Monday, February 22, 2021

Journey to the Cross: Crossing Boundaries

It all started for me this week with a Facebook post. Now, some of you already know that I am fasting this Lent from social media. But, this post was from Monday in a clergy group discussing this week’s text from Luke 10. It was a new perspective on one of our stories today - the story of Mary and Martha. I’ll share that perspective in just a moment. But, the post led to a long, at times heated, discussion about the traditional interpretation of this story, which seems to pit the acts of service and listening to God’s Word against each other, as well as two sisters.  

What’s also interesting though, today, is that our text includes two stories. The story of Mary and Martha, but also the story that immediately precedes it - of the Good Samaritan. The juxtaposition of stories in scripture is important. And when two stories are placed immediately adjacent and these same two stories are only featured in one of the four gospels, well, it’s time to sit up and take notice. 

We read in Luke, chapter 10, verse 25, where it all begins with a question.

Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”

But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”

Notice that the lawyer comes to Jesus not with a good intent, but to test him. The first problem with his question is that he asks what he must do to inherit eternal life. I don’t know about you, but the last time I inherited something, it wasn’t because of anything I’d done. This is the same, isn’t it, with eternal life? We are invited by God into a full life, not by what we do, but by what God does. Grace. 

To answer, Jesus, as he often does, responds with a question or two. “What is written? What do you read?” he asks. A better translation of that second question is “How do you read?” It’s an implication that our perspective and the lens through which we read scripture can drive our interpretation. 

The lawyer responds to Jesus: “Love God and love your neighbor as yourself.” Again, the full life God calls us to isn’t about what we do. However, to not respond to God’s grace by serving neighbor cheapens God’s actions toward us. Jesus tells him his answer is correct, that doing this will give him life. But, the lawyer isn’t finished yet. He’s got one more question for Jesus. “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus responds with a story, one we know well. Or do we?

We continue with verse 30. Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’ Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”

We know this story. How the priest and the Levite, both men who should have been the ones to stop and help this man, wounded and dying at the side of the road, pass by him. On the other side, no less. Not even stopping to check his condition. It’s only the Samaritan who stops to help. A man who would have been on the cultural edge of Israel - an “other” in our language today. I don’t think the first two men were evil. Perhaps, as Martin Luther King wrote, they just got the question wrong. The question they ask themselves is “If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?” Instead, the Samaritan asks the question, “If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?” It’s a perspective that is outward looking, teaching us that discipleship in response to God’s grace is focused on service to others, even if it means we cross cultural boundaries. 

Immediately after this exchange, we then move in Luke to the second story for today, beginning at verse 38. Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”

We finished the previous story talking about crossing cultural boundaries. These aren't only ethnic or racial boundaries. They are also boundaries of gender. The gospel of Luke crosses boundaries. It features more women in it than the three other gospels combined. Notice in this story that Jesus goes to the home of Mary and Martha. By himself. This, in itself would have been a cultural “no-no.”  

The story of Mary and Martha is familiar to us. We’ve heard it many times before.  It’s a story that as it has traditionally been interpreted pits sister against sister, woman against woman - placing hospitality and service against making time for study. Today, I’d like to offer an alternative perspective, first introduced by theologian Mary Hanson in 2014. It may get a little theologically nerdy. But, I think it’s important to hear this voice, a voice that comes from the cultural edge of theological circles.  

The basic gist behind her perspective is that by repeating for generations the traditional interpretation of this story without re-evaluating it - an interpretation first preached by Origen, a Christian scholar from the third century. Hanson’s claim is that this interpretation has left many unsolved questions and contradictions. One example of this is that it contradicts Jesus’ own words from the beginning of the chapter. Here, Jesus is sending the 70 disciples out into mission. He lifts up the positive aspect of hospitality and service. Then, later on in chapter 22, sets himself up as the example of a “servant.” It’s a direct contradiction to the very things that, under the traditional interpretation of this story, Martha is condemned for. 

