Authority-Its Tricky 9-28-14

In this sermon, based on Matthew 21:23-32, I explore the notion of authority. Jesus’ authority is challenged and he responds with a parable about obedience. This leads us to think about how we recognize authority and how we respond to it.

You can listen to the sermon here:
https://soundcloud.com/revdalen/authority-its-tricky-9-28-14

You can also follow along with the text of the sermon here.

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

If you have ever watched me in the final moments right before worship starts, you know that I am a pacer…when nervous energy starts in I have the tendency to just keep moving…and particularly, I pace…a lot.

I also have the tendency to get up and walk around when I’m thinking about something…sermons for instance…and this week was a perfect example. As I was trying to get my brain into sermon mode Friday afternoon, I was walking around…and as I walked I realized that I was also doing something with my hands…(hold up whistle, step out and start twirling it).

Yes I have a whistle…yes, I twirl it. (pause) But as I was doing, just that, I got to thinking about other people that have whistles…the refs at my son’s football games…teachers when they are out with the children at recess…lifeguards overseeing the safety of swimmers…and as a self-professed fine arts guy, one that I greatly appreciate…drum majors.

And thinking about drum majors reminded me of being at the football game here in Underwood just last week for the Homecoming game…as well as quite a few other home games over the past year…and something unique that I’ve only ever seen from the marching band right here in town.

At the beginning of halftime, the band marches across the field from the backside…each coming to their assigned starting position…and the drum major turns away from the band…facing up towards the crowd and the announcers box. The announcer asks if the band is ready…which the drum major acknowledges with a salute…and we hear the announcement “The field is yours.” With that brief exchange, control…or perhaps it would be better to say…authority over the field and what happens on it…transfers over to the drum major. (pause)

It’s the notion of authority that brings us into the gospel lesson for today. We find ourselves in Jerusalem…Jesus has finally made it…and upon arriving, he has gone into the temple…and Jesus does not like what he finds…and just before today’s lesson…just before our story picks up for today…Jesus has had a divine temper tantrum…losing his cool and going off on the merchants and money changers…clearing things out in the event known as the cleansing of the temple. (pause)

And as our story picks up today…the chief priests and the elders of the people confront Jesus…wanting to know just what he’s up to…why he’s justified in his actions…for what reason or purpose he feels the need to upset the status quo…or perhaps more specifically, why he’s challenging the way things work here…on their turf…where they are supposed to be in charge…in short…they question…his authority. (pause)

Now, in Jesus day, teachers…or rabbis as they are called…receive their authority from their own teacher…who in turn had received it from their teacher…and so…proper authority to teach or issue commands as Jesus has done should be backed up with two-fold…or perhaps two-name…credentials…but as we all know…Jesus tends to buck the status quo doesn’t he? And the “regular way” of doing things just doesn’t tend to apply in matters that catch his interest.

And instead of quickly snapping to the “right answer” to appease human standards…Jesus answers the challenge in his normal way…by posing a question right back at them…You question my authority? Well how about this…who gave John his authority? God…or humanity…whad’a ya think boys?

And rather than cause any sort of commotion, we see the priests decide among themselves to try and maintain the peace by walking the middle ground…by giving the easy answer…they don’t want to recognize John as having had divine authority, because he made them look bad…and yet they don’t want to deny him, because the crowds backed him and the priests don’t want to lose the favor of the people…and so they shrug their shoulders and say “we don’t know.” (pause) And Jesus responds by refusing to name the source of his authority…which of course we recognize to be the same as John…divine…but that’s getting ahead of ourselves just a touch.

And within the story, Jesus decides to explain things in yet another normal “Jesus fashion”…with a story…But admittedly, at first glance…this parable seems oddly disconnected from the present situation…Jesus is asked about authority…and he responds with a story about obedience.

A man had 2 sons…he told them both to go get to work…one said no, but then changed his mind and did it…and the other said okay…and then totally blew it off…which one was obedient to the father? (pause). Perhaps Jesus is actually asking us “which is more important? Being honest but eventually listening…or paying lip service and not following through?” (pause) But if we limit this parable in this nature…if we try to sum it up that easily…I think we miss the point…and if we stop here then perhaps we all walk out of worship today with nothing more than moral guidance and the notion that we just need to shape up and follow orders…or worse yet the idea that we can chose to walk the “right path” and earn our way into salvation…and if we do that we truly miss the connection to just what Jesus is really talking about.

Because remember, Jesus is addressing the notion of authority…where it comes from. (pause) Now perhaps it goes without saying that the religious leaders recognize that Jesus does, in fact…have authority…but what they can’t figure out is where it comes from…he doesn’t have the right 2-fold rabbi deferred credentials…and by their established human standards…they find themselves confused.

But think about authority for a bit…think about how you recognize it…who carries it…and how we respond to it. If I asked the question of which direction authority flows, what would you say…at least of the top of your head? That authority flows downhill…that it stems from the top? I don’t think you’re wrong to think that…for certainly there is evidence that this is true…all we have to do is take a look at the structure of the military to see that…but when we stop and think about it…perhaps we also begin to realize that authority is granted from the bottom up as well…because if the proposed authority fails to inspire or persuade those it is trying to influence…then is the authority really there? (pause)

In short…we grant authority to those that seek to exert it…whether we realize it or not…true authority is followed…it is respected, perhaps even earned…but most importantly…authority…is bestowed…it is given…and much like faith…it is never self-generated.

And so we see that the flow of authority…or perhaps the power within it…flows back and forth between individuals…those with the proposed authority…and those following it. (pause)
But you know what? As I stand here talking about this today…I’m struck by how much it seems to resemble a motivational speech…or perhaps a keynote address at a business leadership conference…and that is not what we need to be talking about…and so how do we begin to switch our minds over to matters of faith…I mean, just what does the question of authority have to do with us here in worship today? (pause)

And the answer is this…if authority really is a two way street…and we grant authority to those who are attempting to influence us…then the question really becomes who are we gonna listen to? (pause)

Because there are a lot of different thing flying around these days…notions and ideas that try to persuade us one way or another…things that try to make us think one way or another…things that make us try to feel one way or another…and all too often, that message…that feeling that blares in our day to day lives is the flat out lie that you…just…aren’t…good enough.

Whether its subtle advertisements that let you know that you’re life will only be complete if you lose 15 pounds…or if you have this new flashy phone…we are constantly bombarded…and it seems like we always have that little whisper in the back of our mind that calls us “worthless.” (pause)
But…we also have a God that loves us so much…that cares for us so much…that desires to be in relationship with us so much…because we are of worth…and he tells us so…he tells us that we are loved…that we are accepted…that we are…of worth…regardless of our inadequacies. (pause)

And so today, I pose you this question…which voice are you going to grant the authority to? The sly one in the back of your mind that whispers the lie that no one cares about you…that you are worthless? (Pause) Or are you going to grant the authority to the voice that says my beloved child…I love you…and there is nothing that I will not do to show you that? (pause)

We hear in the story today, that the tax collectors and the prositutes…those who were socially outside the fence…those who were considered “unacceptable” in the eyes of the religious elite…they were the ones who recognized the need to listen to that second voice…that voice that told them despite their flaws…despite their failings…that they are loved…that they are accepted…and that their minds are changed. (pause) A better way to say this…at least according to the original language…is that they turned away…that’s what it means to repent…to turn away from the sin…but its also important to note that its passive here…they are turned away by something else…by the loving voice of God, who loves them enough to forgive their sin…just as he loves you enough.

