Text: Matthew 15:21-28
Jesus and his disciples are in the region of Tyre and Sidon, which were known as Pagan cities along the Mediterranean.
So for them, they’re basically in the red light district of regions.
And along the way a Canaanite woman cries out for him as they walk by.
Now if you’ll remember, Canaanites were known to be the lowest of low and were scorned by the Israelites.
And despite this history of antagonism by the Israelites
she cries out
Even though she is a Gentile
she cries out
Even though she is a Canaanite.
she cries out
Even though she is a woman
she cries out
She doesn’t let this stop her.
She cries out
Her child, as she explains, is being tormented by a demon and she will stop at nothing to get an audience with this man,
This man who, even though she is a Gentile, she claims as Lord, Son of David.
Somehow she knows this man is different.
Somehow she knows he is able to understand things other Jewish men would not
Somehow she knows there is a chance he could heal her child.
Or relieve the torment.
Sounds like faith, doesn’t it?
And you don’t need me to tell you how a parent of a sick child will stop at nothing to get relief for that child.
walking through fire
coming to blows
risking everything and anything to get the child the help he or she needs.
So with faith combined with passionate desire
There is no stopping this woman
She is willing to take a risk
to step out
and in total desperation
drop to her knees and beg for her daughter
She knows it doesn’t make sense
She knows that
because of her position
because of her class
she’s relegated to the margins
she isn’t entitled to an audience with this man
or any man for that matter
She isn’t worthy of acknowledgment
but she’s desperate
She has nothing to lose
So she goes for it.
And yet, and here is where it’s really hard for us
Jesus ignores her.
he dismisses her
Have you ever felt like your prayers weren’t being answered?
Have you ever felt like you weren’t receiving the blessings that you desperate need?
So she persists
She won’t be silenced
She won’t be cast aside
History is filled with stories of men and women just like this Canaanite woman
Who despite their position
fought for their place at the table.
In the 1890s a escaped slave from Maryland moved to New York and dazzled the world with his oratory skills and intellect, overturning existing notions of his race. Frederick Douglass fought tirelessly for the equal rights of all citizens- black, female, Native American, immigrant and eventually became the first African American nominated for Vice President of the United States.
A young Quaker woman in the early 20th century knew in her heart that, despite being a woman, her voice should be heard. Along with many other women fighting for equal rights, Susan B. Anthony became known for her contribution to women’s right to vote. A right which was finally honored in 1920 with the passing of the 19th Amendment.
In December 1, 1955 a seamstress in Montgomery, Alabama named Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus because she knew in her heart that she needed to be there.
There are many examples of men and women like these
too many to count
but because of their courage and persistence
because they fought for their place at the table, we all benefited
We all benefited.
But it sure as heck wasn’t easy
But it was their innate knowledge and deep understanding that we are all created in the image of God
that prompted them to shout out from the sidelines
To claim their voice
Just like the Canaanite woman in this story.
So just like them
we shout out as well
We claim our voices
Just like the psalmists who cry out for God to hear us
to see us
we too cry out
For God to answer our prayers.
Perhaps the Gospel writers were just as moved by the tenacity and passion of the Canaanite woman, and were inspired to use this encounter as a teaching moment for hearers.
to show us that in spite of our perception of our worthiness
God will hear our prayers.
Maybe he co-opts their language of dismissal
and enters into this tit for tat with her
and in doing so lifts up or highlights
the courage of the woman to fight for her faith.
And when she does
O woman, great is your faith.
and he answers her prayer.
he heals her daughter.
Maybe Jesus wanted us to see that when it comes to asking for what’s desperately needed, being merely nice sometimes won’t cut it.
Sometimes we need to dig in our heels and do some hollering.
Sometimes we need to boldly ask God for what we need.
Poet Jan Richardson wrote of this story in her poem, Stubborn Blessing.
I think it captures the essence of the passage. She writes,
Don’t tell me no.
I have seen you
feed the thousands,
seen miracles spill
from your hands
like water, like wine,
seen you with circles
and circles of crowds
pressed around you
and not one soul
Don’t start with me.
I am saying
you can close the door
but I will keep knocking.
You can go silent
but I will keep shouting.
You can tighten the circle
but I will trace a bigger one
around the life of my child
who will tell you
no one surpasses a mother
I am saying
I know what you
can do with crumbs
and I am claiming mine,
every morsel and scrap
you have up your sleeve.
Unclench your hand,
Let the scraps fall
for the life
of my child,
the life of
Don’t you tell me no.
Perhaps this is the lesson Jesus wants us to learn here.
That we should become the Canaanite woman
And plea for our place at the table
So just like her, we are to cry out
cry out for others who are experiencing demons in their lives.
cry out for justice, for peace, for healing.
After all, this is our Christian vocation
Not just to lift up our own prayers, but
to side with those on the margins
and become their voice as well.
And this is what we do every Sunday when we gather her for worship.
We intercede for those who long for healing and hope
we pray for those who feel hopeless and helpless in a world that seems so disrupted
We pray for those who might feel like they’re on the outside
and we, like the Canaanite woman, persist for their sake
We pray for not just our children
but for all children
Because God hears our prayers.
In 1 Thessalonians, St. Paul implores us to “pray without ceasing” (5:17) and we should!
why bother if we don’t believe God will answer our prayers?
Why petition God if it’s futile?
Maybe in this story, Jesus is showing us it is not futile.
that we might be perceived as lowly by others
that the world might have cast us aside
and we might believe that our voices have been silenced
But God hears us
It might seem impossible.
It might seem a reach
but be bold.
Believe that Jesus is still in the business of working miracles, changing lives, and ushering in the reconciliation of this world.
So come to the table.
all of you
Hold out your hands for these crumbs
these sacred crumbs
the same crumbs the Canaanite woman begged for
and experience the life-changing power they offer
This is the body of Christ, given for you
A morsel and sip are enough, yes more than enough, at Jesus’ table.
Because when we come to Jesus’ table
we are healed
we are liberated from whatever ails us
It is Christ who makes us worthy
And with this worthiness
we are sent out
renewed and recharged
to speak out
To proclaim the kingdom where outcasts are now able to be examples of faith and tenacity and compassion and bravery
Where all are welcome at the table.
