Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Sermon: Luke 5

Sermon 6-16-13                                 
Bible text: Luke 5:17-28

In chapters 4 & 5 we begin to see Jesus in action—his ministry is taking off. He is tempted in the wilderness by the devil, and we learn about Jesus’ commitment to God’s plan of salvation, which does not include breaking God’s commandments but keeping God’s word. Once that ordeal is over, Jesus begins traveling through many towns in  the region, teaching and healing. He calls some disciples to journey with him in this ministry, and off they go.

There are several healing stories in these chapters. Jesus seems able to heal anything that’s bothering a person—demons and unclean spirits, diseases, fever, leprosy, and paralysis, so far. All kinds of people with all kinds of affliction come to Jesus for healing, and he is able to heal them. The story we heard today tells us why: the power of the Lord was with him to heal. Jesus does God’s work of healing.  But it isn’t always as simple as declaring someone well—even Jesus has to deal with politics and antagonists.

There are 2 things going on in this story: someone comes to Jesus for healing; and Jesus’ authority is challenged; these two are tangled up together in this tense story. We can anticipate the conflict in the opening sentence, when we see that Jesus is teaching and scribes and Pharisees are nearby. The next characters on the scene are some people carrying a paralyzed man on a bed, coming to Jesus for healing. Now, these are the kinds of friends you want to have—they are so sure that Jesus can heal this guy that they go to extremes to make sure it happens. When they can’t nudge their way through the crowd to the front of the room, they go at it from another angle, literally.  They climb the roof, with the man on the bed (are you imagining the difficulty of this task?), peel away some of the tiles, and lower him into the room, right in the middle of the crowd, who now apparently parts to make room for the bed, and he ends up right where they wanted him—in front of Jesus. 

Jesus sees—what? Their desperation, their foolhardiness, their bad manners, their vandalism?  No, Jesus sees their faith, and responds. But he doesn’t give them what they came for, not yet—he doesn’t heal the man’s paralysis. He forgives his sin. Now, we know, theologically speaking, that everyone needs some sin forgiven, even if we can’t think of what it might be at any given moment. So, good--Jesus forgives his sin. But remember in ancient cultures God or the gods were in charge of absolutely everything that happened, good and bad.  Illness or affliction of any kind were attributed to God, as punishment for some sin. So it isn’t entirely unreasonable that the first step to healing this guy is to forgive his sin.

But that’s where the conflict comes in. The scribes and Pharisees, who are nearby to listen, hear a shocking revelation about this Jesus. Only God can forgive sins, so when Jesus forgives the sin, he is claiming to be God, which is of course exactly what Jesus intended to do, since he IS God. The scribes and Pharisees aren’t awful yet—they merely mumble among themselves about this blasphemy, not even confronting Jesus about it directly. But he picks up on it, and, leaving the man laying there at his feet, sins forgiven but physically not yet healed, engages the scribes and Pharisees in a typical rabbinic theological discussion.
“Which is easier,” he asks, “to say ‘Your sins are forgiven’ or to say ‘Stand up and walk’?” Forgiveness of sins is a faith thing, after all; we have no way to prove that it has happened, so if Jesus is a phony he could easily state that and be done. If he says, “Stand up and walk”, the guy better be able to stand up and walk, or Jesus will be run out of town as a fraud. But, if those sins ARE forgiven, then this Jesus is someone entirely unexpected, for only God can forgive sins. So the “proof” that Jesus can and does forgive sins is the healing, which Jesus first announces and then does. The man stands up, picks up his bed, and goes home—glorifying God who has forgiven his sins. Jesus’ authority and identity as the Son of Man is established; the man is healed, thanks to his faith and the faith of his friends; and the entire room is filled with awe and everyone glorifies God, presumably including the skeptical scribes and Pharisees.

