Sunday Sermon – 11/22/2020

Christ the King surprises us. We celebrate it year after year, as the last Sunday of Pentecost before we begin our church new year with Advent next week. Though the appointed scripture texts for Christ the king are different year to year, they always surprise me, because they don’t often depict Christ as the kind of king we imagine, or the kind of king the world would imagine, then or now. The kingdom of God is full of surprises, just as all those in today’s gospel text experienced. 

            What strikes me most about this parable is that neither the sheep or the goats knew what they were or what they had done to receive the judgement they did. Both groups ask a different version of the same question. For the sheep, it was ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38 And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39 And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ For the goats, it was ‘when didn’t we…’ Both had encountered Christ numerous times and didn’t even realize it. 

            Earlier this year, I realized I had encountered Christ in someone very unexpected and didn’t realize what was happening at the time. I was chaperoning for a youth gathering with my church in North Carolina, and we had about ten of our middle and high schoolers there with us. Our youth group was hanging out in the hotel lobby during free time, and a seventh-grade boy came up to us and started making conversation. He and his sister were the only kids there from their church, and he didn’t know anyone else at the gathering. He was very, very talkative, and really didn’t pick up on social cues very well, but our whole group shared our giant box of goldfish crackers, dealt him in to our game of uno, and made conversation with him best they could for the rest of the hour. I could tell some of the older high schoolers weren’t thrilled to have him there, but they were patient and inclusive regardless. 

            The next night, there was a big dance party, and I noticed one of the younger girls from my church was missing, so I went all over to look for her. I eventually found her sitting in a corner of a conference room, hugging her knees to her chest, and having a panic attack. I got her some water and tissues, sat with her for a while and after a while we were able to get her breathing under control. She was still crying, but not panicking. 

As I sat and talked with this girl for the next hour, lots of other youth passed by and just politely looked away. But one person decided to come sit with us. It was the boy from free time. The one who I thought had bad social skills, who I was proud of my kids for being nice to. He was the one person who saw us and decided to come over. He sat on the floor with us, put a fist full of Hershey’s kisses in front of the girl, and said calmly and kindly as ever “Hey, it’s gonna be okay. We all go through this sometimes. You’re an awesome person and I know you’re gonna be alright.” Then he smiled at me sheepishly, fist bumped us both, and walked away. I never saw him again. 

But in that interaction, I knew I had just encountered Christ, in the person who I thought I was being Christ for. I didn’t understand how every encounter I had with this boy was an opportunity for both of us to experience Christ in one another. Even with scripture teaching us and reminding us that in every member of Christ’s family we meet, we meet Christ, the practice of actually living in response to that is far more difficult than we give it credit for. 

            I once heard a story about a reporter who interviewed Mother Theresa towards the end of her life. The reporter was not religious at all. As he interviewed Mother Theresa, he asked her what the key was to running such a successful ministry and community. She answered that she simply saw Christ in every person she encountered. The reporter went on about how that was great, but there must be some secret – some methodology or leadership strategy, some business model or SOMETHING that led her to be so much more successful than so many other ministries. Again, she told him, she truly sees Christ in every person she encounters, and treats them as such. The reporters disconnect was similar to that of the people Christ tells of who didn’t feed him, clothe him, visit him, heal him. The reporter could not comprehend seeing Christ in another person, so the idea of a lifetime of service based on that understanding like Mother Theresa’s was incomprehensible to him. 

            I struggle to do this myself. I hear the gospel, and take it to heart, and yet I’ve walked or driven by people begging for food countless times. I’ve never even been to a prison. I’ve encountered Christ more times than I could count, and yet have only realized a small handful of those instances. I imagine that many of you might be in a similar boat. 

            All those who Jesus tells about in our gospel text for today didn’t realize the weight of what they were doing when they were doing it either. So today, instead of telling you to go start a leper colony in Calcutta like Mother Theresa, instead of worrying with you rather we’re sheep or we’re goats, I offer you an invitation. Hear this gospel, take it to heart, and find one new practice to help you see every person in need as Christ himself. That practice could be that every time you go to the grocery store, you pick up something extra to set aside for SOS. It could be taking one opportunity to volunteer somewhere new. It could be training your internal dialogue to look at people who are different than you and think “beloved child of God” instead of “homeless”, “immigrant”, “thug”, “felon”, “idiot”, or any other label or name that helps you to justify hatred, disdain, or even indifference towards another person, no matter who they are. It could be calling or writing a card to someone who has been isolated during this pandemic because of their health. Or it could be something else entirely. 

Just choose something. Let the Spirit move your heart to new action, in whatever way God is calling you to. I encourage you to remember that every single time you do this, you are doing it not for the sake of checking boxes, of doing enough good deeds to be a sheep and not the goat. Do it not for yourself, but for Christ, who has already done and continues to do so much for each of us. What better way to celebrate Thanksgiving, to honor Christ our King, than to turn our thankfulness into action for the good of our neighbor, that Christ’s Kingdom may break into our world even just a little bit more. Whatever you choose, however you push yourself to take on just one more practice, I pray that in doing so, you may be surprised by the joy of encountering Christ in our midst. And I pray that others may find the same in encountering Christ through you. Amen. 

Wednesday Connection – 11/15/2020

This week, we celebrate the last Sunday of Pentecost with “Christ the King” Sunday. No matter what the changing lectionary text is, every year we celebrate Christ the King with a gospel reading from the very end of Jesus life on earth, rather it’s on the cross, or in his last moments teaching his disciples before he is betrayed. It is both powerful and strange to proclaim Jesus this way, as “Christ” and as “King”. The ancient understanding of “Christ” was that Christ was the one who was to come. In other words, to proclaim Jesus or anyone as the Christ would have been almost contradictory for the people of Jesus’ time, because you cannot be the one who is coming if you are already here. The Christ, to their understanding, could exist only in the future, never in the present or past. On an equally strange note, people of Jesus’ time could never imagine a king who was crucified. To be king was to be mighty, powerful, conquering, the crucifier, not the crucified. Yet, Jesus yet again turns everything upside down. Jesus, Son of God, is the Christ who is past, present, and future. His kingdom is far beyond our made up, earthly borders and domains, and his rule is merciful and just. Jesus is all this, and so much more. As we prepare our hearts for this Sunday, this celebration and proclamation of who Jesus is, I invite you to consider throughout this week how Jesus has surpassed your own expectations, just as he surpassed the world’s expectations in being Christ, and King. 

In Peace,

Pastor Amanda McGlynn

Wednesday Connection – 11/11/2020

Our community is still processing the enormity of a global pandemic, an election, and the many ups and downs that come with everything else in our lives. There is grief, joy, fear, relief, apprehension. As a community, we bring all these things to the table together and take courage in knowing that God is with us, and our community is supporting us through it all. In my sermon last week, I nearly included a particular prayer that has helped me through times of great uncertainty. I omitted it for time’s sake, but offer it here now, in hopes that it may bring you comfort just like it has brought me. 