And thanks be to God for that.
Text: Genesis 28:10-19a
I recently had the opportunity to go see one of my favorite pastors, Rob Bell, speak live—
He’s a former mega-church pastor who is now a world-famous writer and speaker.
Some of you might be familiar with him
If not, I have every single book he has ever written— in hardback, lovingly stored and cared for in my office.
Not that I’m a superfan or anything…
But his most recent book is called, “What Is the Bible?”
It’s a terrific book, really.
If you want to borrow it, let me know
And it’s premise or rather, it’s perspective—is looking at the Bible through the human lens, asking the questions:
What did these stories mean to the original audience?
What does this tell us about how these people or this person in this particular place and time view or experience God?
Why are these details important?
Why did whoever wrote this down feel the need to do so?
When you read Scripture through this lens, it really does seem to open it up, so to speak, and bring these ancients texts to life
Making them interesting from a historical sense
And all the more incredible in the present tense
in them we are offered illustrations of incredible ways in which God was at work then and perhaps how God is at work now.
So as I was thinking about the texts for this week, preparing for today’s sermon,
I began asking some of these questions,
and in doing so, the story of Jacob’s Dream in Genesis, really stood out in a unique way.
So let’s visit that story
We have Jacob here who I never knew until I started really reading the Bible wasn’t always the most stand-up guy
but more on that later
so he’s running from his brother Esau because he’s stolen his blessing
-remember that story- where he dresses up like his brother to trick his nearly-blind father into getting his blessing?
Now this might seem quirky
Because in our contemporary minds and in our contemporary world-
we could easily make the legal case that this blessing was secured under false pretenses and thus should be rendered null and void!
But that’s not how things worked in the ancient world
In the ancient world, a blessing was something that was real and almost tangible.
it afforded you all the legal benefits of inheritance
And once offered could not be rescinded.
So Jacob steals Esau’s inheritance and Esau- Jacob’s brother – is willing to kill him for it
In fact, he has stated that he intends to do so
So Jacob’s mother
He was quite the mama’s boy (not that I know anything about that!)
sent him off to her brother Laban’s house in Haran to hopefully wait out Esau’s rage
And that’s where we find Jacob
He’s on the run
He’s probably scared and stressed
Experiencing great shame
He seems to have made a mess of his life
And his only option was to flee for safety
So it’s gotten dark and he’s decided to stop for the night to camp and get some sleep
And here is where the story really gets interesting—
He uses a rock for a pillow
and somehow falls asleep and dreams
And in this dream he has a vision of angels ascending and descending a ladder to heaven
And then God appears to Jacob
and reminds him of who He is
“I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac!”
and he proceeds to inform him that where he is standing is holy ground and reminds him of his future
that he will be a blessing to all the families of the earth
that his offspring will be numerous
and that God will never leave him
And at once Jacob awakes from his dream and proclaims
“Surely the Lord is in this place— and I did not know it!”
The Lord comes to us
sometimes in the most surprisingly of instances
But God is always present—
in this place
working for our benefit
Behind the scenes.
Earlier we celebrated a holy baptism
In this experience, as Lutherans, we know and confess that God promises to show up in the water
But it doesn’t mean God wasn’t already there
But in there waters
and in the meal of holy communion
we are assured of God’s presence
in that place
Now let’s revisit this story through the lens i mentioned earlier
Jacob lays down to sleep and uses a rock for a pillow
Now why would the writers feel the need to mention that?
Why would he be described as using a rock for a pillow?
We can never know for sure
But how many of you have laid down to sleep
with the world so heavy
your burden so great
that your pillow was like a rock
That your circumstances seemed so great that nothing could offer you comfort
nothing could offer you rest
not even your pillow
that your pillow might as well have been a rock
But in spite of this
In spite of whatever you have done
wherever you are
whatever demons you are fleeing
or whatever past you are escaping
Whatever guilt you are trying to free yourself of
So the vision Jacob has in the dream is one of angels at work and not only that, God actually shows up
in this place
So in the midst of the suffering Jacob is enduring
in the midst of the weight for which he lays his head
Jacob is offered a glimpse into the working of God
God not only has shown up
but is at work
Jacob is offered a vision of he kingdom of God
actively at work in the place of his struggle
It’s almost as if God has lifted this veil and to show the holy work going on behind the curtain
even in the midst of this confusing time of fear, doubt, and shame
God shows up
is at work
acknowledges this reality
and what does he do?
He takes that stone that has been his pillow
and he what?
he makes an altar with it.
He offers up to God that struggle for which God has transformed
-acknowledging that God has redeemed it
-honoring that God is at work
that even in the struggle
you are not alone.
Has this ever happened to you?
Have you ever had something in your life that at the time seemed so removed from anything holy
did you look back and see God at work
redeeming this pain?
transforming it to something for God’s glory?
So today, friends
I invite you to reflect on this
look back on your life
and see where
even during the worst of times
the most difficult of times
when your pillow even felt like a rock
and in doing so, God actualized the promise St. Paul speaks of in Romans 8:28 when he says,
“we know that all things work together for good”
That God can and does redeem all things
We might not know why
and we might still be awaiting for this to happen
Like Jacob we might be in the midst of it
where we are fleeing something
we are running from the pain that maybe we caused
Jacob made his bed for sure
perhaps that’s why his pillow feels like a rock
But we must never forget that
But after this meaningful revelation
after Jacob proclaims “Surely God is in this place—and I did not know it!”
What’s the next line?
And he was afraid.
Because sometimes God shows up
sometimes God redeems the pain in our life
giving it new meaning
and it’s scary
Sometimes we aren’t sure what to do with this new life
Maybe we are newly sober and we aren’t sure how we are going to ever be fun again
or make new friends
or keep the old friends
without drinking again
Maybe God has shown up but we have to answer for some big mistakes we’ve made—
in a relationship
or at home
we have to handle the consequences to get through it
to get to the other side
And it’s scary
or maybe God has shown up
freeing you from a painful situation
and setting your path on a better one
but the next steps are terrifying and you’re not quite sure you have what it takes
that God is with you
God has shown up
and God always keeps God’s promises
I think the writers of this passage wanted its original readers or listeners to know this
and I think God wants us to hear this today
that even in the midst of a frightening situation
even a situation that is of your own doing
God is with you
the entire way
God is at work in the situation
and will keep God’s promises
Even in your darkest hour
You’re not alone
Text: Matthew 10:24-39
I think it’s safe to say that for the disciples, being associated with Jesus is a dangerous thing.
