19th century. 

Instead, the scribes and Pharisees criticize Jesus and his disciples for breaking a tradition that had played an important role in Jewish life for generations. 

Even in modern Judaism, you wash your hands because the mealtime is sacred.  Even though such practice is never stipulated in the Law of Moses, this tradition keeps God and God’s law at the center of daily life.  It binds people to God and each as the world threatens to tear them apart. 

From the perspective of the scribes and Pharisees, Jesus and his disciples were defiling what was sacred.  But from Jesus’ perspective, the scribes and Pharisees remain defiled, even though their hands are “properly washed…”

In Judaism, the Law and the traditions of the elders were supposed to be public witness to the rest of the world; to bring God to the people.  But now, the tradition was being used to keep people out—and to maintain the false belief that a person can only be defiled by stuff that comes from the outside of the person.

Jesus says, “All evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”  Does that not strike you as odd?

Pests infest your living space and germs make you sick, and there is unfathomable moral and spiritual filth in the world.  All the way back in 1961, FCC Chairman Newton Minow called television “a vast wasteland.”  Today, thanks to the internet, a waste universe is just a click away.  BUT—that filth also has an off switch (that we should use more often).

One thing we can’t control is the people who show up in our schools, our neighborhoods, our workplaces, and even our country.  We don’t want them around—because they’ll steal our jobs; commit crimes; and destroy our way of life.  They’re unclean simply because they’re different.  We all fear the unfamiliar.

But Jesus says, “All evil things come from within.” And no matter how hard you try to keep yourself clean and pure, there is still evil in your heart.  The human heart is sin’s breeding ground.  Pests, germs, and trash TV can’t possibly defile a person like the deeds that come out of a sinful heart—because they visit harm upon the neighbor.  And there is no greater defilement of the Body of Christ than when someone who bears Christ’s name builds up themselves and their tribe by judging others as beyond God’s love—or when they use power to abuse and exploit.

Evil comes from within—redemption, however, comes from without.  God in Christ defiled himself by putting on human flesh and taking upon himself the violence we commit against God and each other.  Jesus immerses himself into the dirt of your sin; the muck of your fear and pain; and the mud that is slung at you.  While you were still a sinner, Christ died for you.  That is the righteousness that makes you clean.

All the hand sanitizer and purity rituals in the world cannot create the clean heart and renewed Spirit Christ creates within you.  It comes in through your ears, as you hear the Word; through your mouth as you eat and drink his body and blood.  It comes in through your eyes and through your emotions as you see Christ’s self-giving and self-sacrificing love renewing and transforming all that sin and suffering have wrecked.  But just the same, it goes out through your words and the work of your hands.  Christ goes with you when you venture out into this unclean world to bear witness, welcome the stranger, and do the good that is in you to do.

Your challenge, then, is to be wiser with what your heart clings to.  Much of the stuff that defiles you is the stuff you cling to for happiness; the stuff that makes us feel in control; the stuff that makes you feel good about yourself.  Use the off button more often on your technology.  Be wiser about the stranger—and remember, Jesus loves them, too.  You haven’t really seen the full power of Christ until you see his redemption at work in someone most different from you.

In the end, you are not made righteous by what you do and don’t do; by who you avoid and what you embrace.  Cleanness is the righteousness of Jesus Christ that comes from outside of you; makes you clean within; and expresses itself as love, mercy, and forgiveness.  Go now and live clean!