The Lutheran Prayer of Good Courage

Lord God,
you have called your servants
to ventures of which we cannot see the ending,
by paths as yet untrodden,
through perils unknown.
Give us faith to go out with good courage,
not knowing where we go,
but only that your hand is leading us
and your love supporting us;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

For those of you who like music, here is a beautiful version of the same prayer:

In Peace,

Pastor Amanda McGlynn

Sunday Sermon – November 15, 2020

My husband Cole and I are both students at Luther Seminary in Saint Paul, Minnesota, and we lived on campus there for our first two years of classes. While we were there, my husband was an absolute menace to the grounds crew. He was never trying to be difficult or to make their lives harder, but he has such a passion and fascination with the abundance of God’s creation, that it leads him to do things that other people might find… well, weird. 

Cole would do things like install grow lines on the side of a building and grow three different types of hops so he could brew them into beer. He would email the director of maintenance, informing her that he had inoculated many of the wood chips on campus with mushroom spore, and would ask her to please not spray his sweet baby mushrooms with pesticides. If he heard that after a storm a tree on campus had fallen, he’d rush to get there before the grounds crews removed it, and would use a hand saw to cut slabs off, and drag them back to his house “to make something with”. Likewise, if he found old chairs or wooden furniture the seminary was getting rid of, he would bring it home and teach other students how to widdle chair legs into wooden spoons.

            He once convinced me to spend multiple afternoons with him, picking up every acorn on campus we could find, then he spent a full other day replicating some Native American technique he read about for leeching the poisons out of acorns, and turned it into acorn soup to share with the whole school at dinner church, assuring everyone he was mostly sure it wasn’t poisonous anymore. 

            He once found a large wild rhubarb plant growing behind the dumpster on campus, so he made “dumpster rhubarb pie” to share with our classmates too, along with the crab apple cider he cut the squirrel nibbles off of. He found lots of other edible berries around campus too. He once saw an old man pick a tiny berry off a tree and eat it, asked the old man, and found out they were saskatoon berries, and they only bloomed for about two weeks per year. So, Cole recruited me and a few of our friends to come pick thousands of tiny saskatoon berries with him, over several days, and we made jam, pie, and all sorts of things to share with everyone we could. Saskatoon berries taste sort of like almondy blueberries, and the almond flavor comes from trace amounts of cyanide, but they are harmless to humans, Cole would assure everyone. 

I call this hobby of his “suburban foraging”. He has a gift of seeing the world around him and asking himself how he can experience God’s abundance through the things everyone else overlooks. I know this about my husband, and I love this about him, yet most times he finds some new mystery plant to eat or some new hobby to try, I am still usually very skeptical. Maybe it is because I am afraid of him getting food poisoning, or afraid of my living room floor being covered in wood shavings from a stool leg. But a lot of the time I think my skepticism comes from knowing the very high likelihood that he will recruit me to help in his newest project. My favorite of these projects of his, and one of the ones I was most skeptical of, was the year he decided to try to make his own maple syrup. 

            As the season was changing from winter to spring, we walked around campus in the several feet of accumulated snow, and tried to identify if any of the trees on campus were some variety of maple, based only on their bark. If he were smarter he would have planned ahead and marked the trees before they lost all their leaves and became way harder to identify but that’s my skepticism creeping back in, and probably my grumpiness about agreeing to wander around in the freezing cold with him looking at tree bark. But he slowly figured out which trees were maples and we tapped a few of them and outfitted them with makeshift tubing and recycled milk jug containers to harvest the sap of the trees. 

Then, during the course of each day, as the temperature would move between freezing and thawing, the sap in the trees would flow out into the milk jugs. I have always wondered if the maintenance workers ever saw these maple taps, which looked like plastic umbilical cords duct taped to milk jugs coming out of these giant, majestic, leafless trees. If they saw them, rolled their eyes, and just walked away, I thank them, and if they just happened not to see them, I guess we just got lucky.

            The whole experiment gave us both an overwhelming experience of God’s abundance. Cole only had three trees tapped but we found ourselves with gallons upon gallons of sap each day. It was amazing to walk out to our trees after just a few hours and find the containers overflowing with fresh, clear sap. We had to go out at least two or three times a day, wading through the snow carrying 5-gallon buckets, to bring back all the sap, or else the milk jugs would overflow. This was made even more amazing by the fact that the trees gave freely out of their abundance at no harm to themselves. When the season ended and Cole removed the taps, the trees healed themselves where he had drilled into them and they were indistinguishable from the trees we had done nothing to. When you harvest maple sap, it comes out clear, and tastes like very slightly sweet water. You have to boil it down for hours to evaporate nearly all the water from it. To make one gallon of syrup, it takes 40 to 60 gallons of sap. Yet, Cole would spend multiple afternoons a week boiling down his sap for usually less than a pint of syrup. But that syrup lasted us for years, and it was the best maple syrup I’ve ever tasted. 

I bring this story up because the parable of the talents, like my experience with maple trees, is about abundance. A talent, which is what our parable talks about, was no small sum of money. A talent was a unit of weight- about 80 pounds. As a unit of money, it meant that much weight in silver. So, 80 pounds of silver or about 6,000 denarii. A denarius was the usual payment for a day’s work which means that one talent was worth over 16 years of labor without break or holiday. In terms we would understand and with minimum wage currently at $7.25 an hour means a talent would be worth $348,000 to a minimum wage worker. Again, this is no small sum of money. And all that is only a single talent. In the parable, one gets 5 talents, another gets 2 and it is only the third that gets a single talent. In modern day, that would be almost 1.7 million to the first slave, 700,000 to the second, and 348,000 to the third. 

            The three slaves are each entrusted with an unbelievable, abundant amount of money. They are given this responsibility with little direction or advice and left to respond. The parable is not about wise investment strategies or economics. It is about how we react to abundance. How we respond to the gift of God’s abundant grace.

            From the context of Matthew’s gospel and the little we are told about the master’s character; we can be fairly certain that we are supposed to understand the master as Jesus himself. Jesus comes, already possessing great and abundant gifts, inviting his servants to share in his joy. And ultimately, Jesus comes back to invite the faithful to enter the joy of their master.

            Those that are greeted with the instruction to enter the joy of their master by faith are the ones that share the abundance they receive. God’s gifts are meant to be shared, and multiplied, not hidden out of fear or shame. The point here is not the profit, it is the sharing and good stewardship of the abundance of God. The first two slaves decided to share their abundance with others, trading it amongst one another but the third slave hordes his gift and buries it far away from others out of fear of losing what he was given. It would have been easier to give the money to the bankers but the third slave goes through the work and the labor necessary to locate a place, dig a hole and bury the talent away from others, including away from himself. 

            It’s like if the first two servants were given a few maple trees on campus, and decided to take the time and care to make syrup to share with their neighbors and classmates, because they understood the abundance of God and the joy they could have and share with all those around them. It is the understanding that comes out of a respect for everything around us as a gift from God, rather it is our home, our community, our world. Whatever gifts we’re given, money, food, time, talent, maple trees, whatever it is, we are called to be like the first two servants, to react to the gift of God’s abundance with joy and generosity, so others can experience that joy too.