This is one of those stories that makes us glad for the paralyzed man, and perhaps reminds us that, when we live together in community, sometimes we are faithful for others who cannot be. But I don’t know that we expect this story to come true in our lives. It’s tricky in a couple ways, I think. “Which is easier?” Jesus asks. On the one hand, “Stand up and walk” is easier, because if that happened to me, I’d know what to do next—I’d stand up and walk. Hopefully I’d remember to thank God, too, but I’d surely stand up and walk. “Your sins are forgiven” is more complicated; it involves transformation, being a different person than I was before. I want my sins forgiven, but I’m not sure I always know what to do when they are. On the other hand, we do believe that our sins are forgiven—we confess at the beginning of the service and go on, confident that God has kept this promise, reminded in the sacraments of God’s forgiveness. But “stand up and walk” is harder to believe. We don’t expect it. We pray for it, but do we believe it can happen, here and now, even for us? Do we believe that God is as interested in saving USas God was in the Bible stories?

As we read through Luke, our picture of who God is gets bigger, bit by bit. Remember that in Luke we see how salvation happens through the life of Jesus, and that everything Jesus does is salvation—liberation from anything that is binding you today, anything that is keeping you from being the real youGod created you to be, here and now. In this story we see how Jesus not only heals the paralyzed man; he also forgives his sin, and in both of these the man is freed from obstacles that kept him from this full relationship with God. His sin is removed, and whatever he did to “make God mad so God paralyzed him” (although we wouldn’t think of it that way) is also removed. He is free to be fully connected with God again.

But Bible stories are not bound in time—God’s saving love in Jesus did not happen only these few times in ancient Palestine, but it happens again and again, all around us, for us, through us, and in us. Sins are forgiven—your sins are forgiven. Bodies are healed; relationships reconciled; we stand up to be the people God has made us to be, to be Christ to one another, God’s saving love in the world. Luke shows us how important it is to God that we are connected with God—so much that God will heal illness, forgive sins, and even get in the faces of the establishment to make sure it happens. Look for it—in bread and wine, water and word, in big miracles you can’t miss and in little details you might not notice. Be those friends, carrying the hurts of others to God. Let us trust the healing power of Jesus, and live into the wholeness he gives.  Amen.

Who am I as a reader of scripture?

For today's class in my Doctor of Ministry course "Hermeneutical Theory and Reading Practices" we were asked to write a reflection of who we are as readers of the Bible. As human beings and interested readers, we bring certain perspectives, experiences, expectations, and biases to our reading which then shape our understanding--all of which we usually take for granted.  It was a useful exercise; I share it with you here.

I come to the task of reading scripture as a lifelong, active, involved, interested practitioner of Lutheran Christianity (my biography begins “I was born at Iowa Lutheran Hospital…”). This has shaped my understanding and my expectation for scripture reading: I understand God to be Trinitarian; I understand Christianity to be a continuation of the saving work of God as we know it in Hebrew scripture. I expect God always to be working for life—renewing, restoring, creating, discovering, reclaiming, healing, reconnecting—in the midst of death; I expect God works through scripture, but not exclusively, to accomplish this new life; I expect God to be bigger than the Bible (or what we know of God in the Bible); I expect some mystery to remain (or to have been created) when I finish reading. 

I value relationships and people, so I read with much empathy. I am sensitive to the rich diversity of culture, so I try to have an “understanding” of what’s happening in a story relative to the culture of the story, read through my culture as reader. As an adopted child, I am always concerned about who’s being left out and how people belong in community, with one another, and to God. As a woman and a mother I am drawn to stories about women and mothers and how they are represented in scripture, and curious (suspicious) about women who are left out of stories where they ought to have been present. I have a heart for marginalized people (women, children, Latino/a, LGBT in particular) so I tend to read with a feminist/liberation lens. I want God to come off looking good, so I read in a way that tries to “reclaim” scripture for the marginalized, particularly parts which have been androcentrized and over-patriarchalized (how can my reading “redeem” these passages to bring life to the marginalized?). If I am protecting someone, it is probably the powerless, and God—I want them to get along and to meet each other in the best light. I am also protective of scripture itself, insofar as I have very limited tolerance for it being used for purposes that are not life-giving (proof-texting to make political points, eg). 