And rest assured…he loves you enough…and so today, I’ll leave you with the question one more time…there are two different voices trying to take authority over you…one that says you are without worth…and one that loves you so much that you are priceless and worth any cost…so which voice are you going to listen to? Amen.

There Is No Order In Grace 9-21-14

This sermon is based on Matthew 19:30-20:16. It is the parable of the workers in the vineyard. I explore the sense of fairness being broken by the master’s actions, but then discuss how there is no measure to God’s grace other than that we receive the fullness of it.

You can listen to the sermon here:
https://soundcloud.com/revdalen/there-is-no-order-in-grace-9-21-14

You can also follow along with the text of the sermon here.

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

Since becoming the pastor here at Underwood Lutheran, I’ve presided over two weddings, and in both of them…the placement of the individuals who made up the wedding party was the same…everyone has their place…and as I think back to the multitude of weddings that I’ve been to, regardless of my level of involvement with them, I can say that there is certainly a normal placement of people that is pretty universal…a sort of inverted V…spreading out from the front…pastor here…bride and groom here…best man and groomsmen going out that way…maid of honor and bridesmaids going out that way…ring bearer and flower girl alongside…father of bride standing out here at one point…ushers in the back… …and in my time…I’ve stood in just about all of them at least once.

I’ve stood here in the pastor’s spot…being married I’ve obviously stood in the grooms spot…I’ve been best man…I’ve been a groomsman…I’ve been a ring bearer…I’ve been an usher…I haven’t managed father of the bride yet…but my daughter is only 8, we’ll give that one some time…and believe it or not…I’ve even stood over here in the bridesmaid line…long story…I’m not going into it…but yes I have even stood there. (pause)

Being part of the wedding party is a lot of fun…but for me, the best aspect…the biggest benefit…is that you get to go through the food line first at the reception. 9 times out of 10, the wedding party is the last to get there…and yet they are the first to eat…and I pay attention to these things…because inevitably…whenever I am at a reception and have not been part of the wedding party…my table is one of the last one’s to go through line…never fails…even if I’ve been one of the first to arrive…I’m always one of the last to eat. (pause) The first will be last…and the last will be first…Sound familiar?

This phrase bookends the gospel lesson for today…and perhaps you’ve heard me say it before…but in the writing style of the New Testament…when they repeat something…it means that it’s important…and of course today our speaker is Jesus himself…The first will be last and the last will be first.

Jesus, currently in an ongoing discussion with the disciples, uses this phrase to make a point…and then he transitions into the parable that makes up the bulk of today’s lesson…and then at the end…he says the phrase again…wrapping everything up…and so I have found myself coming back to that phrase over and over again this week…not because I want to…but because that appears to be the theme of yet another one of Jesus’ parables. (pause)

The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early to hire laborers for the vineyard…they agreed on the wage…and he sent them out to get to work…Three hours later…he goes out again…Oh hey…there’s more people hanging around…Hey guys…go get to work…and I’ll pay you…and again a couple hours later…More people? Okay…go get to work…and then in a few more hours…Wow…more people…off to the vineyard…until finally, he makes one last trip right before the end of the day…and yet again…there are people standing around who have yet to be invited to work…people who lack the call into a crew…and yet again…the master says come on, I’ll hire you. (pause)

Hmmm…so the kingdom of heaven apparently has a WHOLE lot of work to do…and apparently there are a lot of people standing around lacking direction…interesting…but that’s just the start of things.

At the end of the day…once the work is over…the master decides that its time to settle accounts and brings in those late arrivals first…and low and behold…he pays them for a full day…and word trickles down the line. (pause) WOW!!! This guy is generous…they only worked for an hour…and he paid them for a full day? We’ve been here longer…some of us WAY longer…I WONDER HOW MUCH WE’RE GONNA GET? (pause)

And when the first workers finally get their paycheck…and greedily open up the envelop…expecting to see countless riches from this generous master…they are shocked…and amazed to find…exactly what they earned…exactly what the master had promised them at the beginning of the day. (pause)

And this…does not…sit well…and we hear that they begin to grumble and complain against the master…but in typical fashion, they don’t actually take it to him…the greek word here indicates a sense of quiet mumbling…similar in scope to what we might do in the midst of an argument when the other person leaves the room and we grumble about them…not really wanting them to hear what we have to say…because in all likelihood, it isn’t’ that nice…but yet we want the last word because darn it…we’re right and they’re wrong.

MASTER!!!! This isn’t fair…We have worked our tail off for you…we’ve been here all day…the whole time…we have done 10 times as much…and yet you give them the same amount as us. (pause)THAT’S NOT FAIR!

Gone is their viewpoint of the master as a generous man…now he’s just acting ridiculous…because common sense dictates that WE’VE done…far outweighs what they’ve done…we’ve earned it…they haven’t…we deserve it…they don’t. (pause)

Sound familiar? (pause) I’m sure it does…anyone with kids has heard countless arguments about fairness…I’m pretty sure that the phrase “That’s not fair” is uttered in my house at least once a day…probably more…and when we’re honest with ourselves, our views of what’s fair…what’s right…what’s justifiable…goes far beyond childhood doesn’t it?

This is something that we see all the time…smack dab in the middle of our day to day life…and perhaps in our capitalistic society…driven all too often by the almighty dollar…we run into this attitude constantly…and this parable really speaks to us…and we feel like those guys who started off the day in the vineyard are completely justified in their concern over the paycheck situation. (pause)

The notion of earning…or seniority is certainly prevalent for us isn’t it? So much so, that its second nature…this thought that those who have been at longer deserve more…that they should be justly rewarded for their work…for their service…for their time.

But Jesus tells us in this parable today that this is not the case in the kingdom of heaven…and so perhaps we try to shift our thinking now…remembering that, Oh yah, this isn’t supposed to be about money…its about the kingdom…and so we start thinking about the church…the congregation…and all the work that we’ve done over the years…has that thought ever crossed your mind? That I’ve done my part…I’ve put in the time…and maybe, just maybe I deserve the benefits more than that person…or that one…ever thought that? Even for a moment? (pause) I know I have from time to time…that notion of superiority kicks in, whether I want it to or not…guilty. (pause)
But you know what…Jesus has this amazing ability to shut me up pretty quick when he reveals the truth about things. And in typical fashion, he does the same thing here…when the master reminds us that he is allowed to do what he chooses with what belongs to him…and then Jesus reminds me again that this is about the kingdom of heaven…not money…not seniority…its about the gift of God.

God is like the master who continues to go out into the world…looking for those who have not been brought in yet…he doesn’t stop after the first trip…or the second…or the third…he keeps on going until the very last moment, continuing to bring people in…and regardless of when he finds that person…the result is the same…the full measure of God’s grace.

Because the grace of God cannot be measured out…it cannot be divided based on how long you’ve been in the body…grace doesn’t work like that…but he makes us a promise that if we call his name…if we come back into relationship with him through faith in Christ that we will receive the full measure of his grace…in its entirety.