            The third servant was filled with fear and reacted to what he had been entrusted with by hiding what he was given. It would have been like if Cole found a maple tree and cut it down, or roped it off with a sign saying “perfectly ordinary tree here, nothing to see, nothing to tap, carry on, pip pip.” Or perhaps a less dramatic example would be, if he had simply done nothing, and let himself and everyone in our community walk past these old trees every day, not giving them a second thought, letting their gifts and potential be hidden in plain sight. This is the easier way to go through life. It’s a whole lot safer than investing in taps and jugs, going through the time and work of hauling buckets of sap through the snow, and hoping the grounds crew doesn’t throw it all away or tell you to quit it. But this harder way is the life we are called to. 

            This, Jesus tells us, is what entry into the kingdom is like. We are each given great gifts from God and asked to respond. Not just material gifts either. Gifts of love and mercy and forgiveness, and we must decide what we are going to do with them until we meet our end and face our ultimate judgement. We can receive God’s forgiveness, and keep it to ourselves, refusing to forgive those who wrong us. But that is not the life of abundance we are called to. We can stock our pantries with food and our cabinets with hoarded toilet paper in the midst of a pandemic, not thinking about our neighbors who have none. But that is not the life of abundance we are called to. 

            We are called to respond to the abundance we are given, by sharing that abundance with others, rather it is through money, canned food, time, forgiveness, or whatever we have to offer. We give thanks to God by giving his abundance to others and sharing in all that comes from that with God and with everyone around us. 

            I haven’t yet had the opportunity to work at the SOS food bank, I will soon. But before I moved to Texas, my husband and I volunteered every weekday at our local soup kitchen, and eventually ran the food pantry there for several months until we moved here. I can’t tell you how little the can of peas that’s been sitting in the back corner of my pantry for months means to me. But I can tell you about the look of relief on the face of a Vietnam veteran I handed a bag of canned goods to, who said “I used to volunteer here, I never thought I’d need to come here for food myself”. I can tell you about the young mothers who broke down in tears and hugged me as I handed them a $25 grocery store gift card, because it meant they could feed their kids something more substantial than ten cent ramen noodles. 

I can’t tell you how little the random tarp in my garage or the 5 dollar bill in my wallet means to me, but I can tell you about the people in Haiti and Indonesia and other places, who organizations like Lutheran World Relief, and Lutheran Disaster Response can pass tarps like that out to use as temporary roofs or walls when their house is barely left standing. 

I can’t tell you the name of the kid at Lutherhill Bible Camp your small donation may have helped sponsor, but I can tell you about how much a week at bible camp can inspire a kid’s faith and lead them on a path to ministry, like it did for me. I can’t tell you the names of every person who has worshiped here, experienced God here, or been impacted in some way by Joyful Life, because the list would be too abundant, but I can tell you that every single situation I just told you about is part of the abundance that comes out of this place. We are each given so much abundance, so we come together as a community and multiply that in all the ways we bring ourselves to share that abundance, to support causes like SOS, like the ELCA’s disaster and hunger relief organizations, like bible camps, like livestreamed worship opportunities, like, like, like, I could go on and on! 

            In responding to abundance received with abundance given, we experience the joy of God and all creation. Faced with the abundance of maple sap, Cole didn’t just choose to share with others, he needed to. He needed help collecting and moving the buckets full of sap, so he had to bring others into that experience with him and teach them along the way. After processing the sap down into syrup he needed help in enjoying it, so he didn’t give himself a sugar coma by finishing off gallons of syrup alone or let his hard work spoil before he could use it all. Anytime we had friends over for brunch, we’d be sure to make pancakes, or if we had them over for dinner, we’d make maple old fashioneds, so we could tell everyone about the joy and hilariousness of Cole’s adventures with suburban foraging. We had no idea we would end up with as much as we did from just three trees. But our experience of abundance led us into the act of sharing and in doing so we found even greater abundance, and much greater joy.

            There’s an old story about this sort of abundance that is only truly realized if it is shared, about the harvest of a corn farmer. There once was a farmer who grew superior quality and award-winning corn. Each year he entered his corn in the state fair where it won honor and prizes and blue ribbons. Once, a newspaper reporter interviewed him and learnt something interesting about how he grew it. The reporter discovered that the farmer shared his seed corn with his neighbors’’. “How can you afford to share your best seed corn with your neighbors when they are entering corn in competition with yours each year?” the reporter asked. “Why sir, “said the farmer, “don’t you know? The wind picks up pollen from the ripening corn and swirls it from field to field. If my neighbors grow inferior, sub-standard, and poor-quality corn, cross-pollination will steadily degrade the quality of my corn. If I am to grow good corn, I must help my neighbors grow good corn.”

Whether it is maple syrup or canned goods or corn, abundance confronts us and necessitates our response. Our parable says this is what the preparation needed to enter the kingdom of God is like. We are each given more than we could ever imagine. Will you choose to hide it? Or will you choose to respond in a way that brings far more joy? 

Please pray with me.

God of maple syrup abundance,

You have blessed us with an abundance that at sometimes confronts us and causes fear

Let us see these good gifts as a blessing

Let us share this overwhelming multitude with all those around us

Let us experience an even greater abundance we find in giving away what we have

Give us joy, not fear

Invite us to new ways of life unrestrained from worry

Let your mercy, grace, and love flow from us like sap

Let it drift into the lives of our neighbors like pollen

In confidence of God’s gifts, we pray.


Sunday Sermon – November 8, 2020

According to Wikipedia, in my lifetime there have been 46 major, notable, well publicized predictions of when the world was supposed to end. Some of them you might remember more vividly were the ancient Mayan calendar ending December 21, 2012, or Y2K when all technology ever was supposed to crash and cause mass destruction of society as we know it. 

This week, in the midst of a pandemic, a divisive election, natural disasters, and feeling for many reasons like the world was ending, I rabbit holed into some of these apocalyptic predictions and conspiracy theories, and tried to make sense of them. Surprisingly only one of those 46 is a prediction for 2020, which seems like a missed opportunity, given the state of the world. A few of them were from fringe cult groups, or fortune tellers, or alien conspiracy theorists. But a lot of them, probably almost half, were from Christian ministers, often predicting or “calculating” the time of the rapture or of Christ coming again. 

In our text today, Christ is not alluding to an end time when technology crashes, or aliens invade. When we think about the “end times”, and how to prepare for them, our imaginations shift toward stockpiling underground bunkers stashing away food and weapons for years of survival, but that’s not what Jesus had in mind either. This parable today is part of a series of teachings in Matthew about the end times and being “watchful” for Christ’s return, and that return is depicted in many different ways, and with an intentional emphasis on the unknowns associated with it. Many biblical apocalyptic texts like this depict darkness, isolation, division, unpredictability, and instruction of some sort to be prepared. 

How do we prepare for darkness? How do we prepare ourselves for something horrible that could happen at a time no one knows, with a consequence that no one could imagine? How do we prepare for separation from those we love, or feeling separated even from God? While this parable brings up lots of questions, the only real answer given is to prepare and keep watch, which can feel frustratingly vague, and scary if we do not fully know what that even means. 