I have been a pastor for 19 years, in 3 different states; I grew up in a family in which I am the most highly educated (excepting one uncle with a PhD) and which is greatly affected by generations of alcoholism.  Therefore I also read with an awareness of brokenness and an appreciation of a range of emotions and interactions in real human relationships. Grief and anger are important, as are celebration and joy. Again, I feel much empathy for those who suffer in scripture and because of scripture. 

I also read as a pastor who will “represent” God to a congregation in my preaching and teaching, so it is not only my personal context that shapes my reading, but also the communal context (and the details which sometimes I alone know) that affects how and what I read. 

 I believe the Bible is what God wants us to know, but it isn’t exhaustive—it’s a starting point. I expect to be transformed by this Living Word, but it may be in ways I fail to notice.

Sermon: Luke 3

Sermon 6-9-13   
Bible Text: Luke3:7-18

Today’s story shows us one of the pitfalls of our good Lutheran theology. When we are baptized, we know we receive God’s grace and mercy and love and new life in such abundance that it will never run out, and it can’t be undone. Our baptism is a once-for-all event—we don’t have to do it over and over.
In Baptism God is doing all the work, so we know God gets it right the first time. God does not need to baptize us, of course—we are the ones who need some tangible sign of God’s presence, a reminder, a date to celebrate, so we don’t forget that God makes and keeps promises all the time. What do we have to do once we’re baptized, to “keep” our salvation? Nothing, of course. Nothing.  We didn’t do anything to deserve God’s love for us in baptism; we don’t do anything to keep it.

So, that’s the problem we find in Luke today. John the baptizer, who is not exactly shy or demure in any way, is out and about, preaching and baptizing. And the people are flocking to him.  They’re curious. He has a reputation—they want to check him out. He has a message—they want to hear it, since they already know bits of the story from the Hebrew scriptures. So here they come, rich and poor, young and old, men and women, devout religious people and sinners—even tax collectors! And John (who obviously has not been shaped by graciousness as we have been at Living Word, where all are welcome),
greets them this way: You brood of vipers! 

John supposes the people come to him because they want another sign from God. They want to cover their bases so God will not forget them: “Might as well go get baptized.” Like we see in our time, religious life is no more than following some rules and checking things off a list.  There is no depth. There is no transformation. John calls them to a baptism of repentance—a change in their lives,
into mercy when they have not been merciful. How do we know repentance has happened? We can see the fruits of it—“bear fruit worthy of repentance”, John tells them. It doesn’t matter what your family tree looks like—what matters is your own tree. Regardless of whether you are related to Abraham or not, are you bearing good fruit? “What then shall we do?” they ask in a panic.  And John answers them according to their station in life. If you have enough to share, share it—surely someone has less than you. If you’re a tax collector, don’t take extra money from people for your own pocket. If you’re a soldier, don’t threaten people into paying you off for their safety. This is what repentance looks like, this is how the baptized live: every choice, every action, demonstrates the mercy of God. You notice faith in Jesus is not required for the baptized; he hasn’t even shown up yet, except to be born. Doing God’s will, which Jesus will show us, is how faithfulness is measured.

What then shall we do, 21st century Lutherans who insist that salvation comes by God’s grace, through our faith, which is given to us freely by the Holy Spirit? We’re not supposed to have to do anything in this unconditional relationship with God. One of the things John the Baptizer, and Luke the evangelist, were living with was a world that was upside-down. The world did not look like the paradise God had created. It did not look like God’s vision of the world. People were hungry, thirsty, neglected, poor, abused by the system, sick, at war. John’s answer to “What shall we do” is instructions for how to get this world turned right-side-up.