Are you with me?
Week after week, As we’ve journeyed with the disciples through the readings we constantly hear Jesus warn them that following him will not be easy to say the least.
It will involve risk.
And not just little risks, but risks to their freedom, their personal safety, even the safety of their families and friends.
With every step, their very lives are on the line.
To us modern Christians, it might seem strange that the teachings of Jesus could be so dangerous.
It seems strange that lives marked by love, equality, forgiveness, and justice would be such threatening forces.
But it’s important for us to remember the context of Matthew’s gospel.
Remember the power of the day was the Roman Empire. And Rome crucified those who threatened its control over society. It’s how they maintained their control.
And any movement, regardless of how seemingly peacefully, would be perceived as a threat and dealt with severely.
This is the reality of empire.
Empire makes no room for co-existence.
Empire does not compromise.
Empire sets the rules and stomps down any resistance- any questions of or challenges to
And yet, in spite of all this, Jesus urged the brave disciples on.
Warning them of the risks but encouraging them of the rightness of the cause.
That serving the God of Creation is far more important than serving Empire.
But for many, it will challenge the usual way living.
Because God’s way doesn’t conform to the realities of the world.
In fact, it’s often the opposite of customary norms.
And with that comes great risk.
The way of Christ was a call to resist the norms of empire—
the oppression of the weak,
the hoarding of resources so few had much, and many had little.
a life lived under the shadow of fear
Jesus and his disciples resisted these norms, challenging them— speaking up for the oppressed and encouraging lives marked by sharing and equality.
Jesus and the disciples describes a life where fear didn’t have the final word
that trust and hope were the guiding forces.
But this didn’t make it easy for the lives of the disciples
It complicated not just their interactions with the authorities
but their personal relationships as well.
Those living under empire weren’t keen on the disruptions folks challenging empire invited.
Because it usually invited trouble
and that trouble had a tendency to trickle down to everyone
making everyone’s lives more difficult
Most were content with living under the radar
Maybe not thrilled with the reality but not interested in inviting trouble either
Just go about your business
Don’t cause any trouble
and we will all live to see another day.
Jesus warned the disciples that their actions would cause conflict with those wishing to stay under the radar.
He says in verse 34 “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword”
Surprising to hear that, coming from Jesus, isn’t it?
But what Jesus is saying here is not that His message is one of violence—
quite the opposite
he is advising them that their countercultural actions
their resistance- even peaceful-
will likely bring division and conflict even among those who love them the most
man and father
daughter and mother
daughter-in-law and mother-in-law
that even in their own households, the change they are seeking will be met with division.
But still he urges them on
and seeks to reassure them
Reminding them of the divine source of their plight
“Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell”
Jesus reminds them that their mission is aligned with the God of Creation.
And that they are protected by God
maybe not in the way they might expect
Jesus doesn’t promise they won’t suffer
but that what’s important- the soul— will be protected and kept intact.
Because they matter
they are seen
They are loved and valued by God.
every hair on their head is counted
Jesus seeks to align their mission with its eternal significance.
Reminding them of their importance and the importance of this mission
Its not just their mission, but God’s mission
To usher in a new reality.
Yes, Jesus warns the disciples of the dangers
but reminds them of the divine protection they are afforded for it.
And the theme behind of all of this
The ultimate message Jesus gives them for all of their sacrifice
all of their risk
He’s telling them- It’s worth it.
And they won’t be alone.
Jesus was with those disciples who suffered for their faith.
And in the same way, Jesus is with those disciples today who suffer for their faith.
Because in some ways the situation is the same for many
There are still those
Who jeopardize their lives, risking it all for their faith.
There are those who live in parts of this country and around the world where they continue to suffer for their faith in ways we will likely never experience and can scarce imagine.
And yet Jesus is with them in the same way.
Reminding them that every hair on their head is counted
and that God has their backs.
That this is a divine mission.
And that in spite of it all, it’s worth it.
The same is true for us.
Because we might not experience the same risks for standing up for our faith.
It’s unlikely that we face death, arrest, or imprisonment as the disciples in Matthew’s community or even those in places around the world might
But we still face challenges.
There is still the risk of division for holding fast to the way of Christ.
In many ways, following Jesus is still countercultural
It still threatens many of societal’s norms.
Many of our traditional values, rooted and based in our understanding of the Christian norms established by our faith
are mocked in society for being “old-fashioned” and “dated”
In our pluralistic world which is becoming more and more secular, standing up for our faith oftentimes opens us up to ridicule, judgement, mocking
How many of us have been in that freshman religion class where the professor seemed to almost delight in mocking our Christian values.
Or how many of us have been teased by our more “enlightened” friends- maybe even those who deem themselves “spiritual but not religious” who mock us for some of the elements of our faith traditions.
Or how many of us have been called names or politically labeled for taking stances for justice and equality, again rooted and based in our understanding of the Christian norms established by our faith.
It seems no matter which way we turn, living out our faith—following the way of Jesus- offers us up for ridicule and judgment.
Perhaps the division Jesus speaks of in this passage
applies to us as well today.
Perhaps the meaning is the same
that he did not come to bring peace, but a sword.
Jesus knows that a life of faith brings challenges.
It resists the norms of the world and oftentimes empire
and with that often comes division and discord
But he tells us, over and again
it’s worth it.
Jesus tells the disciples— and us today- “whoever does not take up their cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it”
This is our goal
to find the life that is truly life
to live a life worth of our calling as disciples of Jesus.
Folks, this is what we are here for.
And its worth it.
Jesus tells us
All the risk
All the threats
all the division and discord
It’s worth it.
Every hair on our head is counted.
We are seen
We are valued
We are protected by a loving God
the creator of the universe who promises to be us now and forever
So stand strong, people of God, when you take a stand for your faith.
It’s worth it.
Stand up for those values that you hold dear, even when those at your work, in your social circles, or even your family mock them
Because its worth it
Stand up for those on the margins- whoever you perceive them to be-
because it’s worth it
Continue to be the living presence of Christ in a world in desperate need of it.