And just as the master says to the first workers…God does us no harm by offering the same measure of grace to those that come after us…and no matter of longevity changes that grace…whether we are believer for a century or an instant…we receive the full measure of forgiveness through Jesus Christ our Lord…and we need only look to the scripture in order to believe it…

Because as Jesus hung on the cross…dying for the sins of all humankind, one of the men hanging next to him looked up and said Lord, remember me when you come into your kingdom…and Jesus looked back at him and assured him that Today…you will be with me paradise. (pause)

Friends in Christ…we know, full well, that there are times when jealousy rears its ugly head…and we all fall into the trap of thinking that we’ve earned it more than the next person…no matter what the subject is…but despite all that…despite our failings…and our sinful nature…we have a Master who is generous…who offers us the free gift of his grace…not because we earn it…but simply…because he chooses to…it doesn’t matter when you show up…only that he has called you in. Thanks be to God. Amen

 

Quality Not Quantity 9-14-14

Today’s sermon is based on Matthew 18:21-35. Within the text Peter asks Jesus to clarify how many time we are called to forgive someone who sins against us. Jesus responds far beyond Peter’s expectations, and shares the parable of the unforgiving slave. Within the sermon I explore Jesus’ response and just how we are to respond within our own lives.

https://soundcloud.com/revdalen/quality-not-quantity-9-14-14

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

Last Tuesday afternoon I ended up in Neola at the community center, cranking out a pint of blood for the Red Cross. As I sat there with my feet up chatting with the nurse, I was transported through a montage of my childhood…because playing in the background was an extended playlist of 80’s music. I heard Madonna and Tears for Fears and Prince just to name a few.

The nurse and I were joking around about it, both being children of the 80’s and the next I knew we were talking movies…and perhaps I’m biased…but I tend to think that the 80’s produced the best batch of “classic movies” out of any decade…and one in particular comes to mind. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off…arguably the pinnacle of John Hughes’ career.

If you’re unfamiliar, Ferris Bueller, a high school senior from Chicago decides that he needs one last day off from school before he graduates…and not only does he pull it off with his parents, but crazy hijinks ensue while the whole day, his principal tries to bust him…starting off with a phone call to Ferris’ mother.

Mrs. Bueller, are you aware that your son is not in school today? Do you know how many days he’s missed this year? Oh I don’t know 3 or 4? 9 times…9 times? NIIINNNNEEE TIIIMES? (pause). Within this conversation, the principal is very intentional about quantifying the number of absences of our hero…Mr Bueller.

And its this notion of quantity…of assigning a number that draws me into todays gospel lesson…Directly following last week’s passage, when Jesus gives guidelines for being reconciled with a brother or sister that has sinned against, Peter…ever the impulsive one, asks a question of clarification of Jesus…and I can about imagine just how that conversation really went. (pause)

“So, Jesus, just how many times should I forgive? Like, seven?” (thumbs up, gesturing up) “More than that, my friend.” (pause) “Ok, like seventeen?” “Not even close.” (pause)“Wait, like twenty-seven?” “Keep going.” (pause) “You’re kidding, right? Thirty-seven?” “Try seventy-seven times.” (pause) “But that’s ridiculous! Impossible![1] Seventy-Seven times?” “SEVVVEEEENTYYYY SEEEEVVVVINNNN TIIIIMES.” (pause)

Now clearly this is a shocking number for Peter, regardless of if we read it as 77 or 70 times 7…either of which are valid translations of Jesus’ response…but as we think about it, perhaps we begin by questioning Peter’s motive for his question in the first place. Jesus is talking about forgiveness…and he has told us to offer it…to be reconciled…seems pretty open and shut so just why does Peter ask in the first place?

Well, perhaps its his Jewish heritage…obviously Peter as well as the other disciples would be familiar with the law…they had the 10 commandments not to mention the rest of the over 400 laws handed down in the Old Testament…so perhaps Peter is just trying to get the specifics…making sure he’s got his bases covered…and so he offers a legitimate question of quantity…how many times must I forgive Lord? Even as many as 7 times? (pause) And interestingly enough, I think Peter is actually considering this to be a pretty generous amount…Seriously Jesus…if my brother wrongs me 7 times and I forgive him, that outa be enough right? (pause)

But Jesus, in his divine wisdom, reacts in much the same way he usually reacts to a question of this nature…but tossing it right back at the individual in a way that tends to blow their understanding right out of the water. No Peter…77 times…or 70 x’s 7…either way its an enormous amount…and think about it…are we really going to forgive someone that much? Do we have that capability…or is Jesus just throwing out some astronomical number to get us to think WAY bigger. (pause)

Now before you come up with an answer in your mind on that question…or before I try to offer you one…let’s switch gears…just like Jesus does…because for Jesus…the question of forgiveness doesn’t get a quantity. (pause)

And so Jesus switches into a parable…which he’s known to do, because he knows that we have a REALLY hard time getting past our own limitations…and in his normal style…he tells a story…a story about a king…and two servants…each who owes a debt.

And let me offer you a little perspective here…about just how different these two debts are that we hear in the story. The first servant…owning a debt to the king…that Jesus says is ten thousand talents…and the second guy, well he owes the first guy 100 denarii…and now perhaps you’re thinking “that’s all well and good pastor, but we don’t know what those values add up to.” And so…perspective…

The federal minimum wage is current $7.25/hour. Now a talent…that’s the equivalent of 15 years worth of wages…and this guy owes the king ten-thousand of them…and at $7.25/hour, 1 talent equals about $226,000 dollars…and if you multiply that by 10,000, we find the first guys debt at a little over…2…BILLION…dollars…let that sink in for just a minute. (pause) OK, and now the second guy, well he owes 100 denarii, which is the equivalent to a day’s wage…1 day…so his total debt is roughly…$6,000. No laughing matter of course…but something that’s doable…something that he could…given enough work…pay off. (pause)

That’s what we’re looking at…and interesting enough…when faced with judgment day…when faced with their debt being called in…these two men…respond the exact…same…way.

BE PATIENT WITH ME…AND I WILL PAY YOU EVERYTHING… (pause) Now the guy who 6 grand…maybe that’s not surprising…he probably could…but the other guy…roughly 6 billion in debt…yah right? Unless he’s on good terms with Warren Buffet, I kind doubt it…but yet these guys both seem to think that somehow…some way…they can pay it off themselves…that they can somehow free themselves of this cost…of this burden…

And isn’t that our normal tendancy….it must be part of the human condition…to think that somehow…someway…if we just work hard enough…or if we just say the right thing…or sway our reality with enough force that somehow, we can manage to overcome…we think it in moments when it might actually be possible…and we think it when the reality is so far beyond impossible that its not even funny…And that is the response of both of these guys today.

But what’s really interesting to note in Jesus’ story…is the response of the king…He recognizes the impossibility of the first servant ever managing to even put a dent in it…and he…forgives it…completely…its like the debt never existed in the first place…and yet despite that…this man…newly freed…cannot do the same with even a tiny amount…he can’t show the same mercy….and because of that…because of this inability to mirror the mercy first shown to him…he is punished…and Jesus tells us…that we face the same choice. (pause)

This story is all about forgiveness…but for Jesus…for God…forgiveness is not about quantity no matter how much our limited human understanding wants to make it that way. Jesus tells us, that there is no limit to the forgiveness and mercy that we are to offer our brothers and sisters…no limit…but rather that we are simply to mirror the grace offered by God when HE forgave our unpayable debt. (pause)

The apostle Paul tells us in the book of Romans that the wages of sin is death…this is the cost…the debt…the burden that we bear because of the presence of sin within our own existence…and just like that first servant…there is no way that we can do it…we are completely unable do anything about it…and not just because it is some astronomical amount of money…but because the ability to atone for sin is beyond our human ability…and so in His unfathomable mercy…God showed us grace and through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, our immeasurable debt is paid…and we are called to mirror that same mercy…that same grace for others. (pause)

But as I say all that…I’m struck by the truth of the situation…by the truth of forgiveness…and I fully realize that there are situations in our warped reality where forgiveness…is REALLY hard…and it may even seem impossible.