This passage is not meant to frighten us. It is meant to refocus us. To prepare us for the inevitable times of darkness throughout our lives, and to humble us in remembering that we can never know what to expect or when to expect it. Preparing for the worst all the time, living in constant fear, only blocks us off from the work the Spirit is trying to do through us. Even in my final year of seminary, there are still times I walk into a hospital room, or a conversation, or a phone call where I am at an absolute loss for words. And if I were to prepare for that, to have a scripted response prepared and memorized for every possible scenario, there’s no room for the spirit to work through me there, and there’s quite frankly no room for me to be in honest and genuine relationship with whoever I’m with. Sometimes with faith, the less of ourselves we force into the way, the less we worry and get anxious about exactly how to say or do the right things at the right times, the more room there is for the Spirit to work through us, and God is far more equipped to handle those times than we are. 

In the back of my mind all week as I’ve been thinking about this apocalyptic text, and thinking about all that Christ talks about in it, I couldn’t help but realize that yesterday was the 2 year anniversary of a mass shooting that killed 13 people in Thousand Oaks, California. Thousand Oaks is where I went to college, where my husband Cole grew up. Before the shooting, it was ranked in the top 10 safest cities in America. The shooting was at a country line dancing bar that I had gone to before, I had even been by there just a few months before the shooting. 13 people were killed that night, including my friend Justin, who died shielding strangers as he helped them escape through a window. The shooting happened late at night, and by morning a massive fire had broken out just a few miles away, that burned almost 97,000 acres, destroyed 1600 buildings, killed 3 more people, and caused 75% of the city to have to evacuate, while they were still grieving and trying to figure out if all their loved ones were still alive from the shooting. My friend Kelsey, who had just survived the Las Vegas Massacre, survived her second mass shooting but lost 6 people that she knew and loved night. That week was full of grief, and chaos, and frequent phone calls with friends and with Cole’s evacuated parents to see if they knew whether, they had lost their home. 

As if all that, the shooting, the fires, the chaos, weren’t enough, as soon as the fires started to finally be contained, an extremist Christian group sent members from halfway across the country to protest on a busy street with picket signs saying God sent the shooter, signs with a picture of a burning house and the words “God’s fury”, and other incredibly hateful things. They tried to convince people that God’s wrath was coming upon Thousand Oaks, that God had killed 16 people and burned nearly 100,000 acres and countless homes because there were too many Catholics and LGBTQ people, and because the local high school had a mental health support group. 

I think about Thousand Oaks, and I think about this apocalyptic text, and I recognize both the chaos, and the powerful presence of God within it all. The gospel writer Matthew was writing in the aftermath of the destruction of the temple, the death of Christ and the persecution of everyone who followed him. He was using his memory and experience of Christ to reflect on his world absolutely falling apart, and trying to help others to do the same, to process, and to cope with the uncopiable. 

Thousand Oaks had tragedy after tragedy, and it all happened within a matter of hours, in one of the safest cities in the country. They could not have prepared for that. No one can prepare for the possibility of what if I instantly lose everything I own, and many people I love, what if I lose my entire sense of security and safety, what if in the midst of that, people try to come and tell me that God hates me and is the cause of my suffering? You cannot prepare for the unimaginable. But you can trust that God is with you through it all. You can take courage in knowing that God is good and gives us wisdom so that we can be prepared for the darkness we need to face. He moves through people, and works through us constantly, just as he worked though Matthew to bring the word of the Gospel to so many people, and just as he worked through the people of Thousand Oaks. 

In the aftermath of the shooting and the fires, neighbors took in neighbors who had been evacuated or lost their homes. The community came together with memorials and remembrances and services and parades honoring and remembering those who were lost. People raised hundreds of thousands of dollars to support victims’ families, and to help get survivors the counseling and support they needed. Even on days like the day when other Christians brought signs of hate and accusation, those 3 or four hateful persecutors were absolutely dwarfed by the crowd of several hundred students and community members who gathered across the street at the same time with signs saying God Loves You, You are not alone, Thousand Oaks Strong. 

We can’t prepare ourselves to know exactly what to do in unthinkable situations, like what thousand oaks faced two years ago, or like what we’re facing today with a global pandemic where work, class, worship, nearly every aspect of our lives has changed, that’s fueling isolation, fear, anxiety, instability and so much more, in addition to an election year that’s been more divisive and stressful than many of us could have imagined. I could not have prepared for the emotional and spiritual toll of this year any more than I can prepare for what is to come tomorrow or the months and years after. 

But when the unthinkable happens, when darkness comes, what we can do is open ourselves to what God can do in us and through us. We can use the little bit of power we have to be Christ to others who desperately need it, so God may be glorified through us. We can refuse to give in to hatred and evil and tragedy. We can take courage in knowing that even when we don’t know what to do, God does, and so we must endure, we must have courage, we must act wisely, because we as Christians know that there is so much more potential for good in the world if we can find the strength to open ourselves to what God can do through us, no matter the circumstances, because what God can do through us is so much more than what we could do on our own. 

So even as the temple falls, as persecutions rise, and the world feels like it is absolutely falling to pieces; Be prepared by being open. Christ is coming, but Christ is simultaneously in our midst and working in, through, and among us here and now. God is already with you, and there is nothing the world can do to change that. Amen.

Sunday Sermon – November 1, 2020

I imagine the crowds went to the mountain that day feeling the same way we would as elementary school kids going to assembly. You never knew when it was going to happen, but one morning you get to school and your teacher says, “leave your backpacks, we’re going to the cafeteria”. And your eyes light up, and you line up in the hallway and march to the cafeteria in its sticky glory, and you wait for all the other teachers to shuffle in all of their classes too, making everyone face the old stage with the faded blue velvet curtains. You are talking with your friends, hoping it is the magician or the cop this time instead of the guy with the lame puppet show. But whoever it is, this is way better than regular class. There were rumors it might even be a new guy that did not come last year, a professional yo-yo-er or jump-roper, or some other person who is about to blow away your 8-year-old mind. And even if it is the lame stranger danger puppet show guy, you are at least content with the fact that it is better than regular class.

And that is the kind of mindset I imagine the crowd who had followed Jesus would have, wandering up the hillside and waiting for what this mysterious new teacher was going to say. Maybe they had heard of him, maybe they had not, but followed the crowds to see what was happening. Maybe they heard some of the parts of Jesus’ story that have happened so far: that even as a baby he escaped King Herod’s death sentence, that he beat Satan in the wilderness, that he’d been going around Galilee teaching and curing the paralyzed, the sick, the demon possessed, calling the smelly fisherman to be his own disciples. And people from all over Israel and way beyond would seek this man. Not only could he do things and heal people no one else could, but by now he was this famous, powerful guy, who hung out with all society’s outcasts. He was the coolest kid in school, who still chose to hang with the chess club and the short kid with smelly clothes, and the kid with a stutter.

Of course, crowds followed him. Of course, so many people would seek him out, bringing them their sick children, their crippled friend, their own pain, and brokenness they had been wrestling with for years or a lifetime. In a society that scoffed at those people – put them off as impure – sinner – untouchable – Jesus said come. I will teach you; I will heal you, and I will turn your weakness into strength. Jesus said come, and in the midst of a world that says you are broken, let me tell you how you are blessed.