And just as Jesus was with those early disciples
Jesus is with us as well
amid the discords in our personal lives, families, communities, congregations, nation, and world.
Jesus is with us
Urging us on
and reminding us that whatever lives we might think we are losing
we are actually finding them
lives that are truly lives
Lives of true purpose
And its worth it.
Text: Acts 1:6-14
“Why do you stand here looking up toward heaven?”
Imagine this scene-
In a grand conclusion to an incredible, roller coaster of a journey-
a journey filled with awe-inspiring highs and terror-inducing lows
a journey of mind-boggling lessons, inspiring promises, and confusing challenges
a journey filled with extraordinary visions and miracles
Jesus is meeting with his disciples one last time.
They’re all gathered together, much like they have been for the last 40 or so days.
And Jesus gives one more promise
the promise that they will all be receiving the power of the Holy Spirit to continue his work here and throughout the ends of the earth
A power greater than what they could imagine
Jesus airlifts out of there in this grand, theatrical departure and disappears into the clouds.
Being a movie guy, I imagine it like the end of ET- remember that movie- when the kids are all standing there watching ET’s spaceship lift off after his family and friends have come back to retrieve ET and take him home
and the kids are just standing there in awe watching the ship as it takes off— wind roaring through their hair and the lights from the ship illuminating their faces and lighting up the night sky.
And just like that, its gone
and the darkness returns
the wind dies down
and the quiet settles back in
and they’re left standing in wonder at the experience they just shared
And at this point in our story
After Jesus has ascended into heaven
two men dressed in white appear beside them and ask,
“Men of Galilee, why do you stand here looking up toward heaven?”
Almost like, “guys, guys- there’s nothing more to see here!
Jesus… has left the building.”
In many ways this is the ultimate conclusion to Jesus’ ministry because it officially establishes Jesus as Lord.
Jesus has ascended to the right hand of the Father.
And this is not a location, obviously
but more of a change of status
And not the change of status like on Facebook where you change from “Single” to “Married” or “It’s Complicated” but something more along the lines of
“Now imparted all power and authority over heaven and earth”
Jesus is now Lord of all
He now reigns over all of Creation.
And this isn’t the end of the story, really.
But only the beginning
The ascension doesn’t mean the end of Jesus’ ministry
It doesn’t mean that Jesus has finally departed forever,
releasing the world to its people and their own devices
The ascension doesn’t mean an absence of Jesus
quite the opposite
The ascension initiates the next chapter in God’s mission in the world
Before he ascends however he reminds the disciples that they will receive the power of the Holy Spirit
Through the Holy Spirit, Jesus is and always will be present among them
And this power will now animate them individually and collectively so that they now will become even larger players in God’s mission
they will have a part in continuing Jesus’ work on earth.
God has impressive things in store
The excitement— the real work—has only just begun.
The men in white basically ask them, “why are you just standing there?”
Why are you just standing there?
There’s nothing else up there to see!
Everything is here and now
You know what to do
So go do it!
You are now to be Jesus’ witnesses here in Jerusalem and then spread out to Judea and Samaria and eventually to the ends of the earth.
The work now falls on you.
But not just you alone, of course
You now have the power of the Holy Spirit
which is Christ’s spirit working in and through you
to strengthen you
to motivate you
to animate you
to go be active collaborators with God’s redemptive work
But sometimes, we still find ourselves looking up to the heavens
waiting for divine intervention
waiting for God to act in some miraculous way.
There’s this story about
A fellow who was stuck on his rooftop in a flood.
He was praying to God for help.
Soon a man in a rowboat came by and the fellow shouted to the man on the roof, “Jump in, I can save you.”
The stranded fellow shouted back, “No, it’s OK, I’m praying to God and he is going to save me.”
So the rowboat went on.
Then a motorboat came by. “The fellow in the motorboat shouted, “Jump in, I can save you.”
To this the stranded man said, “No thanks, I’m praying to God and he is going to save me. I have faith.”
So the motorboat went on.
Then a helicopter came by and the pilot shouted down, “Grab this rope and I will lift you to safety.”
To this the stranded man again replied, “No thanks, I’m praying to God and he is going to save me. I have faith.”
So the helicopter reluctantly flew away.
Soon the water rose above the rooftop and the man drowned. He went to Heaven. He finally got his chance to discuss this whole situation with God, at which point he exclaimed, “I had faith in you but you didn’t save me, you let me drown. I don’t understand why!”
To this God replied, “I sent you a rowboat and a motorboat and a helicopter, what more did you expect?”
Oftentimes we are so busy looking up that we miss the active presence of Jesus in our midst.
We are so busy waiting for God’s action that we miss the cue that God’s action is often OUR action
It is God working through us to fulfill God’s mission
Where is God prompting you?
Where are you being invited to participate in God’s mission here on earth?
To collaborate with God.
We are already equipped.
God has blessed each of us with unique qualities
that empower us to fulfill God’s mission
“Oh no, not me” you might say to yourself
I’m just a simple person—
Nothing really special about me—
God doesn’t make junk, you might have heard people say
and that’s true
It’s likely the case that God is gently tapping you on the shoulder
inviting you to participate
but you, too, might be stuck there, standing around looking up into the clouds
waiting for God to act
Friends, God is acting
in each of us
“why do you stand there looking up to heaven?”
It makes sense that this passage for today is 1st chapter in the Book of Acts,
this exciting, breath-taking depiction of the early days of the church
It reads almost like an adventure novel
with its depiction of the spreading of the gospel
from Jerusalem to the whole Roman Empire
from its Jewish roots
to the Gentile world
The book is sometimes called “The Acts of the Holy Spirit” because of the writer’s strong emphasis on the work of the Holy Spirit.
How the Spirit formed and guided the new church.
From a small group of Jewish believers
to a worldwide movement
Yes, thankfully, the disciples didn’t just stand there, looking up
waiting on Jesus to return
They eventually returned to Jerusalem
Gathered together in prayer
and waited on the arrival of the Holy Spirit
the same Holy Spirit who makes Jesus Christ present to us and in us today
They launched their destinies of being the church and building the church
around the world
Cross and Crown, how are we being the church?