Sometimes it might be easy to offer…and that’s great…but what about those other times? (Pause) A few days ago was September 11th…when we as a nation remember the horror of the terrorist attack on the Twin Towers…when a force of unknown individuals broke the tranquility of our lives…and when thousands of lives were needlessly lost…and imagine if you were a family member of one of those people…and you were trying to forgive the horror of their death…that’s just one example. What about a murder of a loved one…or a betrayal of trust…or the destruction of a marriage…there are countless ways that we as individuals can do what might seem to be utterly un-forgivable to one another.

So what do we do with that? (pause) Valid question…because I think…at one time or another…we all face this reality on one side of the table…or the other…and in all likelihood, we face it from both side of the table at one time or another…I know I have.

For me…it was the inexcusable loss of a winter job…when my old boss knew full well of my intentions of working for him through the season before returning to my summer job…I had made no secret of that…and yet, out of the blue, he fired me…and I fumed over that situation for years…I always said I was over it…but anytime it came up in conversation…the person I was talking to could tell I wasn’t over it…and I hadn’t forgiven him…and even now today, as I stand before you and think about it…it still gives me pause…and I still get a bitter taste in my mouth over it. (pause) And likewise, I know that I done equally hurtful things to other people…and I know that they have struggled to let go…and to forgive…and in recognizing my own faults…my own failings…I too struggle to offer myself forgiveness…and perhaps you can understand…perhaps you face similar situations in your own lives…and so together we wonder just how to go about this whole forgiveness thing that Jesus is talking about.

And I don’t want to stand here before you today…looking down on you…and telling you that if you just believe enough it should be easy…because it’s not easy…and there is no surefire way…no amount of faith that is big enough to overcome our inability to heal and let go of the past…because even though the phrase is forgive and forget…we have a really hard time with that whole “forget” thing don’t we? (pause)

But maybe…just maybe…in order to begin the process…we must first acknowledge the pain and hurt caused between us…I read this week that forgiveness can be defined when we acknowledge that the past…hurtful as it may be…cannot be changed…when we acknowledge the reality of what has happened and that it will be forever a part of our history…and only then can we even begin to move forward.

And perhaps…the reason that Jesus tells us that we are to forgive 77 times is because we need to forgive the same thing over and over again…and maybe…just maybe…today if you have something eating at you…a past hurt…you need to simply say “Today I acknowledge it…and right now I’m gonna let it go.” And maybe it will come back in 5 minutes…or in a day…or in a month…or a year or a decade…and in that instant…when you recognize it again…and realize that we can’t change it…we let it go again…and maybe Jesus is telling us that we have to forgive the same thing over and over again…

And perhaps on the flip side, when we were the ones in the wrong…and we struggle to offer ourselves forgiveness, we need to do the very same thing…admit that we can’t change it, but repent of it and let it go…and remember that we must do the same the next time it comes up again.

Maybe forgiveness really is an ongoing process simply because we are flawed and we lack the ability to ever really let something go…but find hope in the fact that God can…and not only can he…He already…HAS…and you better believe it…because Jesus himself said. IT IS FINISHED…and you know what? There’s hope in that…but even in those times when we fail to see that hope…well…Jesus forgives that too…because that’s the quality of God’s forgiveness…for you. Amen

[1] Credit for this little exchange belongs to Karoline Lewis in her commentary on the Working Preacher website

http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=3322

Be Reconciled 9-7-14

This sermon is based on Matthew 18:15-20. Jesus offers instructions on being reconciled when there is sin between believers.

You can listen to the sermon here:
https://soundcloud.com/revdalen/be-reconciled-9-7-14

You can also follow along with the text of the sermon here.

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

I have always enjoyed history…there is just something exciting about visiting the past either through exploring historical facts, or hearing stories, or seeing different artifacts that connect us to the past. Because of this, I’ve often visited different museums and historical sites…something that my parents encouraged as I was growing up…and I can remember several different times when we would visit places of historical significance.

One instance that for whatever reason has always stuck with me was a visit to an old one room school house. Perhaps I feel a connection to this old style of school because my grandfather actually started in a local one-roomer…or perhaps I just like it because the notion is so foreign to me.

Regardless of that, something I saw in that little one roomer has stuck with me over the years…a poem written by a student, of what could only be described as a very…VERY small school.

When I am at school, there’s much I can say
However I think, it goes either way

I am the shortest, and I am the tallest
I am the biggest, and I am the smallest

No one is younger, and no one is older
No one is warmer, and no one is colder

I come in last place, and I come in first
I am the best student, and I am the worst

I like to follow and I like to lead
I am always the first and the last to read

However you look, I’m all you can be
For here in my school, its only just me[1]

I find it hard to imagine just what it would be like to be the only student in a school…not just in a class, because I’ve been there done that…but to be the only student in an entire school. As odd as it would be, one benefit would be the total lack of conflict…because it is very easy to get along with everyone…when you are alone.

But today’s gospel lesson presents a different sort of situation. Jesus describes a situation not only in which the hearer is with other people…but where conflict has arisen…and where individuals have sinned against one another. (pause)

Now, as hard as it may be for us to realize…it is certainly possible that individuals will fail…to get along with one another…I know…shocking right? But it is true. Put more than one person in a room…and it won’t be long before you have some sort of conflict…some sort of grievance…and things can quickly go sour.

That is precisely what Jesus expects will happen within the church…I’m guessing that Jesus had a pretty solid handle on the human condition…even among fellow believers…because he predicts coming issues…conflicts…sins against one another…what do you think? Was he accurate? (pause)

And so, in what may sound sorta familiar…possibly reminiscent of a procedure outlined in the church constitution…which is actually 100% accurate, because its in there…Jesus gives us a procedure to follow when dissension enters the community. (pause)

If your brother or sister sins against you…go and find them…point out their fault quietly between the two of you…and if they listen…REJOICE…for the two of you have been restored. Okay…well, what if they don’t listen to you?

In that case…take a couple extra people along with you…for with witnesses…surely your brother or sister will listen to reason…but…what if they don’t? Well, in that case, bring the matter before the entire assembly…get the whole congregation together and discuss it…and if they still won’t listen to you, then treat them as a Gentile or a tax collector. (pause)

Hmm. Is anyone else slightly weirded out by this passage? I’ll be honest, it strikes me as a little odd coming from Jesus…because we typically don’t hear this sort of thing from him…instructions for the assembly…for the church…its just not really his normal speed…and yet…here it is…and as I thought about this passage…I tried to be intentional about the intended meaning…about the truth behind what Jesus is talking about…and in the end…it really boils down to something pretty simple. (pause)

Has your brother or sister sinned against you? Okay…go find them and be reconciled. Go and make your peace with them…don’t let the bitterness or the bickering take over…go be reconciled. (pause)
And as I thought about that…I realized that it sounded familiar…sorta like something I’ve heard Jesus say before…and so I backtracked…Matthew chapter 5…we spent a lot of time here a few months back…looking in depth at Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount…and in the midst of those teachings…Jesus says something very similar.

“When you offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.” (pause)
Sounds pretty similar right…and it should…because these two passages offer bookends to the very same theme of reconciliation within the community of faith…BUT…it is important to note that they come at it from opposite directions.