The saddest part of this story is that our world is not very different. Two thousand years later we still live in a world that is upside-down from God’s dream.  But we are baptized, and we do live here. What are the fruits of our repentance? How would John answer our question, “what then shall we do”? How can we start turning this world right-side-up? We who have received God’s mercy—how can we be merciful?

My friend Richard Swanson wrote in one of the books I consulted for this sermon:
“…baptism…is an act of faith and resistance;
it is a gift from God that connects people with promises too big to fit into the world as it is presently constituted.”

God’s promises are too big to fit here.  We cannot see the fullness of them. But we are connected to them. And when we join our lot with others—those who suffer from the upside-downness of this world—then they are connected, too.

We are baptized—we don’t have to do anything—we can join the brood of vipers and ride the wave of God’s mercy. But people of God, we are filled to overflowing—with God’s Holy Spirit, with God’s love named Jesus, with grace and mercy and new life and joy and peace and hope. How can we not do something? Our very lives proclaim God’s presence with and among us—every choice demonstrates the mercy of God. Yes, we are baptized! It is the power that keeps us going in this upside-down world. Let us delight in these promises of God, to which we are connected in baptism. Let us take them everywhere we go and hand them out when we see someone who needs them. We have plenty to share.

Resource: Swanson, Richard W. Provoking the Gospel of Luke: a Storyteller's Commentary, Year C. Cleveland: Pilgrim Press, 2006

Sermon: Luke 1

Sermon 6-2-13
Bible text: Luke 1:57-80 

Luke 1-2 are great stories we get to hear during Advent, as we wait for the coming of the promised Messiah. These stories are not found in the other gospels, but, as we heard last week, Luke wants to make the point that Jesus is the savior from the very moment he is born—even from the moment he’s thought of by God and announced to Mary by the angel. So Luke uses this first chapter to tell the story that establishes Jesus’ lineage: he comes from a good but humble Jewish family, which makes him eligible to be the Jewish Messiah. This first chapter, full of miracles—women getting pregnant when that ought not be possible; angel appearances; speech taken away and restored—also sets us up to notice that this whole thing is God’s idea, and God’s doing. The people, as good and wholesome and righteous as they are, are merely the instruments through which God does these amazing things—including saving all of creation. 
These stories, and the way he uses them, are unique to Luke.  In these first 2 chapters there are 4 liturgical hymns—perhaps your Bible offsets them to look like poems or psalms, so you noticed them. Mary, Zechariah, the angels, and Simeon speak these words, but we have set them to music and use them in our liturgy: the Magnificat (Vespers), the Benedictus (Matins), the Gloria in Excelsis (opening liturgy), and the Nunc Dimittis (post-communion canticle). [When Phil was a child, he thought the phrase “Nunc Dimittis” meant the service was almost over, because it came at the end of the service and his pastor-dad always announced, “Now we sing the Nunc Dimittis!”]
These 4 hymns serve as a sort of “overture”, setting the tone for the rest of the story, giving us a hint of what will come in this gospel. The words of these hymns hearken back to Hebrew scripture, which would have been noticed by Luke’s Jewish audience, and further establish this story as rooted in Judaism. The words tell of God’s promise to Abraham, the covenant given to all generations; they mention the Messiah that will come from the house of David, who will make the world right again, turning it upside-down, bringing in mercy and justice according to God’s definition.

       The song we heard today is Zechariah’s response to John’s birth. You recall that when he didn’t believe the angel, that his wife Elizabeth who was past childbearing age would bear a son, Zechariah was struck dumb, unable to speak until the angel’s words came to pass. When Zechariah breaks tradition by naming his son a name no one in his family had, even a name that is not Jewish or Hebrew but a Greek name, which the angel told him to name the child—then finally he can speak again, and the first words he utters are this song. Zechariah’s song, the Benedictus (these songs are known by the Latin words that begin them; so benedictus = blessed) has two parts: in the first, he remembers the promise God made, to send a savior, to save us from our enemies like the prophets told us, to keep the covenant made with Abraham. Then he starts to speak to his child, John, whom we will know as the Baptizer, and he switches to future tense, telling his child what he has been born for: to go before the Lord, to prepare the way, to forgive sins, to announce the way of the Lord. These, too, are talked about by the prophets, but now one is born who will do what the prophets foretold.  Most new parents think about their baby learning to roll over and crawl, but Zechariah has big plans for his son.