How is the Holy Spirit working through us?
Are there ministries you feel we should be doing?
important initiatives we should be pursuing?
People we should be helping?
Is there a way we could more actively collaborate with God not just around the world but right here in Matthews? In our own communities?
Let’s talk about it
We have the power of the Holy Spirit
Urging us forward
Let’s not find ourselves, mouths agape, simply standing there
staring into the heavens
waiting for a “sign”
Let’s open our eyes to the world around us
full experiencing the ongoing presence of the Risen Christ work in us and through us
to continue the redemptive work of God in the world.
Text: John 14:1-14
The setting is Jesus’ farewell address at his last supper with his disciples.
A lot has taken place.
Jesus has washed his disciples’ feet and has explained to them what this means.
He has foretold his betrayal by Judas, and Judas has slipped out into the night.
He has told his disciples that he will be with them only a little while longer, and that where he is going, they cannot come, at least for now.
He has also foretold Peter’s imminent denial. So with all this, the disciples as my mom would say, are “fit to be tied”.
No wonder they’re troubled! Their beloved teacher is leaving them, one of their own has turned against them, and the reliable leader among the disciples is said to be on the cusp of a great failure of loyalty. It is as though the ground is shifting beneath their feet.
Ever felt like this?
Jesus responds to their anxiety by saying, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me.”
It’s like he’s saying, “look at me—don’t worry”
Jesus calls them back to this fundamental relationship of trust
He assures them that he is not abandoning them as they might fear.
But rather, he is returning to his Father and will prepare a place for them there as well.
So do not despair
There are many dwellings in his Father’s house, he tells them, and once they are there, they will be with him and dwell with him in this intimate relationship.
Jesus is using this image to comfort and reassure the disciples whose world’s are in the midst of being turned upside down.
He’s going ahead to get things all ready for them.
and this will be a place of loving provision, comfort, and safety.
Depending on the translation, different words have been used to describe the image Jesus is employing. Many of you might have grown accustomed to hearing “in my father’s house there are many rooms”
A more literal description is “dwelling places”
But nevertheless, the imagery of houses, rooms, and dwelling places all
describe a place where the disciples will reside intimately with God.
Safe from the troubles that plague them
Protected from the people who threaten their lives
For most of us, at least
Home is a lot like this, don’t you think?
A place of loving protection and comfort.
When I left for college and started life on my own as an adult, any time things got overwhelming or maybe even a little scary-
maybe I was faced with a difficult decision or
experienced a loss or disappointment
or maybe was just stressed out about an upcoming test or presentation
a good respite from life was to go home for the weekend.
Like most, this made my mama very, very happy.
It didn’t happen too often but when it did she made it count
She would have my room all ready-
my bed would be made up and ready
clean sheets and blankets turned down
with fresh cut flowers on the bedside table
The refrigerator would be filled with my favorite dessert at the time- caramel flan
And not just one but usually six!
and for dinner I would have my favorite meal, steak peas and mashed potatoes
This explains a lot about me doesn’t it?
I felt loved and secure and comforted
Whatever was troubling me at that time would melt away
And I would be able to reenter my life recharged and ready to conquer the world
Maybe this describes what Jesus is trying to do with the disciples.
As I studied this passage this week and reflected on the fact that today is Mother’s Day, I was struck by how maternal Jesus’s actions are here.
Yes, Jesus is a man- but doesn’t mean he can’t be maternal.
I think all of us are capable of demonstrating both paternal and maternal characteristics regardless of our gender.
I’ve known several people who actually shared that it was their father who was the more maternal one growing up.
Conversely, I’ve known guys who learned the most about being a man not from their fathers, but their mothers.
When Kristan was sick, I certainly had to hone my maternal skills to close the gap before she was able to come home.
And I was able to do this by imitating the two best moms I know- Kristan and my own mother.
Just like my mom did for me when I would come home for the weekend, Jesus is tabling his own needs and instead focusing on the needs of his disciples. Comforting them, reassuring them, and lovingly preparing them for what’s ahead.
More concerned about making sure they are ok then whether or not he was.
Putting their needs first.
Remember- he’s on the way to the cross and he knows this- but instead, he’s more concerned about their concerns.
He is comforting
He is compassionate
He offers security and gentle guidance.
Sounds like a lot of moms I know.
We can learn a lot about God and Jesus by looking to our own moms or mothering figures
Because whether is was your own mother, or your grandmother, aunt, friend, or really anyone
chances are, someone along the way “mothered” you, in a way that made you feel the same way Jesus is helping the disciples feel at that moment.
There is a hymn called “Mothering God you gave me birth” which we will sing shortly.
The inspiration for this hymn comes from the writings of 14th-century mystic, Julian of Norwich
When Julian was 30 and living at home, she suffered from a serious illness and was presumed to be near death. As a result, a priest came to administer the last rites of the Catholic Church. As part of the ritual, he held a crucifix in the air above the foot of her bed. Julian reported that she was losing her sight and felt physically numb, but as she gazed on the crucifix she saw the figure of Jesus begin to bleed. Over the next several days, she had a series of sixteen visions of Jesus Christ. Julian wrote about her visions immediately after they had happened in a book titled, Revelations of Divine Love. It is believed to be the earliest surviving book written in the English language by a woman.
Julian of Norwich went on to live a life of prayer and solitude and became a noted counselor and theologian. She continued writing, oftentimes focusing on these visions and the impact they had on her faith and her theology. In her work, she described Christ as our “true mother,” one who is wise, loving and merciful. Although she did not have children of her own, Julian emphasized how the bond between mother and child is one of the best examples of an earthly relationship which comes close to the relationship a person can have with Jesus.
One of intimacy and compassionate care.
And the comparisons between Jesus and mothers don’t stop with just the lovey dovey— remember the story of Jesus bursting into the temple and overturning the tables? Yep, that would be my mom also if anyone ever crossed me or my sister.
Hell hath no fury like a mama whose babies have been hurt! Can I get an amen?
Rabbi Maggie Wenig used maternal imagery in a popular sermon she wrote about God. In it she says:
“God holds our face in her two hands and whispers, “Do not be afraid, I will be faithful to the promise I made to you when you were young. I will be with you. Even to your old age I will be with you. When you are grey headed still I will hold you. I gave birth to you, I carried you. I will hold you still”
Trusting in God to
To be loved and assured.