We hear today…if someone has sinned AGAINST YOU….go find them and be reconciled…and we hear in chapter 5 that if you realize that you have sinned AGAINST someone else…go find them and be reconciled…Does that seem odd? That Jesus would sorta contradict himself between these two different teachings on the same subject?

Maybe it seems like it should be up to one or the other…If you are the one who sinned, it should be up to you to make amends right? But that’s not what Jesus says…if we look at these two passages together, Jesus tells us, quite simply…if there is an issue between you and another…I don’t care who started it…YOU…go and be reconciled to your brother or sister…YOU…take the first step.

And by doing so…by offering reconciliation, we offer a word of grace between one another…and by doing so we mirror the love of God in Christ Jesus who offered us reconciliation with God. That’s the long and short of this passage today…if there is a grievance, be reconciled.

And we know that there will be grievances…even WITHIN…the body of Christ…and why? Well…take a look at the body of Christ…it involves…US…and we screw…up. Our selfish desires and thoughts eventually win out…and we harm one another. Jesus not only expected it…he helped us plan for it. (pause)

All that being said…there is a BUT…in this message…Even though Jesus himself models and instructs a way for us to be reconciled to one another…our flawed human tendency takes this wonderful olive branch and turns it into a weapon… (pause)

I have seen…first hand…more times than I care to think about…this very passage…intended for good…twisted and used to exclude…to condemn…to divide…and to harm one another. I have seen it between individuals…I have seen it between groups of people…I have seen it within congregations…I’ve witnessed communities of faith tear themselves apart with this passage…with good intentions…with intentions of pointing out someone’s error…but in the end…accomplishing nothing except judgmental damage.

Way to go humanity…take something that God intends for good…and use it for our own selfish judgments…but it happens doesn’t it? Perhaps you’ve seen it…perhaps you experienced it…and perhaps you’ve even unknowingly participated in it…because we’re flawed…and try as we might we harm one another. (pause)

But remember what Jesus said…both today and in the sermon on the mount…Be reconciled. (pause). And today…I plan to follow Jesus’ instructions. If you are individual who has ever felt excluded…or judged harshly…if someone has ever hurt you by using this passage as a weapon…on behalf of that individual or group…I’m sorry…please forgive this hurt. (pause)

And if you have ever felt isolated…pulled aside…excluded by a pastor…even if its me…I’m sorry…please forgive this hurt. (pause)

And if the church as a whole has ever made you feel unwelcome…like you aren’t good enough…if its made you feel judged…I’m sorry…please forgive this hurt. (pause)

And if perhaps, you find yourself today feeling convicted of having caused hurt in the past…allow me offer a word of grace…a word of forgiveness…for we have a God that willingly took the cross to overcome our hurts…to overcome our shortcomings…to atone for the sins that we don’t even realize that we are doing…and through it…God offers us reconciliation…he offers us grace for the times when our humanity stands up and does or says something stupid.

And it happens…it happens to all us…and it happens from all of us…but throughout this…receive God’s grace and offer it to one another…and remember that wherever two or three are gather in the name of Jesus…he is there also…(pause)

And while you think about that…remember this…that we are gathered…not under our own power or desire…but we are gathered by another and it is by Christ, in whose name we are gathered…and we call this the body of Christ…imperfect, full of flawed people…but bathed in the grace of God…and that is why we gather together as a church…to hear a word of grace…to receive God’s forgiveness…and to blessed through the forgiving presence of one another. (pause)

And in just a moment, before we join our voices together in song…and before we share in means of God’s grace through holy communion…I’m going to invite you to get up out of your seats…and I invite you to share the peace with one another…not just to shake hands and say good morning…for we’ve already done that today…but to offer a sign of God’s peace to one another…so that as Jesus instructs us…within the body…we may be reconciled…Amen

May the peace of the Lord be with you all (And also with you)
Let us share a sign of God’s peace with one another.

 

[1] I could not actually find the text of the poem that I read in my childhood, and so I wrote this short poem in order to catch the essence of the original.

It Breaks Your Heart 7-31-14

This sermon is based on Matthew 16:21-28. Peter, who has just made the great confession of Jesus’ true identity now rebukes Jesus for revealing his ultimate destiny. Jesus in turn rebukes Peter with the famous “Get behind me Satan” phrase. In the sermon I explore Peter’s motivation and how our limited human understanding often times blinds us from the truth.

You can listen to the sermon here:
https://soundcloud.com/revdalen/it-breaks-your-heart-7-31-14

You can also follow along with the text of the sermon here:

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

Think back over your life for a moment…and think about the times when your heart was broken. (pause) Perhaps some of those instances are hard to identify now…with the passage of time, our insights and perspectives broaden…and perhaps we have come to see those old hurts as life lessons and experiences that have helped to shape us into the person that we are today. (pause)

But in the moment…the experience of a broken heart just plain hurts…its as if the world as we know it is crumbling down and we are powerless to do anything about it. (pause). Thinking back, my first instance of a broken heart happened in about 6th or 7th grade. I was sitting in church, of all places…when the current pastor announced that he had taken a different call and that he and his family would be moving…I looked to my right…to my best friend sitting next to me…who happened to be the pastor’s son…and I realized in that instant that he’d be moving too…now I was a pretty soft hearted kid…and when we got home from church a few minutes after that gut wrenching announcement, my dad could tell I was pretty upset…and he just hugged me while I cried it out…because my best friend was leaving…and nothing would ever be the same again. (pause)

Fast forward a few years…and we experience the first time I was heartbroken over a girl. I was a jr in high school…I’d been dating a girl for most of the school year, and most of the way through the summer…and then one evening she dropped a bomb on me. “I think we’d be better friends if we weren’t dating.” (gesture a breaking heart)…this time it was my mom that got the brunt of my emotional upheaval…and nothing would ever be the same again. (pause)

Fast forward a couple more years…and for the first time…it was God who was letting me down…it was God who rocked my world to the core…it was God…that broke my heart. (pause) I had just come off my second summer working at camp. I was heading back to my 2nd and final year of community college…I would be graduating with my associate’s degree the following spring…and at that point I wanted nothing more than to come back for one more summer at camp…this time as a counselor…and then to apply to stay on at camp in a year round ministry position…and who could fault me…this plan seemed perfect…and certainly God would uphold His end of the bargain right? (pause) But God’s reality, was not my reality. I was not invited to come back to camp the following summer due to a poor working relationship with the site director…and as I approached a springtime graduation, I had no idea what I was going to do with myself…with my future…and most shockingly…with my faith…and nothing would ever be the same again. (pause)

Looking back now, those shocking moments don’t seem so bad. Yes my best friend moved…but I’ve made countless other friends in the years since…Yes, my first girlfriend broke up with me…but eventually I met this pretty amazing brunette who became my wife…yes, God shut the door on my plans for doing ministry at 20…because he had prep work to do in my life to get me ready for ministry in my mid-30’s. I can see that now…but in the midst of each moment, I was shocked…I was hurt…and I couldn’t see past the pain caused by my broken expectations.

Our gospel lesson opens in the same sort of situation today. Peter has just made a wondrous confession. If you were here last week, our gospel lesson featured Peter’s testimony that Jesus is the Messiah…the Son of the living God…and now…an instant later…right after Jesus builds Peter up as Spirit inspired and the rock on which he will build his church…Jesus informs the disciples that his mission on earth is going to take him to Jerusalem where he will be tortured…and killed…and Peter…the rock…the stable foundation…FREAKS…OUT…and in the midst of his disbelief…he dares rebuke Jesus…he opens his mouth and tells God himself in human form what he thinks should happen.