What I really like about these songs, this tradition, is how big the picture is they paint. This birth is a moment in time, but it pulls together the promises of the ages, all the way back to Abraham; and looks to the future, when God, always active in the world, will fulfill those promises, again and again. And I love the daring with which both Mary and Zechariah envision that future: they get very specific about what salvation looks like. The hungry are fed, the lowly are lifted up, the people are forgiven, redeemed, they will serve God without fear, God’s light will shine on all who sit in darkness and the shadow of death, and we will be guided into peace. When I look around the world, I see that we need some of that, and right now!

We know that God gives us something to sing about, every single day—just a moment some days, but God is present among us. God does fantastic things in this world that needs more “fantastic”. Luke reminds us that people are the way God does these things—Mary, willing to carry the son of God in her own body. Elizabeth, wanting to be pregnant even late in life. Zechariah, speechless from this wonder but very articulate about what God is doing in this son. They remember what God has done, so they can clearly see what God will do. And also with us—we remember what God has done, in our lives and in the world around us.  Times when we were hungry and someone fed us; times when we fed someone in need. Times when we were in darkness and someone lit a candle; times when our light shone for another. Times when we were speechless at the wonder of God, and times we couldn’t help talking about what God is doing. One of the “reasons” for Jesus is so that God could be tangible, accessible in a way God hadn’t been before. We are those bodies and minds that are recognizable to others, many of whom are not looking for God and so will never see God. But they do see us and know us. Telling this story isn’t a matter of liking to meet people, or not; or wanting to be an evangelist, or not. We are part of something bigger, past, future, and present. God is at work, right here and right now—the savior has come! Let’s find our story, our song, our speech, our service—our own ways of getting the message out. May our lives be an overture, giving a hint of what is yet to come in this life with God.  Amen.

Thanks to Mark Alan Powell for the image of “overture” and the description of the liturgical hymns in Luke 1-2.
Powell, Mark Alan. Fortress Introduction to the Gospels. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1998.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Sermon: Luke intro

Sermon  5-26-13

We have a practice of “summer reading” of a whole book of the Bible precisely to keep the commandment we heard in Deuteronomy today, one of my favorite passages.
     “Keep these words in your heart…recite them to your children…
     talk about them when you are at home and when you are away…
     do not forget the LORD.”
Communal memory is the reason we have any of the Bible at all; these stories were remembered, and taught, and passed down through generations, because the community shared them and was shaped by them.

So we begin our summer reading of the book of LUKE today.
Luke is one of four gospel accounts in the New Testament; Mark was written first, Matthew and Luke borrow a lot from Mark, so about half of Luke is also found in Mark, but a full half is unique to Luke. 
We don’t know who Luke is or was; but the author tells us he is a second-generation Christian, who did not know Jesus himself but is now part of the Jesus movement. His purpose in writing, he tells us, is to provide an “orderly account” of these things. The author of Luke is highly educated, very familiar with both Jewish and Greek history, language, and writing styles, and a very good storyteller, which makes him appealing to a wide audience.

There are a few things that are particular to Luke’s gospel; see if you notice them as you read.
One, Luke is obsessed with food.
Jesus and the disciples are always eating, feeding people, talking about food, and figuring out how to get food. There are parables about food and metaphors using food, literal food and allegorical food.
Sometimes they get in trouble about food, when Jesus invites the wrong people to the dinner party or accepts an invitation to eat in the home of a sinner. Sometimes they are the heroes who feed thousands of hungry people with barely enough for one lunch. There is food, and allusions to food, everywhere in this gospel. So what is it about food that is so important, and how might we be called to utilize food and meals in important ways?