So, this is the crowd that has gathered, folks not just from one town, but from all over the ancient world. They have heard about this amazing new healer, Rabbi, leader, whatever he is to each of them. Some of them have probably already been healed, or had a friend be cured, some of them are probably waiting for the chance. And these people all go to this mountainside and wait with the anticipation of an 8 year old on assembly day.
So Jesus sits down, and the people there would have known that he means business, he was ready to teach. And their minds are wild with imagery of Moses on Mount Sinai, sitting and teaching the crowds the ten commandments. And as he speaks, they hear echoes from the Psalms, and from the Torah, and they must be thinking, Who… is.. this.. Man? This man who has the authority to teach in the synagogues of the Pharisees and the scribes, high on the social ladder, and yet he shows mercy to the afflicted, he welcomes the outcasts, he doesn’t blame the disenfranchised but meets them in their pain, enters into it even, and heals them. If this Jesus guy can really do all that, then maybe what he is saying is worth listening to.

In the midst of a global pandemic, election season, isolation from friends and family, financial instability, and all the rest of the chaos and anxiety that 2020 has brought, I imagine that for many of us, blessed would not be the first word you’d use to describe how you’re doing right now. But that is exactly what Christ is calling us to hear. Every person in the crowd that day had something they needed to hear, part of them that was broken or in pain or yearning for something more, and Jesus told them all, You. Are. Blessed. You who society says should be downcast, ignored, disdained, broken, despised, all for your weakness and vulnerability, You. Are. Blessed. So, come exactly as you are. You see, that weakness that we have, becomes a way for God to enter into our lives, to take hold of the control we didn’t really even have in the first place, so that God can be in fuller relationship with each of us, not in spite of our vulnerabilities, but because of them. It’s not that God wants or causes these things to happen so we’re forced to depend on God, but it’s that we have a God who works through the worst parts of ourselves and our communities, meets us in the worst times in our lives, and reminds us each, I made you, I’m still working in you, and I called you good even if you don’t feel like it right now.

So those of you whose lives feel like they are falling apart, God is with you. Just keep your eyes out. Those who want nothing more than to live righteously, to have your hearts yearn for God, when you cannot seem to make yourself believe or hope or trust any more than you already do. God can work with that. God sees that. And all of you who meet your neighbor with mercy and peace, even in the face of persecution, God strengthens you in that, and reminds you, promises you, that you are not alone, and what you’re doing is not in vain. All the burdens we carry, as we bring them to Christ, he reminds us of just how blessed we are, how present God is in our lives when we need him most.

On this All Saints Day, I carry with me the memory of so many friends and family members in my life who have died much sooner than I wish they would have. People who taught me about God, who were a light when I needed it, people who God worked through to bless me at times I needed it most. On All Saints day, even in the midst of all our mourning for those we’ve lost, we’re comforted by the reminder that God is with us, not just accompanying us in our grief, but fully understanding what it’s like to die, and what it’s like to lose someone we love. Today we remember all those in our lives who God has worked through to bless us and so many others by being Christ to us when we needed it most. In our mourning for those we have lost, we are strengthened by Christ’s promise that our weakness is an opportunity for us to feel God’s presence stronger than ever.
With God, with Christ, weakness is no longer weakness. It is opportunity and invitation, to look closer and see where God is at work in even the worst parts of our lives. Perhaps that looks like comfort, or flowers, or a card from an old friend or a hospital chaplain when you have lost a loved one. Or maybe like God working through community, through church members and bereavement teams to bring comfort and healing as a grieving family gets back on their feet. Maybe it looks like receiving forgiveness when you were too ashamed to ask for it. Just as we do from our neighbors, our parents, our spouses, our teachers, and from God more than we could ever imagine. It could even look like the bullied 3rd grader who is invited to sit by one of the popular kids at a school assembly, who makes a new friend because of God moving in the hearts of those we least expect. God’s promises are both present and future, calling us into better relationship now, promising us the joy of that relationship still to come. And in all of it, Christ invites us to simply listen as those who first heard him speak on that mountain. We are called to come exactly as we are, to open ourselves to God’s Word, and to hear in it that even at our weakest, God is at work in us for good, and we are so very blessed.

Sunday Sermon – October 25, 2020

Good morning everyone, happy Reformation week! To really get into today’s gospel text about freedom from sin, and in honor of a very well known Lutheran named Dietrich Bonhoeffer, I’m gonna tell you about Bonhoeffer, and about grace, and about potentially getting eaten by bears, and hopefully by the end of this those three things will all make sense together. Several years ago, I worked as a bible camp counselor up in Northern Wisconsin. The camp I worked for owned 2 different camps, a few miles apart from one another.  Wapo is the main site, it’s very well up-kept, has fancy air conditioned cabins, has a staff of nearly 100, and is overall really well stocked and well maintained. 

Ox Lake is the other site where I mostly worked at, and it’s really rustic compared to wapo. Ox Lake is 300 acres, of mostly just woods, with a few tarp wall cabins and dirt trails here and there, and the first summer I worked there we had 5 families of black bears living with us on our cozy little property. Meanwhile I’m in charge of a bunch of high schoolers, and have to make sure to get them home at the end of each week without being eaten. So during staff training, the Department of Natural Resources came out and did a whole session with us on bear training. And I kid you not, what the DNR came out and trained us to do was, if we came across a bear, we were supposed to puff out our chest, open up our jacket if we were wearing one to make ourselves look as big as possible, wave our arms and in a really low voice shout “Nooo bear, I am a person and you are a bear, go away bear”. The DNR also taught us to yell insults at the bear to try to hurt its confidence, because that’s really the lowest blow you can give a bear. And then usually the bear should run away because black bears are fairly timid, but if instead the bear decides to run at you, you can’t out run it, you can’t climb a tree because they can climb too, you can’t play dead because it’ll just rip you apart, so the only thing you can do is to fight the bear. So for the rest of staff training, they had us surprise tackle each other to practice getting ready to wrestle the bears. 

We ran into at least a few bears a week for most of the summer so we had to be pretty cautious, but when you’re in big groups, bears tend to run off before you get to close. The only time bears ever became a real worry was when counselors would have to go out to get firewood. First of all, most counselors had to stay with the kids, so we could only spare one or two counselors at a time, which are not enough people to scare off a bear. Second of all, we had to go off the trails to find fallen trees to chop up, and then we had to use some dull axes to actually chop it up ourselves, and haul it back. It was not an enjoyable or easy experience. Most of the times we had close encounters with bears were times when one or two of us were off on our own chopping firewood. 

But Wapo, the other campsite down the road, had several massive stock piles of wood, enough to last them the entire year, and it was already chopped, and it was nicely stored so we didn’t have to worry about it being wet like the wood we’d find in the forest at Ox Lake, and we didn’t have to worry about being stalked by a bear. So really, it was just significantly easier to take wood from wapo and bring it out to Ox Lake for our campfires. 

The only problem was that we were explicitly told by our director on a regular basis not to do that. But it was just soooooo much easier. And on rainy nights, or on weeks when the bears were feeling especially friendly, you could count on at least one counselor to quote Romans 6:1 and say ”Shall we sin all the more so that grace may abound?”, and then go ahead and steal some of wapo’s firewood when our director wasn’t watching. 