Now, often times in scripture, Peter is portrayed as impulsive…quick to speak without thinking…often times the one who babbles on aimlessly because no one knows what to say in a given situation. And at first glance, perhaps that seems to be the case once again…but if we stop and pay attention…maybe we hear the sound of a heart breaking…

Peter has a vision of what the Messiah is going to do…what the role of the Christ will be…and as we heard last week…Peter knows that’s Jesus. But what he doesn’t know is that his expectations of the Messiah were WAY off. Like many of the Jews of that era…Peter expected the Messiah to be a political figure…a great deliverer along the lines of Moses who led the people out of captivity in Egypt back in ancient times. The messiah would free the people of Israel from the control of the Romans and re-establish David’s throne.

But you know what would throw a pretty major damper on this whole idea? If the messiah…died…But that’s exactly what Jesus tells them is going to happen…You Lord are the messiah…the holy one of God…and you will free us from this human captivity…Umm…no..actually I’m gonna be dead pretty soon Peter. (make heart breaking sound)

No wonder Peter goes off on Jesus…his entire existence has just been destroyed..everything he hoped for…everything he has dreamed…everything he has expected for the past three years of following Jesus is crashing down around him…and for Peter…nothing will ever be the same again…

No wonder he rebukes Jesus…no wonder he lashes out. He is the impulsive one after all…he’s the one that speaks up when no one else will…and perhaps in this moment, he’s simply the one who says what all twelve disciples are thinking. You are the messiah…YOU CAN’T DIE? HOW CAN THIS BE? HOW CAN YOU DO THIS TO US? (pause)

Has your existence ever been shattered like that? Your expectations or your hopes and dreams…seemingly thrown aside…and it seems, in that moment, that God just doesn’t care…ever been there?

I know some of you have…and I suspect that at one time or another…all of you have been there…because we live in a flawed reality…a reality that has been twisted and warped by the powers of sin and death…We live in a reality where people hurt, children die, marriages end, and people fail…and in those instances, I think we all experience heart break…and we wonder where is God in those moments. (pause)

I was thinking about all this through the week…and it occurred to me that as a community we’ve experienced quite a bit of death lately. 2 in the past few weeks with another one likely any day now…and 2 more shocking deaths out of nowhere a few months back…and as I thought about all that…all those families and friends experiencing broken hearts at the death of a loved one…that it all started right after Epiphany last January…right after the day when the church celebrates the Christ being revealed to the world…people start dying…and that seems like a pretty cruel twist of fate…and perhaps we ask the question…where are you on that one God?

Because in these instances…these moments when our world crumbles and our heart is breaking…we, like Peter…miss the most important words uttered by Jesus in this passage. I will go to Jerusalem where I will undergo suffering…and be killed…and on the third day I WILL BE RAISED!

Peter missed it…he missed the good part…the hopeful part…that we have a God who is willing…and able…to enter into all this pain and hurt and disease and death…and DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT…We have a God who can and DOES create new life out of death.

Make no mistake…death is a very real presence within our human existence…just as sickness and pain and suffering and anguish are all very real…and while in the midst of this pain we may cry out to God to stop it, or prevent it, or go back and erase it…that’s not what God does…instead, we have a God who mourns this reality right along with us…and though we may not understand why because of our own limited existence…God stands along side us in this pain…but He also creates new life out of it.

That is why Jesus took the cross…openly…willingly…to embrace the reality of death so that God could do something about it…something far beyond our reckoning…that’s why Jesus made no secret of his final destination…of his true mission on earth…and that is why we as believers find joy in the cross…

That is why we look with hope upon an image that was intended to strike fear in others…fear of its shame…and fear of the brutality of the death that came with it…we look on the cross with hope because as believers in Christ…we acknowledge something for what it is. The cross is a brutal place of death…the death of one who took our sin upon himself…and likewise we acknowledge our own sinful reality…a reality in which the wages for our sin is death…but we cling to the hope that through Christ’s death on that brutal cross we are no longer subject to it…we call this the theology of the cross…where we call it what it is…a horrible death that God used to create new life.

And so perhaps today you find yourself in the midst of a situation where your heart is breaking…and perhaps you want to strike out at someone, even God, because it seems like all those hopes and expectations for life have been destroyed by your present circumstances…and if that is your reality today, take courage in the fact that you are not alone…and that you have a God who has experience every aspect of this life…including the heartbreak of being utterly separated from his Father…and take hope in the fact that through that very separation, God has ensured that you will never be separated from him again. Amen.

Who Do You Say I Am 8-24-14

This sermon comes from Matthew 16:13-21. Jesus poses the question of “Who Do You Say That I Am?” to the disciples. Peter’s brief but truthful response reveals the God-given aspect of a faithful response to the this question.

You can listen to the sermon here:
https://soundcloud.com/revdalen/who-do-you-say-i-am-8-24-14

You can also follow along with the text of the sermon here.

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

The advantages of social media never cease to amaze me. Admittedly, I am one of those people that very rarely turns on the news, and I can count the number of times that I’ve opened a newspaper in the past year on one hand. (pause) But on the flip side, I carry one of these (hold up smart phone)…and because of my inherent need to be connected, I am bombarded throughout the day with various images and status updates…and if there is any big news of the day, I typically hear about it on Facebook or Twitter…though admittedly, I will catch breaking news on cnn.com, though even that’s a rarity.

I admit it…I am, very likely, addicted to social media…I’m not ashamed…and I’ve come to notice over the years since it has come on the scene that there are definite trends that show up in the feed depending on which “next big thing” is currently in fashion. As of late, my Facebook feed has been littered with back to school pictures from proud parents, countless short videos of individuals getting doused with ice water in support of ALS (and yes I did one of those this week as well)…and finally, various articles or postings in memory of Robin Williams.

I happened to click on one of those postings last Friday…and it took me to a portion of an interview that Williams did a few years back on a cable show called Inside the Actors Studio…as a former community theater actor…I always held that particular show in high esteem…and even though I have no business to think so, I often dreamed of the day when I would grace the stage and have several hundred acting students hang on my every word…hoping to learn something valuable and insightful that they could utilize in their future careers.

But as I sat there and thought about it, I asked myself the question “how much of a narcissist are you?” Seriously…who am I to think that anyone is going to have that high of an opinion about me…but then I thought about it some more and realized that we live in a society where we are always looking for the latest gossip. (pause) Did you hear about this person? Did you see what she did? (pause) And vice versa…it wouldn’t surprise me to hear someone famous ask their publicist “What are they saying about me?” (pause)

Thinking along those lines, perhaps it’s a little shocking…that in today’s gospel lesson, Jesus seems to be the narcissist. Certainly that can’t be true can it? (pause) Well, regardless of the motivation for Jesus to pose the question to his disciples, that is exactly what he does. “Who do people say that I am?”

Imagine that for a moment…you’re one of the disciples…you’ve been following Jesus around for several years by this point…walking all over the place…watching him perform all kinds of miracles…witnessing countless interactions with individuals, both positive and negative…and now after all this time he asks “Hey…what’s the word on the street? Do people have me figured out yet?” (pause)
Uhhh…well…some people think you are your cousin John…and uhhh…I heard someone say you were Elijah…and another guy said Jeremiah…and a lot of people just called you a prophet…I guess that’s the general consensus Jesus.”