Second, Luke tells a lot of stories about people on the margins—
people whom stories are not usually told about because they are invisible, forgotten, undesirable.
There are poor people in this gospel, and a lot of them, and they are often the heroes, like Mary and Joseph and John the Baptizer and Jesus himself. There are despised people—tax collectors, Roman officials, prostitutes, corrupt religious leaders. There are sick people—lepers, paralytics, and people with demons and hemorrhages and withered hands and crooked backs—even the dead Jesus heals. There are women, right in the middle of Jesus’ attention where they ought not to be.  There are Gentiles who have no business hanging around the very Jewish Jesus.
Because we know these stories so well, we miss the scandal of the way Jesus easily and intentionally interacts with these “outcasts”. It’s a bigger deal than we often notice, and there may be a calling for us here as well.

And a third thing to look for is how Luke talks about “salvation”.
Luke is the only gospel writer to refer to Jesus as Savior, and he gives him this title in the words of the angels to the shepherds as soon as he is born:
“For to you is born this day in the city of David a savior,
who is Christ the Lord.”
Before he’s even had his first diaper changed, Jesus is the Savior, the one for whom they’ve waited, the one promised by God. Look through this lens of savior as you read these stories—
everything Jesus does is salvation.
For Luke, salvation = liberation from anything that is binding you today, anything that is keeping you from being the real you God created you to be, here and now.
·            When he heals lepers, they are saved (sometimes literally the word used in Greek).
·            When he feeds hungry people, they are saved.
·            When he notices an unnamed woman, she is saved.
·            When he invites the disciples to follow him, they are saved.
In Luke, God saves people through the life of Jesus. 
Death is one part of that life, as is resurrection, but Jesus’ saving work is not limited to the crucifixion.
Luke does not teach us “Jesus died to save us from our sin”—
Luke teaches “God saves us in Jesus--birth, life, death, and resurrection”.

Luke addresses his gospel to the “most excellent Theophilus”—it’s the only gospel to have such a dedication to a particular reader. Theophilus may have been a real person, but the name means “lover of God”, so this gospel is addressed to you, to all, who love God. 
Luke takes the Jesus story as it is already popularly known in Mark and frames it in time—he’s very conscientious about identifying key events to help us know when this happened—and in place—Jerusalem is a central geographic location,rich with historic and metaphorical significance. He uses concrete and accessible images so we can get the stories. He roots the stories in Jewish tradition and scripture but there’s this feeling of movement; the tradition is not concrete but rich soil out of which something new is growing. Luke shows us how Jesus is the Savior in everything he does—in first century Palestine and in 21st century Texas.

I have always liked this gospel, but I’m liking it even more here at Living Word.
I see us in this gospel, especially after our Pentecost event and the leadership retreat this weekend. Like Luke, we have a heart for the poor and marginalized. Like Luke, we think food is important--we enjoy and celebrate what we have and we are mindful of those who do not have, and we try to provide for them. Like Luke, we don’t build our entire life of faith around Jesus’ death, but we try to be the Living Word that carries the promise of God in Jesus, before his death and after his resurrection.
Jesus doesn’t let anything stop him, and I’m encouraged by Luke that we don’t have to, either— 
we don’t have any Pharisees breathing down our necks, after all, so we charge ahead with Jesus to do God’s work in the world. We rest, we work, we play, we pray, we live lives that are meaningful, along with Jesus. As we read this summer, may this Living Word of God, as Luke tells it, work a new work in us.  

Porter, Stanley E., ed. Reading the Gospels Today. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2004.

Powell, Mark Alan. Fortress Introduction to the Gospels. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1998. 

Rhoads, David. The Challenge of Diversity: The Witness of Paul and the Gospels. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996.