Sometimes when we’re in such a safe place, surrounded by a bunch of Lutherans who are so nice and forgiving, and when we’re living for a God who’s full of grace and mercy, it’s really easy to just go ahead and take the easy way out, and ask for forgiveness later. This is an idea that Dietrich Bonhoeffer refers to as cheap grace. Its grace without cost, trusting that forgiveness and salvation will be there, but forgetting about the sacrifice that Christ had to make in order to give us that grace so freely. Cheap grace is taking from the abundant pile of firewood, and forgetting about the other counselors at wapo who had to spend weeks before the summer started tirelessly chopping that wood so that it could be used freely by everyone else. 

Cheap grace is what happens when counselors are joking around saying “shall we sin all the more so that grace may abound”, and conveniently leave out the verse immediately after that says “of course not!” Cheap grace is what happens when a bunch of Jews are talking to Jesus in today’s gospel text and insist that their people have never been slaves to anyone, ignoring the hundreds of years of slavery their ancestors had to suffer, and the decades in the Wilderness as God worked to free them. 

When Bonhoeffer talked about grace, he talked about 2 different types of grace: cheap grace, which is the stealing firewood hoping you don’t get caught sort of grace, and costly grace, which is another thing entirely. Costly grace is grace that comes with a life of discipleship and discipline, grace that only comes into play when it has to, because the individual understands the enormous sacrifice that was made in order for that grace to be there, and so would never take advantage of it. Bonhoeffer can explain it this way:

Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, and grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.

Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again, the gift which must be asked for, the door at which a man must knock.

Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin and grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of his Son: “ye were bought at a price,” and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us”

That costly grace that is what we get from Christ who frees us. We don’t understand Christ’s word, we don’t deserve a place in the household, we consistently fall short, and we are utterly and defenselessly enslaved to sin, so what? So we try. So we live a life of discipleship, doing our best to follow God’s law, knowing that we’ll fall short, but having faith that our God is a God of Grace who frees us from the bondage of sin, and the fear that that brings. Sin is terrifying. Enslavement is terrifying. Being separated from God is terrifying. But we, Christ’s people, are freed from that fear by the costly grace that assures us that as we live our lives of discipleship, as temptation and sin sometimes slip in, we are not bound to a life that is defined by that. We are defined by the grace of Christ, and the freedom that discipleship with him brings, making us free to love and serve our God and our neighbors. 

Being a Christian comes with the promise of God’s grace and his abundance and his mercy for when we inevitably fall short, but it also comes with the expectation that we’re going to be called to do a lot of things the hard way. That might mean inviting someone to church, or sharing the gospel with people who don’t want to hear it. It might mean forgiving someone who doesn’t deserve it. It might mean resisting the temptation to sin all the more so that grace may abound. Or it might mean wrestling a bear instead of stealing firewood from the other camp. 

But however grace comes to play in your life, remember that while it’s something that shouldn’t be taken advantage of, it’s also something that you can’t avoid needing. We shouldn’t be reckless, but we also shouldn’t be so terrified of sinning and so guilty for our need of grace that we live our lives in constant fear of messing up. One of Martin Luther’s most infamous quotes is “Sin Boldly”. By sin boldly, I believe Luther meant live boldly. We’re called to go about our lives living out the gospel, and serving and loving god and his people, and in doing that, we can find peace in knowing that God is graceful and understands that we’re bound to make mistakes and sin along the way. We’re five hundred and three years into the reformation, and in those five hundred and three years, we’ve sinned more than we could possibly count. Luther did, his predecessors did, the ELCA does, this church does, all Christians do, and we each do. We are captives to that sin and cannot free ourselves, so thank God we have Christ who offers us the grace to move forward into year five hundred and four, as we ask God, what is in store for us next in this crazy, scary, wonderful life of discipleship? 

So, as we step into year 504, may you go from here with the confidence to live boldly. May you find humility in the great gifts you’ve received, because what is costly to God cannot be cheap to us. And may you remember what I taught you about how to scare off a black bear in case you’re ever lucky enough to come across one. 

Sunday Sermon – October 18, 2020

In Jesus time, politics were sometimes a malicious conversation topic, especially when mixed with religion. Our gospel text for today brings us right into the middle of one of these tense, seemingly lose-lose standoffs. It’s the kind of conversation where as soon as someone asks that question, or brings up that topic, whatever it is, you can feel everyone’s eyebrows rise and everyone’s chest tighten just a little bit as they think about how thankful they are not to be the one having to answer this. In this standoff between Jesus and the Pharisees, you can feel the room holding their breaths in anticipation of what Jesus is going to answer. 

Tell us what you think, Jesus. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not? The question asked to Jesus is not simply a political question. It’s a moral and theological one as well. Jesus knew that the question was meant to entrap him. If he were to have answered the question the way the religious and political leaders expected – with a yes or a no, he would have fallen prey to their manipulation and their plan to turn the people against him.

If Jesus would have answered “no”, saying it is not lawful to pay taxes to the emperor he would have made himself an easy target. The Romans were in charge and taxes were their way of both collecting revenue to keep funding their control, and making sure their subjects had no question about who was in charge. Answering no would have meant taking a stance against the people who killed dissidents without a second thought. It would have given the Herodians and Pharisees exactly what they wanted- any easy way to silence Jesus and his followers easily and quickly. It would have meant the immediate end of Jesus life on earth. 

On the other hand, if Jesus would have answered “yes”, saying it is lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, he would have alienated all those who were oppressed by Roman rule, namely a majority of the occupied Jewish people. The very people who were so attracted to the message and teachings of Jesus. The people whose own tax dollars were funding the crucifixions and oppression of their own people. Siding uncritically with the Roman government would have isolated Jesus from all the people he was trying to reach. 

Instead of complying with the Pharisees set up to answer their yes or no trap, Jesus offers a new possibility. After drawing attention to the face of the emperor on a Roman coin, he says, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” His answer is neither a yes or a no. Instead, Jesus calls attention to what is at stake- ultimate allegiance. Give money to Caesar because he made it and it bears his likeness. Give your life to God because he made you and we all bear his image. Jesus answers the question with an invitation to see things differently.

We are both citizens of the state and citizens of God’s kingdom. Our ultimate allegiance however is towards God because unlike the governments of Rome or today, God is eternal and perfect. We are to remember that when push comes to shove, there is a choice- we can only choose one master, one thing to center the whole of our lives around. We either choose to develop eyes towards God or eyes towards the material things.

The sort of eyes we develop makes more sense with a story.

There once was a prosperous, young investment banker who was driving his new BMW on a mountain road during a snowstorm. As he veered around one sharp turn, he lost control and began sliding off the road toward a steep cliff. At the last moment he unbuckled his seat belt, flung open his door, and leaped from the car, which then plummeted to the bottom of the ravine and burst into a ball of flames. Although he had escaped with his life, the man suffered a ghastly injury. Somehow his arm had been caught near the hinge of the door as he jumped and had been torn off at the shoulder. 

A passing trucker saw the accident in his rearview mirror, pulled his rig to a halt and ran back to see if he could help. When he arrived at the scene, he found the banker standing at the roadside, looking down at the BMW burning in the ravine below. Incredibly the banker was oblivious to his injury and moaned, “My BMW! My new BMW!” The trucker pointed at the banker’s shoulder and said, “You’ve got bigger problems than that car. We’ve got to find your arm. Maybe the surgeons can sew it back on!”` The banker looked where his arm had been, paused a moment, and groaned, “Oh no! My Rolex! My new Rolex!”