Now, I won't go into the theological and exegetical details of her perspective now. I will in our Learning time after worship today. Hanson’s premise is that both Mary and Martha are known to be “sitters at the feet of Jesus, listening to his words,” a phrase that is often simply used to describe being a disciple. But, here’s the interesting part. Her claim is that Mary is not even present. That she is away from the house, leaving all of the work for Martha. But, this isn’t necessarily household work we’re talking about. The word for work in Greek comes from the room diakonia, which, is where we get the phrase “diaconal minister” from. The implication is not that Martha is distracted by household work, but potentially by her work of ministry, which might include leadership in a house church. She’s feeling overwhelmed and overburdened and is asking Jesus to tell Mary to return to help her. Where is Mary? Our text never tells us, but there are hints earlier in the chapter. Is it possible that Mary was one of the 70 sent out to evangelize? Whatever the case, when Jesus notes that she is “worried and distracted” it is not a reference to a boiling pot on a stove. There’s a sense in the Greek words used here that there much more going on, perhaps even a sense of unrest or disturbance for which Martha is deeply concerned over Mary’s well-being, wherever she may be. 

It’s only been since Wednesday that we heard the words of Jesus about what it means to leave people and things behind to follow him. If we are open to the interpretation of this story, it’s a lesson for us in discipleship and it’s costs, as with the story of the Samaritan. For Martha, it means the emotional stress of leadership and, also, the possibility of deep concern for her own sister’s welfare. For the Samaritan, it's about concern for neighbor, especially when it might put us or our perspective at risk.   

Discipleship is not intended to be easy. It may require hard decisions. It may demand risk and sacrifice. It may also require, as we see in Luke’s gospel, listening to other voices, especially those that have not been heard. 

But, we have an example to follow. In Jesus, who gives the ultimate sacrifice and who moves across boundaries and borders to change our world. As we journey alongside him to the cross this Lent, may we be reminded once again what it means to be his disciples. And may God renew us as we travel. Amen. 

Preached February 21, 2021, online at Grace & Glory Lutheran Church and Third Lutheran Church.
First Sunday of Lent.
Readings: Luke 10:25-42, Psalm 15

Sunday, February 14, 2021

Jesus Heals: My Chosen One

Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah”—not knowing what he said. While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. Then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.

On the next day, when they had come down from the mountain, a great crowd met him. Just then a man from the crowd shouted, “Teacher, I beg you to look at my son; he is my only child. Suddenly a spirit seizes him, and all at once he shrieks. It convulses him until he foams at the mouth; it mauls him and will scarcely leave him. I begged your disciples to cast it out, but they could not.” Jesus answered, “You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you and bear with you? Bring your son here.” While he was coming, the demon dashed him to the ground in convulsions. But Jesus rebuked the unclean spirit, healed the boy, and gave him back to his father. And all were astounded at the greatness of God.

While everyone was amazed at all that he was doing, he said to his disciples, “Let these words sink into your ears: The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into human hands.” But they did not understand this saying; its meaning was concealed from them, so that they could not perceive it. And they were afraid to ask him about this saying.
 --Luke 9:28-45 (NRSV)

Grace, mercy and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

It’s a big leap for us today as we jump from the seventh chapter of Luke to the ninth chapter. In between, we see Jesus’ continue to minister. To teach. And to heal, particularly those dealing with demons. At the beginning of chapter 9, the disciples are ready to be sent out. Jesus gives them power and authority over all demons and to cure diseases, verse 1 tells us. They go out into the countryside as extensions of Jesus himself, reliant upon the hospitality of those they will meet. 

At the same time, we hear the Herod is perplexed. He’s already arrested and beheaded John the Baptist. But, now he’s hearing about someone new. And even tries to see Jesus.

The disciples return and report all that they have done. As the day drew to a close, surrounded by a crowd, they are witness to God’s way of abundance - over 5,000 men, not including women and children, fed that day from five loaves of bread and two fish. It leads Peter to make a declaration about Jesus - that he truly is “the Messiah of God.” When he does, Jesus sternly tells them not to say anything. Instead, he continues to teach them what it means to be his followers. “If any want to become my followers,” Jesus tells them, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.” Discipleship, as they are learning, is not easy.