But as per usual for Jesus, he plays the question game…and instead of responding to this latest Gospel Gossip report from the disciples…he narrows the question. But who do you say that I am? (pause)

Now its always important to stop and think about the words that Jesus chooses when he interacts with people. Because it always seems like he poses things in just the right way to really open up the mind of the individual…and so we have to wonder why does he ask for general testimony about himself…only to follow it up with the extremely personal question… “Who do YOU…say that I am?”

I found myself coming back around to that question over and over this week…because it is a very important question to think about. And even more important than that, is to know how YOU…will answer it when it is posed in your direction. (pause) As believers in Christ, we WILL be called upon to testify…at one time or another, someone is going find out you believe and they are gonna question you. Are you ready for that? Are you ready to offer your testimony? Are you ready to answer the question Who is this Jesus guy? (pause)

Now perhaps it comes as no great shock to you…but I’ve heard that question before…more times than I can count…blame the day job…and each and every time I’ve been asked the question, I’ve offered an answer…but those answer have varied from moment to moment…they vary because of present circumstances…they vary because of the person asking…they vary period….sometimes my answer is very short and down to earth…and at other times in my history…well…not so much.

Very early on in my seminary education…spring of 2009, I was taking the first of three theology classes…this one taught by a legendary Luther professor named Paul Sponheim. It was his last semester of teaching and I felt very blessed to have him as we read and discussed countless pages of Christian dogmatics.

About midway through the semester, we were given an assignment to write a MONSTROSITY of a theology paper….Sponheim called it our Theological Elephant…because like the worlds largest land animal…it was big…and I hold a copy in my hand right here. Over the course of 9 single spaced pages…and nearly 5,100 words I attempted to answer the question of What or Who is God. Now I could read it to you…but since it comes in at roughly 3.5 times longer than my average sermon…I’m guessing you don’t want to sit here and listen to me ramble on for the next 45 minutes…though if you are interested, I can certainly make it available.

And so I sat and thought about it some more…and I tried to be a little brief…and over the course of a couple minutes…I wrote out a single stream of consciousness answering the question from Jesus…Who do you say that I am? And that came out to be a single page…and 648 words…again…I’m not gonna bore you by reading it out loud…and I sat and thought about it some more…and realized that if someone is actually going to pose the question Who is Jesus, I need to have something a little more concise in mind. So I limited myself to 100 words….aimed at Jesus himself, as if his question to the disciples was aimed at me. (pause) And here’s what I came up with.

You are Jesus son of Joseph, of the line of David. You were with God in the beginning because you are God, and yet you are a man. You came to show us God’s love for all humanity and to get us to live in a way that reflects God’s love for one another. But we fail just as we fail to love God as He loves us. So God did something about and entered our reality as a helpless baby to live and die for everyone else. And then he rose again to create new life out of death.

But then I sat and thought about it a little more…and I went back to the gospel lesson…and I read Peter’s response to the question…short and to the point. “You are the messiah, the son of the living God.” And as I thought about that I was once again thinking about social media and I realized that Peter would be really good at twitter…pithy statements in 140 characters or less…and so in the final revision…I challenged myself to answer Jesus question on twitter…and in answering this very important question of “Who do you say that I am?” I said “Jesus is God’s way of whipping humanities sinful butt back into relationship with him. By dying in our place to create new life in our death.” 140 characters exactly…and if you’re wondering, yes that is posted on my twitter account. (pause).

And now think about all this…and begin to think about your own response when posed with this question. Who do YOU…say that Jesus is? All social media joking aside, Peter seems to be onto something with his short answer…because Jesus not only acknowledges it…he seems to shout for joy at Peter’s words…Blessed are you, for flesh and blood have not revealed this to you, but my father in heaven…and perhaps that offers us just a bit of insight into why Peter’s words are so important.

When Jesus says that this truth is revealed to him…he uses the greek word APOCALYPTO…sound familiar? Sounds like…apocalypse doesn’t it…and it should because they mean the same thing. When this epic truth is revealed to Peter…it is earth shattering…just like the images that we think of when we hear the word apocalypse. And so no wonder Jesus says that this revelation has not come from flesh and blood but God himself…you’ve heard me say it before…faith in Christ is not self generated…it is only by the gift of God that we can come to believe in this amazing…earth shattering…life altering truth.

And just like Peter…or perhaps I should say Simon…receiving this amazing truth from God alters our very existence…For when Simon makes this declaration Jesus gives him a new name…For I tell you…you are PETER…Simon no more…now he is given a new name and with that new name…with this God given understanding of just who Jesus really is…the son of the living God…Jesus bestows the knowledge of his true mission on earth…to go to Jerusalem…where he will suffer and die…and then on the third day he will be raised again…overcoming death. (pause)

And if we stop and think about it…perhaps we see our own faith life reflected in this encounter between Jesus and Peter. For when we receive the gift of faith…and can truly answer the question of who Jesus is for ME…then we begin to understand not only who he is…but why he came…and I believe that just as we saw in the new name for Peter…we too are given a new identity…beloved child of God…and perhaps when I say that, it sounds a little baptismal…I certainly hope so…for in the waters of our baptism we are given this new name…not by flesh and blood but by God himself…and in the waters of our baptism we join with Christ in a death like his…a death that was his sole purpose here on earth…a death, by which God overcame all death…and offers us the promise of new life in Christ Jesus. (pause)

And so today…as we wrap up worship…and head out through those doors…think about the question…and realize today that Jesus is asking you…Who do YOU…say that I am? (pause) Amen.

This Is Uncomfortable 8-17-14

This sermon comes from Matthew 15:21-28. Jesus encounters a Canaanite woman and their exchange is…unsettling.

You can listen to the sermon here:
https://soundcloud.com/revdalen/this-is-uncomfortable-8-17-14

You can also follow along with the text of the sermon here.

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

Its good to be back with you after being gone for a couple weeks. As many of you know, last week I traveled out to southern Colorado with Emily and the kids to attend family camp in the Sangre de Cristo mountains at Rainbow Trail Lutheran Bible Camp near Canon City.

This is a wonderful experience for us each and every year…a chance for renewal and rest…a chance to see old friends and colleagues…and a chance to spend quality time as a family. (pause) Now each year when we head out to Colorado I have a little different plan in mind for what I want to do. Sometimes its ambitious with a lot of hikes and various physical challenges and activities. Other years its more lowkey…with high hopes of sitting on the deck of the main lodge looking out over the valley at the mountains beyond…calmly resting in the beauty of God’s creation.

This year, I planned on the later…its been a crazy year…and a crazy summer…and I was ready to kick back and take it easy. (pause) Now how many of you think I actually managed to pull that off? Needless to say…my plans for a calm week with my feet up were dashed pretty quickly as I participated in various activities including, but not limited to…white water rafting, a very vigorous spot of dancing at the yearly ho-down, a 4 mile hike up and down a very…VERY rough, rocky road, and last but certainly not least…a trip through the camp’s brand new extreme high ropes course alongside of Emily and another couple that travels to camp with us every year.

The high ropes course included multiple elements, some of which we accomplished individually…for instance I had to cover a 25 foot gap using nothing but hanging ropes with small loops in the end for my feet…and others that we accomplished together. Now some of these elements were quite simple…and others were pretty difficult.