To Safe and comforted.
These are the aims of our maternal figures whoever they might be.
And these are the aims of Jesus with the disciples in today’s passage.
So on this special day when we honor our mothers and mothering figures, I pray that in this maternal nature you will catch a glimpse of Jesus who empowers all of us to act in this manner.
and in doing so you will also draw closer to a God who offers you the same loving care.
Thanks be to God.
Text: John 20:19-31
In this scene the disciples are all hovered in fear in a locked room. Their leader and rabbi has just been publicly and brutally executed and now they’re fearing for their safety- maybe even their lives. They’re worried they’ll be arrested and possibly executed themselves for their support of Jesus’s alleged conspiracy against the authority of Imperial Rome.
I would imagine that some might even be afraid that maybe they were wrong about all this. Sure, Mary came and told them that she had witnessed the Risen Lord, but can she be trusted? Maybe it had just been a gardener or a passer-by that spoke to her. Peter and John went with her and all they saw was an empty tomb and left behind linens. That’s not really proof of anything. Someone could have taken him.
I imagine their minds racing with fear and worry, and maybe even sadness and disappointment.
But then, out of nowhere, Jesus appears and says “Peace be with you.” And the disciples were understandably relieved, comforted, and I would imagine affirmed in their faith.
Unfortunately, Thomas wasn’t there, so they rushed out to tell him about their experience with the Risen Lord. But Thomas wasn’t convinced. He quieted them and told them he wouldn’t believe unless he actually sees the marks on his hands with his own eyes and even places his fingers in them and his hands in his side.
Eight days later, Jesus appears again to the disciples and this time Thomas is with them. And as if he had overheard his request, Jesus offers Thomas the opportunity to touch his crucifixion wounds. And with that, Thomas is overwhelmed and I imagine dropped to his knees and in a confession of faith, proclaims, “My Lord and My God!”
Thomas and the disciples were blessed to have an actual, physical appearance by Jesus Christ to affirm their faith and to assuage their fears.
On some level, aren’t we all wanting that, too?
Aren’t we hoping to hear the audible voice of God to thunder down and answer our questions?
To tell us whether or not to take that job?
To enter into that relationship?
Or to make that move?
In those times when our faith is waning, don’t we sometimes wish Jesus would just appear as he did to the disciples and say something like, “See Brook— totally real. I told you! Feel better?”
It’s normal to want these things.
We live in a culture where “seeing is believing”
Mystery has no place in our modern existence.
There is concrete proof and that is it.
If we don’t see it with our own eyes, it’s not real.
What I invite you to consider today is that Christ does appear to us
Just like he did to Thomas and the disciples on that frightening night 2,000 years ago.
In very real ways.
He does it through us.
We become the Risen Christ for one another.
German pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer speaks of this in his book Life Together. He writes:
“Christ became our brother in order to help us; through Christ other Christians have become Christ for us…Other Christians stand before us as the sign of God’s truth and grace…”
Jesus promises to show up in these moments when we need to experience the risen Christ
Sometimes it’s in the encouraging words of a loved one, when you’re experiencing loss
Sometimes its in the forgiveness you offer to someone for whom you’ve had a disagreement.
Sometimes its meals for your family when you have to be out of town
When we allow Christ to work through us
We help others experience the Risen Christ.
And when we do this
we become the Church here on earth.
Becoming Christ’s hands and feet
Experience is believing.
And that’s the beauty and the power of being the Church today.
As part of the body, we are Christ to one and another
Together, we are able to be Christ in ways we would never be able to on our own.
Collectively, God works through us so our reach can become all the more vast-
So others far and wide may have the experience of Jesus.
Experience is believing.
Recently I met with my friend Chandler, who works for Lutheran World Relief.
Over lunch, we were discussing how the Risen Christ works through us – the church
We talked about how we have the unique opportunity—the privilege- to be the Risen Christ to people not only in our communities but throughout the world.
We started talking about how war and strife in particular are plaguing so many countries now
And how war impacts the food supply chains of these communities.
He shared with me how Lutheran World Relief is building bakeries in Aleppo in war-torn Syria.
The city- one of the oldest in the world- has been laid waste from years of fighting.
And the people who have not already fled the area are left alone to try to feed their families.
A staple in the diet is pita bread – it’s almost an essential part of every meal in that area.
Through building just 2 bakeries- 2! –
These bakeries are employing 30 citizens as bakers in an economy where jobs are scarce and —get this-
are able to produce up to 9 TONS of bread a day
which feeds 80,000 people
with just two bakeries.
By collaborating with organizations such as Lutheran World Relief, we can directly help people from around the world have an experience with the Risen Christ.
that’s the power of the church.
And the symbolism is not lost either
Think about this—they’re bakeries!
As Christians we know that bread is a sign of new life
So as the church we are bringing new life to a country in desperate need.
And whats even more cool is that our original plan for lunch was to eat somewhere entirely different, but at the last minute, we decided to go across the street.
To the Mediterranean restaurant.
So here we are, two dudes in North Carolina, discussing the incredible work of the church, feeding people in need with pita bread—
while eating pita bread.
Only the Holy Spirit could arrange for something so incredible, don’t you think?
Can I get an Amen?
Experience is believing.
We don’t know how this works.
Does Jesus just magically pop in when we need him, like some sort of divine Mary Poppins?
Maybe, but probably not—
Luther writes —
“The evangelist (John) says not that they saw him enter, but that he appeared in their midst which sounds as if he had been there already— hidden and now revealed…”
It’s encouraging when you think about it.
That Christ is always among us
And when we work together
and care for one another
We not only become, but we experience the risen Christ already in our midst.
Because experience is believing.
Like Thomas, it’s normal to seek the proof of our faith in tangible ways.
But perhaps if we take the leap of faith
to expand our imaginations to consider the experience of the Risen Christ in the work of others
it will touch us in ways far deeper and more meaningful than tangible proof.
And maybe this experience will prompt us not just to be convinced
But be transformed.
Experience is believing.
Thanks be to God.
In many ways our world has never been more divided.