Then we come to today’s text. Eight days later. Jesus, as we’ve seen him do before, goes away to a quiet place to pray. This time it is on a mountaintop. And this time he takes with him those who are in his inner circle - Peter, John and James - the first of the twelve disciples. As Jesus is praying, as we heard in our text, the appearance of his face changes. As does his clothing. Then, suddenly, Moses and Elijah appear beside him, talking to him about his departure. His departure. Luke alone uses this word in the Greek - a better translation of which is “exodus.” Moses, Elijah and Jesus are talking about the exodus of Jesus. It immediately throws our mind backward. Drawing a comparison between Jesus and Israel. An echo of how the story began. The exodus story. Just one part of God’s meta-narrative. A story arc that begins even further back than the exodus to the very beginning. And the reason for that first exodus.

To the beginning of God’s story. Where God creates everything. And it is good. And then the relationship between God and humanity is broken. Over and over again, God relentlessly tries to restore that relationship. Beginning first with Israel. Calling Moses to lead Israel out of bondage. Israel’s exodus from Egypt. That they will be blessed as God’s people and through whom all people will be blessed. Led by Moses, who experiences his own theophany - his own God-sighting. On Mt. Sinai in the midst of the terrifying thunder and lightning. Witness to a God so powerful that Moses cannot even look into God’s face. Yet, whose own face becomes transfigured, like that of Jesus.

But, this attempt by God to restore the relationship does not work. Even when God sends prophets, like Elijah. Elijah, who has his own theophany, his own God sighting. But not like that of Moses. Instead, as Elijah flees Jezebel and Ahab (remember that story?), God appears to him at Mt. Horeb, also known as Sinai. God comes not as Elijah expects. Not in the wind. Not in the earthquake, not in the fire. But in sheer, sheer silence.

Even with the prophets, Israel continues to rebel. It’s the human way, isn’t it. Our way. Thinking that we know better. Seeking our own power apart from God. Like the disciples, who, even after witnessing this transfiguration moment don’t fully get it. That God still wants us. Still relentlessly seeks us. Who sends Jesus to us to once and for all restore the broken relationship. Jesus, God’s Son, breaking into our world in human form. Who has come to begin the restoration of the wholeness and abundance and goodness first tasted at the very beginning in Eden. 

The transfiguration of Jesus in Luke marks the beginning of his exodus. He will now turn his face toward Jerusalem and move into the final chapter of his incarnated life on earth. It will bring the beginning - not the end - but the beginning of the restoration of freedom for all humanity and all creation. It is a story about transformation - the hoped outcome for the church, which will be given power and authority to heal and to transform people into disciples. Disciples - you and me - to transform the world into the kingdom of God. This is the gospel. The good news of Jesus. 

As we now turn our faces with Jesus to Jerusalem. As we enter the season of Lent, a time that, once again, gives us an opportunity to move into deeper relationship with a God who loves us so deeply and who desires nothing for us other than Eden’s shalom, these are the questions for us. How will we meet God? How will we be transfigured? And how will we transform our small part of the world?

Preached February 14, 2021, at Grace & Glory Lutheran and Third Lutheran churches, Goshen and Louisville, KY
Transfiguration of Our Lord
Readings: Luke 9:25-48; Psalm 36:5-10

Monday, February 1, 2021

Revelation of the Son of Man: Lord of the Sabbath

One sabbath while Jesus was going through the grainfields, his disciples plucked some heads of grain, rubbed them in their hands, and ate them. But some of the Pharisees said, “Why are you doing what is not lawful on the sabbath?” Jesus answered, “Have you not read what David did when he and his companions were hungry? He entered the house of God and took and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and gave some to his companions?” Then he said to them, “The Son of Man is lord of the sabbath.”

On another sabbath he entered the synagogue and taught, and there was a man there whose right hand was withered. The scribes and the Pharisees watched him to see whether he would cure on the sabbath, so that they might find an accusation against him. Even though he knew what they were thinking, he said to the man who had the withered hand, “Come and stand here.” He got up and stood there. Then Jesus said to them, “I ask you, is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to destroy it?” After looking around at all of them, he said to him, “Stretch out your hand.” He did so, and his hand was restored. But they were filled with fury and discussed with one another what they might do to Jesus.