Though the most physically demanding element I accomplished was the hanging ropes…the most uncomfortable one involved crossing two wires in pairs…with nothing to hold onto except one another. Now Emily and our friend Christina went first…and if either set had it easier it was them…as their wires were parallel the entire way across. I partnered with Eric, Christina’s husband…and we had the challenge of wires that gradually got farther apart.

Further adding to the difficulty of this challenge is the fact that Eric is about 4 inches taller than me…and he outweighs me by a pretty large margin. To set the scene, we faced each other, and braced ourselves against one another by grasping hands and leaning in so that our weight counterbalanced…and then we fearfully stepped out onto half inch steel cable…suspended about 35 feet in the air.

Gradually, we slid ourselves sideways across that very thin cable…trying not to put too much of our weight on the other…and yet trying to hold each other up at the very same time. Our legs were shaking…the cable right along with us…and we…were nervous. It took us about half the distance across the gap to actually figure out a good system…but eventually we made it across to where Emily and Christina were waiting…and as we sat there for a moment catching our breath…Christina made a comment about how I had been breathing the whole way across…focused…teeth clenched…and practically hyperventilating. I didn’t even know I was doing it…but apparently it sounded like this (example of breathing). Needless to say…I found this whole experience to be very…very uncomfortable and I was extremely relieved a few minutes later when I found both feet safely back on the ground.

Now I share this story with you today, because it has two things in common with today’s gospel lesson. First off…Jesus seems to be vacation…having traveled to the region of Tyre and Sidon…two Mediterranean sea ports to the northwest of Galilee and Israel…and while there were likely Jewish people present…he and his disciples would have been surrounded by Gentiles…including the Canaanite woman that recognizes Jesus and approaches him. We don’t know just what it is that makes Jesus decide to head off in this odd direction in the midst of his three year ministry…yet here he is…and in the midst of his time away…whether he was actually vacationing or not…Jesus encounters a ministry-type situation. (pause)

HAVE MERCY ON ME LORD, SON OF DAVID. MY DAUGHTER IS TORMENTED BY A DEMON. (pause) Nothing new for Jesus after all. He’s constantly encountering people in need of healing from various illnesses or who are possessed by demons. We’ve seen him heal them all countless times…right up until now.

And here’s the second point of interaction between my story and this story…this is where things get really uncomfortable for me as a believer in Christ. (pause) Jesus hears the woman cry out to him…begging him to have mercy on her daughter…she clearly recognizes him for who he is…calling him both Lord and Son of David…and he…flat out…ignores her. (pause)

HE DOES NOTHING!!!! HE DOESN’T EVEN ENGAGE WITH HER!!!! What? That’s not the Jesus we know…he always engages…he always recognizes the person before him. Certainly, this is strange…and so we begin to the ask the question of just what is really going on here…of why Jesus ignores her and just walks on by.

Now the woman, bless her heart…she doesn’t give up does she? She just keep on shouting after Jesus and the disciples…and the disciples…well…they get annoyed…and perhaps this shouldn’t surprise us…they do have that tendency within scripture…and so they approach Jesus saying “Send her away…for she keeps shouting at us.” (pause) Now an interesting point here is another one of those translation issues that I’m fond of. The Greek word for Send her away can also mean…release her…or…set her free. And so with that, we begin to wonder who the disciples are talking about. Are they saying “send the woman away?” Or are telling Jesus “release the daughter?” And here’s the kicker…WE DON’T KNOW! AHHH. Scripture…sometimes you are maddening.

But with this ambiguity in the language of the disciples we are faced with another question…were they simply annoyed, or was Jesus deliberately testing them to see how THEY would respond to this foreign woman’s request…and we…don’t know. Unsettling? A little uncomfortable? Well hold onto your seats…its about to get worse.

Because regardless of the motivation of the disciples with their request of Jesus…he responds with this little diddy…I was sent ONLY to the lost sheep of Israel. (pause) Hmm…come on Jesus…you’ve crossed cultural boundaries before…you’ve engaged with Samaritans…and with women…you’ve healed lepers…all without batting an eye…so what’s different this time around? (pause)

And you know what? It get’s worse. When the woman, undeterred approaches him yet again…begging him on her knees before him. LORD HELP ME…he verbally smacks her by saying “It is not fair to take the food from the children to throw it to the dogs.” (long pause) Is it just me…or did Jesus just call this woman a dog? He did right? Even if he’s being metaphorical…that’s downright shocking…the Jesus that we know and love from scripture…is coming across in this moment as a flat out jerk…and I don’t know about you but that makes me really uncomfortable.

In this moment, we so no trace of love…or compassion…we hear no hint of the kingdom of heaven being offered to all. In short…Jesus comes across as a racist…and I have always struggled with this passage because of it.

But what happens next strikes me as equally unsettling…makes me squirm in my seat just a little. Because the woman…bearing no shame what so ever…acknowledges what Jesus says. She doesn’t get cranky or offended saying “Don’t call me a dog.” Rather…she smacks him right back by saying “Yes Lord, yet even the dogs eat the scraps from the master’s table.” In short…she is accepting and confirming that which the society has dictated about her. She is a woman without rights…she is a Gentile, and not only that a Canaanite…descendent from Cain who killed his brother Able…ancient enemies of the Jews who has no right to ask Jesus, a Jewish man…for anything. She doesn’t deny any of that….in fact, she seems to embrace it and yet despite all that…and despite the harsh reaction that she has already received, she still has faith that He can accomplish what she asks. And it is this faith which is rewarded…it is this faith which Jesus sees and heeds when he heals her daughter in that moment.

But here’s the odd thing about that. Since we don’t know the motivation behind Jesus’ response to the women, we must ask the question…did she change his mind? (pause) Did she…teach him something?

We tend to think of Jesus as perfect…without sin…and all knowing…because while he’s fully human…he’s also fully God right….and if he’s fully God then he should automatically feel and display love and compassion for all of God’s children…but he doesn’t do it…And likewise, he should know that salvation through his own coming sacrifice on the cross is for all people…and yet he claims to only be there for Israelites…and if that’s all the case…then she…SETS HIM STRAIGHT.

I don’t know about you…but I find that troubling…that Jesus might have learn something during his time on Earth…that Jesus, might not be all knowing in this moment…but you know…the Apostle Paul writes that Jesus did not consider equality with God as something to be exploited but that he emptied himself…and so maybe…just maybe…this woman truly did open his eyes to the realization that his mission went far beyond even his initial…human…expectations…and I will admit to you this…that if, in fact, this is the case…and I’m not saying it, but I’m not saying its not…but if this is truly what was happening in this exchange between Jesus and the woman…then I don’t know what to make of it…and I don’t suppose to tell you what you should make of it either.

But what I do know is this, even in the midst of confusion within the scriptures…which is a reality when we attempt to interpret it…we are given an example of what faith really means. The woman embraces the label given to her. Jesus insinuates that she’s a dog…and she says. YES I AM.

I recently heard an explanation of faith from a Lutheran perspective. Faith is acknowledging that I am without worth…and then hearing God say no…you have great worth…and I believe it to be true, simply because God said it…Faith is believing that God will do what he says he will do. Believing that God can do anything that He choses to do.

Even believing that God in human form would have mercy on someone that has no business asking for it…and would speak a word that would heal her daughter…and we cling to the hope that God in human form has mercy on us…even though we too are worthless…and that God, by raising his Son from the dead, overcomes our death as well…creating new life out of death…and declaring that You…my child…are of great worth…so that in the midst of our discomfort, his promise will grant us peace. Amen.

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