Frustration, fear, and anger are casting shadows all over the world
Governments are dropping chemical bombs on their own children
Tribes are refusing humanitarian aid for their starving people in order to maintain power and control
Even in our own country, families are being divided and communities are falling apart all because of differences of opinion
Watching or reading the news has almost become an unbearable task as we are bombarded with headlines and stories of division, anger, and hate.
It’s easy to feel powerless, isn’t it?
Things weren’t so different in the ancient world.
At the time of Jesus, the Roman Empire was exercising ruthless domination
leaving the people of Israel desperate for hope and salvation
Like many of us today, the people felt hopeless in the face of so much suffering and pain.
They too were looking for a new path forward
In the Gospel reading tonight, Jesus startles his disciples when in the middle of supper, he gets up, removes his outer clothing, and begins to wash their feet.
None of them quite know what to do as this action is such a countercultural move
They’re not even sure what it means
It’s a reversal of everything they’ve ever known
Leaders do not serve like this, they are served!
But Jesus is demonstrating for them a different form of leadership
It’s a symbolic gesture, but a powerful one.
By washing their feet, Jesus isn’t just showing hospitality
He’s demonstrating for them an entirely new way to live.
Jesus is showing them that in God’s Kingdom humble service is the ultimate power.
It is love that dismantles oppressive forces and unites people.
It is love that liberates.
We spend so much of our time and energy searching for these miracle solutions to the world’s problems
We exhaust ourselves, debating and arguing in an attempt to find that silver bullet
when the Bible shows us that the solution is right in front of us-
it’s the power of love
In the interest of pragmatism, we are quick to dismiss the power of love as whimsical folly when Jesus is telling us just the opposite.
that yes, love is the ultimate power.
It is love that will ultimately have the final say.
But loving isn’t always easy is it?
Just like the disciples in that day, we build all these barriers between one another
The color of our skin
how much money we make
how much education we’ve had
our political affiliations
even our religious affiliations
Pretty soon, we’ve created for ourselves so many barriers that can we no longer
see each other
or hear each other
let alone love each other.
But Jesus is showing us that
True love requires mutuality
True love requires vulnerability.
True love requires humility
And only when we open ourselves to these elements can the power of love truly be harnessed.
Jesus shows us all of this when he gets on his knees and washes the feet of his disciples.
Loving is not always easy, that’s for sure.
It often requires us to move past ourselves and our own needs in the service to the other.
It sometimes asks us to place ourselves in uncomfortable situations
It sometimes asks us to love someone we don’t want to love.
When Jesus commands us to love our enemies, he knows its a difficult task indeed.
But we must remember that sitting at the table of the disciples was also Judas.
And Jesus knew good and well that Judas was going to betray him.
And it pained him deeply.
But in spite of this,
Jesus washed his feet, too.
Perhaps that is what is asked of us as well.
Maybe- just maybe- in the washing of feet Jesus is modeling for us true Christian community
commanding us to serve one another in love
to cast aside any notions of superiority
to humbly care for one another’s needs.
To break down those barriers that are keeping us from loving one another fully.
Jesus is setting up a pattern of service, of humility, of bearing one another’s burdens.
He says, “If I, your Lord and teacher, have washed your feet, you too must wash each other’s feet. I have given you an example: just as I have done, you also must do”
This is radical love.
Putting yourself out there when maybe you really don’t want to.
Offering yourself in service when maybe you feel like it is you who should be served.
This is servant leadership.
Knowing that the hour was near that he would no longer be with them, Jesus offers a final commandment or in Latin a “mandatum” which is where we get the name, Maundy Thursday
It is one that is to be the shaping motive for all of Christian community:
He says, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
And when we do this, we are living in to the promise of ushering in the the kingdom of heaven.
So equipped with the power of love
and motivated by the promise
we can be Christ to one another
we can make true progress in healing some of the wounds which plague us.
We can begin to dismantle some of these barriers.
No longer will the color of our skin keep us apart
No longer will how much money we make divide us
How much education we have and don’t have will no longer be a factor in our relationships
our political affiliations
our religious affiliations
none of these will continue to divide us
none of these will stand a chance against the power of love
But we can’t do this on our own.
Quite frankly, left to our own devices, none of this really is possible.
Left to our own devices, we stay mired in our own selfishness,
paralyzed by our fears
To be liberated from these forces it will take an event bigger and stronger and more powerful
than anything we could ever imagine.
Friends, that is why we are here tonight
That is why we are walking together through the holiest of weeks
We know this big event is just around the corner
It is the event that will offer us the power of new life.
But for tonight, as a community and as the church we stand together in hopeful anticipation
locking arms in support
holding one another in love
knowing that we must get through the pain and sadness of Good Friday
to get to the glorious liberation and freedom of Sunday.
It’s just around the corner.
and for that we say,
Text: Matthew 21:1-11
It’s the year 33 AD or so
It’s probably a Sunday
And the setting is Jerusalem, now a world class city and the center of Israel’s religious life with its newly renovated temple that rivals any in the ancient world.
The city is filled with pilgrims in town for Passover.
everything is noisy and bustling
Merchants are actively selling their wares, families are moving and shuffling about.
Dust is likely filling the air as animals hauling belongings and supplies are shifting and plodding
this way and that
Chatter is everywhere.
And then, people begin to take notice of this scene developing at a distance, toward one of the entrances of the city
People are starting to whisper and point into the distance.
The interest and curiosity seems to be building
Some are grabbing each other by the arms and racing toward all the action
Something is going on but no one is quite sure what.
It appears that the crowds are noticing this man riding atop a donkey entering the city.
people are gathering on the edge of the road like its some sort of parade
many are even running alongside him seemingly to get a closer look
They’re shedding their garments and throwing them on the road in front of him for the donkey to tread upon
They’re ripping palm branches from the trees and waving them in celebration—
Gestures that everyone in the crowd know are symbols for victory—
They shout Hosanna!
Hosanna to the Son of David!
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
Hosanna in the highest heaven!
In Hebrew, Hosanna means “save us” -which considering the story is interesting, but here it is likely just a shout of praise.
But who is this guy?
And why are they all responding to him like teenage girls to the arrival of Justin Bieber?
Who is this, making such a scene?