The banker in the story had eyes toward earthy things- to wealth and possessions. Since his life was centered around physical things and because those things were most important to him, that was all he could see. If the banker had instead had eyes towards life, something more important and more eternal, his situation would have been much different. The way he reacted and lived his life would have been much different. Like the truck driver, today’s text should reorient us to something bigger, something more important. It should call our attention to something right in front of us we might not be able to see. In our case, to God.

We are created in God’s image and called to live in full allegiance to God alone. If we are oriented around God and God’s kingdom, everything changes. In the kingdom of the world we must earn our righteousness. We must follow laws, pay taxes and play by the rules of “yes” or “no” questions. In the kingdom of heaven, however, we do not earn our own righteousness, we accept it and live in gracious response to it. We find ourselves in a kingdom where there are not only answers of “yes” or “no”, there is also the third way of Jesus. An alternative kind of life where we do not pay money out of debt but pay spiritually out of our commitment to the kingdom of God.

The currency of God’s kingdom is measured not in coins that bear the images of humanity but in acts of love that bear the image of God. We respond to our salvation and entry into the kingdom of God with currencies of humble service, of compassion, of understanding and of peace. When our lens is God this is what we see. We don’t get caught up with BMWs and Rolexes, but with God and God’s kingdom. We become concerned with things that bear the image of God- the world, all of creation, one another.

So give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s. Pay the taxes you have to pay, do what the law of the land requires of you, but remember that your very life belongs to the God who created you, not the human authorities you live within on earth. As consuming as the world around us can feel, there are much bigger, much more important things that define who you are. You are God’s beloved children, and no one can take that away from you, not even the Pharisees or any so called leaders who are trying to manipulate you, not even Caesar or the empire. You are God’s, first and foremost. You always have been, always will be, undeniably, unchangeably. You. Are. God’s. No questions asked. 

Please pray with me.

Dear God,

You have created us in your image

You have knit us together with love and purpose

Though we live earthly lives, let us not have eyes only for material things

Let us have kingdom eyes, and a concern for that which matters to you

Where there is competition for our allegiance, hold us firm to you

Where there is division on earth, let us see our unity in your body

Where there is choice, let us choose you.

Hold us close in your kingdom.

Be with us as we pray.


Sunday Sermon: 10/11/2020

One of the many gifts scripture gives us is the ability to stand back, thousands of years later, and learn how countless generations have known and encountered God. Even looking at the experience of more recent generations, you can see how God has been active in different people’s lives in different ways. My faith is different from even my family’s faith. My dad was raised in a different denomination, so his faith is very black and white, very action oriented. Meanwhile my mom’s faith is more spiritual and individual than mine. I have an aunt and uncle and cousins who are very active in their big city mega churches, and I have other family who are spiritual but not religious. My great Grandfather was a Lutheran pastor from the 1910’s through the 50’s here in Texas, and his experience of God in the midst of two world wars, the great depression, the post-war church booms, was drastically different than mine. I inherited many of his theology books, and when I read in those old books about the role of women or people of color in the church, I can’t help but think about how differently we have read and interpreted the same bible. How differently we have known the same God, and the same Christian church. 

If all that can shift from person to person, generation to generation, imagine in the several thousand-year span that the bible comes to us from, how many different experiences of God must be within that. Scripture is a collection of generations of God’s people’s experiences with God – wrestling with God, praising God, encountering God, trying to understand God and pass on what they know to future generations so they may know God too. With that being said, people are going to experience God differently because of their circumstances. The Israelites enslaved in Egypt may have had very different understandings of God than those born during the rule of king David, in the golden ages of Israel. Likewise, the Jewish temple leaders during Jesus’ lifetime had very different experiences and understandings of God than the Gospel writer Matthew and his community of Christians just a few decades later. That doesn’t make any of their experiences more right or wrong than others, because their contexts are different, but it offers us a bigger picture of the God we all know through psalms and parables and stories that are passed down through generations.

One of the difficulties this presents is what to do with completely contradictory accounts of the same God. Our gospel text for today is a great example of this – a parable that portrays a king, who we generally assume is an allegory for God, whose character seems power hungry, cruel, petty, violent, and so inconsistent with the God we’ve come to know through Christ. This parable has been used at times to justify colonialism, violence against Jews and other non-Christians, tyranny of rulers and political leaders over their people. 

And yet, we cannot write off or ignore difficult texts just because we in our modern lenses view them as problematic. In ignoring texts like today’s Gospel, we disregard ways of being Christian that we do not agree with, creating we’re in and you’re out hierarchy that so much of scripture warns us against. Or perhaps worse, only accepting parts of scripture that align with our agenda of what we want God to be or not to be. In doing these things, we lose so much of the relationship we are called to be in – the relationship God has had with his people for all time – that of knowing God’s goodness and mercy and abundance, but also of wrestling and questioning and challenging things we don’t understand, all of which bring us into deeper relationship with God. Scripture invites us into that deepened relationship by letting us encounter God in the ways that those before us have, while often using familiar images to make those lessons more tangible. In the last several weeks, it has been the image of a vineyard, but this week it is a feast with an open invitation. 

Today in our lectionary texts, we encounter God through 3 different feasts. First in Isaiah, where it tells of a day when the Lord of heaven’s armies will prepare a wonderful feast for all people of the world, with choice food and drinks, where death and sorrow and animosity will be gone forever, and where all people will together praise God for his salvation. Isaiah continues on to tell about how Moab, Israel’s enemy nation, will be crushed, so even in the midst of a feast God invites all people of the world to, the presence of enemies is still acknowledged simultaneously with the hope of a future where all people can be united in rejoicing in the Lord. 

In our Psalm for today, we revisit the imagery of a banquet that the Lord has prepared for us, again in the presence of our enemies. Psalm 23 is a depiction of God’s presence among us, amid images of the rod and the staff God uses to protect us and keep us in line. Psalm 23 offers hope through God’s presence and protection even in the darkest times in life. 

Then we come to our Gospel text from Matthew 22, which takes a much stranger approach to the idea of invitation to the banquet. This time, it is a banquet no one seems to want to come to, where the one throwing the banquet has more at stake than the ones invited. This parable uses the familiar imagery of a wedding banquet to reveal more about the kingdom of God, which those to whom this parable was first being told must have needed to hear, even if it makes less sense to us today. So this parable is not at all peaceful like the table by the green grass and nice still waters of Psalm 23, or triumphant like the grand, heavenly banquet with the heavenly host and all the people of the world in Isaiah. But it uses that same familiar experience we can all relate to, to portray a different experience of God we may need to hear and could not have understood otherwise.

Throughout scripture, both old testament and new, feasts are one of the primary metaphors of God’s love. God’s love comes through even when it is side by side with images of fear. In Isaiah, God’s love is what defeats death and tears, in Psalm 23, God’s love protects and comforts in the valley of the shadow of death. In Matthew 22, the king’s love comes through his open invitation to all people, regardless of worthiness, to take part in the abundance of the kingdom. In all three of our readings, the details are different, but the image and the message are the same. That message remains the same from generation to generation. From ancient Israel, to the temple leaders of Jerusalem, to my great grandfather, my parents, myself, and all of you. God has prepared a great feast for us all, offering his love, his abundance, his joyful triumph, his protection from our enemies, and so much more. There’s room at the table for all of us. God has made sure of it. 