Now during those days he went out to the mountain to pray; and he spent the night in prayer to God. And when day came, he called his disciples and chose twelve of them, whom he also named apostles: Simon, whom he named Peter, and his brother Andrew, and James, and John, and Philip, and Bartholomew, and Matthew, and Thomas, and James son of Alphaeus, and Simon, who was called the Zealot, and Judas son of James, and Judas Iscariot, who became a traitor. --Luke 1:1-16 (NRSV)

I deeply empathize with the Pharisees in our text today. Perhaps it's our human nature to want to find someone to blame in a conflict. As though the lines are clearly drawn. That everything is either black or
white. That there’s no gray area whatsoever.

The Pharisees have been misunderstood and misaligned for centuries. While they are often described as rule-keepers or as those who maintain the regulations of religious observance in scripture, they are anything but. In fact, one of the primary gifts of the Pharisees to the Jewish religious observance in Jesus’ time is a democratization of it. That devotional practice could be followed anywhere or by anyone without direct oversight by religious leaders. In fact, the Pharisees of Jesus’ day could be categorized today as mainline Protestants. Like us. 

So, then, you might ask, what’s the point of these three little vignettes that make up our reading today? The first two that are connected to healing and a controversy around the Sabbath. And, then, the third that is the story of Jesus choosing the twelve.

Let me begin at the ending. Because the story of Jesus calling the twelve apostles connects to our story from last week, where Jesus called Peter. In the time between last week’s story and today’s, it is apparent that Jesus’ power and authority is growing. Through his acts of healing and his speaking and teaching, his influence is expanding. The religious leaders are beginning to take note. And to push back, challenging who this Jesus is and under whose authority he is operating. 

As this buzz and murmuring is growing, we come to the beginning of our story today. Two examples of “breaking” the sabbath that involve Jesus and his, not-yet-formally-called, disciples. Notice that in his comments, Jesus never dismisses or devalues the Sabbath. He does not claim that the Sabbath is unimportant. Instead, Jesus makes two important claims about it.

The first. That he is Lord of the Sabbath, and not the other way around. The Sabbath does not dictate Jesus’s actions. His statement justifies Sabbath observance, but perhaps with a modification. That modification is the second claim that Jesus makes - that doing good on the Sabbath is lawful. 

Now, maybe for us today, it’s hard relate. After all, It has been centuries since the Christian church has kept the “true” Sabbath, from dusk on Friday to dusk on Saturday. And, in these last many decades, it’s questionable whether even the “Lord’s Day” or Sunday is still observed as a Sabbath in our culture. I wonder how many of us, pre-pandemic, would not hesitate to meet friends for brunch after worship, or to stop by the grocery store, or to mow the lawn, or to attend a soccer match. All of which could be, technically, violations of God’s Sabbath command. 

Perhaps, for us in our time, it’s not so much the question of the Sabbath that really matters here, but that what is more at stake are the underlying issues in this conflict. The question that lies under the challenge of the Pharisees to Jesus and under Jesus’ response to them, and, also, underneath Luke’s decision to include these stories in his story, is about how we, as people of God, hold onto our traditions in light of a world and in the midst of circumstances in our world that are ever-changing.

By claiming authority over the Sabbath, Jesus is reminding us that God is the one who has authority over, not only the Sabbath, but over the people who steward the practices and institutions given by God. Reminding us that institutions that resist the ministry of Jesus are acting contrary to God’s purpose in the world. 

What is this ministry of Jesus? He sets it out to the Pharisees, and to us, in the question he asks in verse 9. “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to destroy it?” That’s the test for us. It is to ask ourselves whether or not we should hold onto traditions that destroy life and do harm. Or whether we should modify our practices in ways that are life giving and good. 

Both of our congregations have long traditions as Reconciling in Christ communities. Claiming this identity publicly means that we are communities that are committed to welcome, to inclusion, to the celebration and advocacy for all people of all sexual orientations, gender identities and gender expressions; with a commitment to anti-racism and to working for racial equity. We do this because this is consistent with God’s purpose in the world. Which is never about death or doing harm to others, but always about life and wholeness, abundance and goodness for everyone. 

May we celebrate this today about our communities of faith. But, mostly, may we celebrate this about our God. Amen.

Preached on January 31, 2021, with Grace & Glory and Third Lutheran churches.
Fifth Sunday after Epiphany
Readings: Luke 6:1-16; Psalm 92