Surely it must be someone royal and powerful, considering this level of welcome.
And this enthusiastic welcome would indeed be appropriate
if what they’re saying is true-
Because the Messiah was understood to be from the lineage of King David, Israel’s greatest king.
being a descendent of David was a prerequisite for this new king
So when they shout out “Hosanna, Son of David” they are acknowledging that he fits all the criteria of the one who is hoped for
In other words, this could be IT.
This is the image they have likely dreamt about for years.
The arrival of the Messiah.
It fits all the descriptions they’ve heard in prophecies.
Almost to a “t”
So in their hopes at least- The Messiah has come to rescue them at last
To liberate them from the tyranny of the Roman Empire.
But who is this?
Well, they know his name is Jesus.
But this is a common name at the time
Almost like John or Bob or Richard of today—
so the name wouldn’t be a big indicator
But chances are they had a good idea of who this guy was
the word was on the street, so to speak
it’s likely the word was getting out about about this traveling rabbi from Galilee who had started up a movement of sorts
He’s creating quite the buzz
People are beginning to follow him from town to town to listen to his teaching.
many even consider him to be a prophet
And all this hubbub has been getting under the skins of the religious leaders
Everything he has been saying has been challenging them
Now we have this scene which will likely only make matters worse
Because from the looks of things, people are soaking it all in and starting to get excited.
As the text says
The city was all stirred up.
Jesus knew what he was doing by setting this all up this way.
He’s no stranger to provocation
He knows good and well that the people of Jerusalem will recognize the statement he is making
They’re steeped in Scripture.
They know the prophecies.
So, just before he enters the city, he stops by a suburb of Jerusalem known as Bethphage at the Mount of Olives, and sends two of his disciples to secure a donkey and a colt for which he was to ride.
this way, he’s intentionally linking himself to, and placing himself in, the prophecy in Zechariah 9:
“Tell the daughter of Zion (which is Jerusalem)
Look, your king is coming to you,
humble and mounted on a donkey,
and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”
If you continue on with Zechariah passage, it goes even further in describing this king.
The image of a divine warrior
Promises to “set your prisoners free”
To return you to your stronghold
To restore to you double
By taking these well-understood symbols and reappropriating them, Jesus is deliberately claiming to be the promised king of Israel who will re-establish the throne of David
And they respond accordingly
When they throw their garments on the ground for him to ride over, it is reminiscent of how crowds acted when Elisha commanded the anointing of the prophet Jehu as King of Israel in 2 Kings 9:13. “hurriedly they all took their cloaks and spread them for him on the bare steps; and they blew the trumpet, and proclaimed, ‘Jehu is king’”
With his dramatic arrival into the city, Jesus is announcing that he is the king they have been waiting for. He is the Messiah that has been foretold for so many years.
And yes, he has arrived
And yes, he will save them.
And yes, he will liberate them.
But not exactly how they think…
The entire story in fact is a study in contrasts.
A king riding not on a majestic warhorse….but a donkey.
Instead of royal robes, the clothes of the poor and marginalized are rolled out on the ground like a red carpet
Here is a leader who conquers not with force, but with love, compassion, and forgiveness.
This is a kingdom not of glitz and splendor, but of lowliness and servanthood.
Now this is NOT what the people were expecting.
And we know that once they learn that their expectations are not as they think
Their shouts of Hosana will turn to hisses of “Crucify!”
But for those developments,
and to fully experience how this story unfolds,
you’ll have to come back later in the week.
See you Thursday.
Last night I returned to my hometown of Elkin, North Carolina for the night. My parents recently converted their guest house into an Airbnb (shameless plug: https://www.airbnb.com/rooms/11062826) and I decided to take advantage of one of its rare vacancies to work on the upcoming essays and paperwork I am required to complete in preparation for ordained ministry. It was a treat beyond comparison to have the luxury of a quiet house all to myself, let alone to be able to walk next door at dinner time for a delicious meal prepared by my parents.
After a restful sleep and a delicious breakfast of homemade granola and fresh scones (thanks Mom!), I decided to go for a run through my hometown. To say it was nostalgic is an understatement.
Parks have sprung up in the most wonderful of places.
There is shade where it didn’t used to be.
Beautiful structures and bridges have been erected “in memory of” friends of my parents’ friends who it seemed like just yesterday were cleaning my teeth, or playing tennis at the park downtown.
I have incredibly fond memories of my childhood hometown. As I have become a parent, I only wish for an upbringing like I had. The town is fresh from the pages of a Norman Rockwell book. Many towns such as this one, experience the ravages of time, and suffer the consequences of urban flight and neglect at the hands of either disinterest or lack of funds. But time has been kind to Elkin. In fact, over the years, it has only gotten better.
There is now an extraordinary nature trail that snakes along Big Elkin Creek, replete with waterfalls and bird sanctuaries. I had hiked along these paths and played in these areas for years as a kid, but now I suppose they have been revealed to the world and declared “official”.
There are now breweries, wineries, antique stores, and coffee shops in our historic downtown, where we used to ride our bikes and line up to watch the annual Christmas parades. The old movie theater, where we would hide in the last row and sneak our first kisses in the dark, is being renovated to be a state-of-art performing arts center.
Change is inevitable. Time has a way of doing this. Thank goodness for our memories. Our bodies might ultimately fail us, but our memories are forever shelved in our minds, free to be dusted off and revisited as often as we like, for joy and warmth.
This is how I felt on my run this morning. It was a journey through time, but it was also an exciting glimpse into the future. I could write volumes on the memories I revisited as I jogged along the landmarks of my youth. But no one would be able to truly experience them in the same way I do. Those are special glimpses, preserved only for the eyes lucky enough to have seen them first hand. I will continue to share these memories to anyone who will listen- don’t you worry about that. But for now, I wish for new and exciting memories to be formed today by this next generation of Elkin youth. My message to them: one day you’ll wake up, like I have, and realize you’re a grown adult (even though you’ve fought it the best you can!) And you will realize how lucky you are to have grown up in such a special place.
So to all the incredible people of Elkin, North Carolina, thank you for making me the man I am today. Although I wish you would have made me a little taller, I carry with me the wisdom and insights of my youth you instilled in me so many years ago. I hope to make you proud.
With love and admiration,