Sunday Sermon

October 4, 2020

Vineyards aren’t something that I can very easily picture or relate to. My mind automatically jumps to old black and white movies where Italian grandmas in floral aprons are stomping barefoot on grapes in giant wooden barrels. But for the people of Israel, especially in Jesus time, vineyards and the grapes they produced were what allowed them to produce wine, which because of the way it was made, could be considered safer to drink and easier to store than water was. So a vineyard was a source of life, safety, security, both for the vineyard owner and for those who benefited from what the grapes produced.

When I think of a place where I’m safe, secure, protected from potential harm, that gives me an opportunity to acquire food I may need to live, I don’t think of vineyards, I think about canoes. Being born and raised in Hawaii, the ocean was our source of safe and reliable food, and boats were how you obtained it. You had to care for your boat and maintain it well so that you didn’t end up in danger out at sea.

As a child, my church even used to use boats for Sunday school. Church members who had extra kayaks and canoes would store them at the church, so that every week the children could use them. We would meet early every Sunday morning, take our individual boats out in small clusters with our Sunday school teachers, paddle out, anchor, and pull our bibles out of zip lock bags to do our lesson for that week. Our lessons would often relate back to the ocean, the reefs, the fish, and our responsibility to be good stewards of it all. On the way back, we would learn to identify invasive species, and would pick them up along with any floating trash we could find. We’d get back to shore and would each have to hose off our boat, lay them in the sun to dry, and later come back to gently carry the boats back to the church basement one by one. We were taught from the time we were little to take good care of what was entrusted to us – the borrowed boats, the ocean, the reefs. We understood these things as gifts of God that had been entrusted to us, and it was our responsibility to learn how to properly care for them.

The priests and the pharisees in today’s text didn’t seem to get that lesson. They were the highest-ranking religious authority figures in all of Israel, they oversaw the Temple, and the wellbeing of all the Jewish people in the land. And they are not doing any of that particularly well. They see the temple as their own, not as God’s, not even as the people’s, and that completely disregards both the gift that it is, and the stewardship that it places on them. On top of it all, they disregarded all the prophets, and Christ himself who had come to try to teach them to know better. And that’s what leads them into even deeper trouble.

As I said before, from the time I was young, I learned to be out on the ocean – I had wonderful teachers who instilled in me those lessons about stewardship and responsibility. When I was old enough, I eventually became a competitive outrigger canoe paddler, since canoeing in Hawaii is a high school sport. So, I would go out with my crew of 6 teammates, paddling together in these 400-pound, 40-foot giant outrigger canoes. If you have ever seen Moana or Lilo and Stitch, you can get a fairly good idea of what I mean. At paddling practice, our coach would send us out, through the channels, around the maze of reefs, in between sets of breaking waves. We’d head to open ocean, a few miles off shore, where the waves were a little calmer, the water was a lot bluer and much much deeper, and there was no one around for miles.

One day at practice, we got out to sea and paddled for several miles before pausing to take a break. 3 of our 4 boats from our team caught up to each other within a few minutes, but our last boat, the JV boys’ boat, was nowhere to be seen, and never caught up. We turned around, tried to retrace our path, which in an ocean is incredibly difficult, and my canoe finally spotted them. Miles behind us, their boat had flipped over, because they ignored the coach’s warnings about where to point your boat to prevent waves from capsizing you. We quickly realized that not a single one of those Freshman boys had paid attention the day we all learned how to flip a boat back over, or the day we learned what to do in open water, or the day we learned what to do if you’re stranded. They had attempted to flip the boat incorrectly so many times that they had cracked the nose of the boat, and that beautiful, handmade, several thousand-dollar boat was starting to sink. Them holding onto the boat was only making it sink faster. Their paddles had floated off in every direction, these boys had already been treading water for almost half an hour, they were miles offshore, with no life jackets, a sinking boat. The waves were pummeling them because they’d ignored our lesson to always keep their boat pointed into the waves, so they’d drifted so far that by the time we found them, they were in deep, choppy grey waters which is where sharks tend to be lurking, and the jagged reefs were getting closer and closer and closer.

They had so many coaches before this day teach them what they were supposed to do, trying to instill what a huge responsibility they were taking on. Even as my varsity crew reached them and were explaining to them again exactly what to do, they still kept going back to the same things they were doing before. The second varsity boat catches up, and tries to help and to organize them, and still, there is no change. They were too proud, and too shocked to change their ways, no matter how wrong they knew they were. The boat kept slowly sinking, and paddles kept floating farther and farther away. When I picture our pharisees and temple leaders from today’s parable, standing in front of Jesus, and realizing how wrong they were to ignore those lessons, I see all those 14 year old boys, panicking in the middle of the ocean, boat sinking, and still not listening to those who’d come along to help them.

At this point in the text, Jesus has tried several times in a row to show them – you’re doing this all wrong! And yet they still just do not seem to get it. So, Jesus launches into the parable of the evil tenants, and finally the temple leaders connect the dots that they are the evil tenants. Ding ding ding! They are the ones who are taking advantage of the role God has given them and are making it worse by continually rejecting those God sends to make things right with them. They finally understand what is going on, and yet their response does not change. Christ’s teachings are meant to change us, and to save us from ourselves. They are not just food for thought or forgettable old folk tales. They’re lessons that help us to recognize our own sin, so that we can change our ways and be in better relationships with God and our neighbors, as we care for all that God has entrusted us with.

Change isn’t easy, especially in the midst of pride and old habits. The temple leaders have always done it this way, why change now? Besides this, they’re feeling threatened by Jesus, as they realize their own fault, so their shame and fear of consequence is outweighing their common sense, just like freshmen boys trending water with a sinking canoe worrying what’s going to happen when the coach shows up. The temple leader’s response to all this is to go on wanting to arrest Jesus. Completely disregarding the parable they just heard about the wicked tenants doing the same to the landowners son, completely disregarding the full awareness that they are the wicked tenants in God’s house, who have already cast out and killed many of the prophets God sent before, and who are about to finish the final evil the parable tells of. If they had done this in a boat, out in the ocean, ignoring all the lessons they’d been taught, disregarding the warning signs, doing exactly what they’d been told not to do, they’d could have been killed.

We are not called to death. We are called to life in Christ. These parables help us to recognize all the ways in which our actions are leading us away from that life, they call us to recognize and to change. You better believe those freshmen boys recognized and changed. As bad as things had gotten, they learned from it all, and gained a much deeper respect for the boats they were entrusted and the ocean they were paddling on. I wish I could say the same for the temple leaders, but unfortunately, I can’t.

So, let us hear this gospel lesson and learn what they could not. Let us recognize what God is teaching us throughout our entire lives – to love one another, to care for all that God has entrusted to us, to honor the Lord our God who has given us grace upon grace. Let us listen to the teachers God sends us along the way, calling us back to God. Let us have the humility to learn from ourselves and from those before us, that Christ may come to us, and not be rejected but become the cornerstone of our lives. Amen.

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