Monday, August 8, 2022

Sermon: Faith and hope in the impossible (Aug. 7, 2022)

Full service can be viewed HERE.

Pentecost 9C
August 7, 2022
Genesis 15:1-6; Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16; Luke 12

INTRODUCTION

The first and second readings today complement each other so well, I just couldn’t help preaching on them! So as much as I like Luke, I’m going to focus this introduction on their context.

First, the story about Abram. As you may remember from Sunday School, Abram, later Abraham, was promised many times by God that he would be the father of a great nation, and yet at 100 years old he and his wife Sarai were still childless. In today’s text, Abram really starts to doubt, and wonders if maybe this heir God has been promising him will end up being his servant, Eliezer. But God assures him once more that the promise will be fulfilled, in a beautifully mystical expression of that promise. 

This moment is so important, in fact, that the writer of Hebrews will pick it up centuries later. As a whole, the book of Hebrews aims to bring encouragement to discouraged Christians, urging them to persevere in faith. In today’s reading, the author uses the story of Abraham and Sarah to show how God has been and will be faithful, even when it seems impossible. 

All of our texts are about what it means to have faith, even in the face of discouragement. As you listen, think about a time in your own life when you have found it difficult to keep the faith, when God’s promises seemed too big, too impossible, and what it was like to try hold onto that faith anyway. Let’s listen.

[READ]



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

We have a wonderful children’s book called If You Want to See a Whale. The child narrating gives advice on what you need to do if you want to see one of these incredible creatures: not too comfy a chair, don’t get too distracted by very small or very pink-and-pretty things, and be prepared to wait, and wait, and wait… At the end of the book, as this small child sits in his rowboat in the ocean, the reader sees an enormous blue whale come up underneath the boat, and poke his nose out of the water. The excitement gets me every time!

Of course, anyone who has been whale-watching knows, there can be a lot of waiting, and not many sightings, and sometimes, the trip ends and that whale never did poke his gigantic nose out of the water. 

Faith can sometimes be like that, can’t it? You pray, you wait, you pray some more, you read your Bible looking for answers, you pray some more… but you just have to wait and wait until you see some response from God, and sometimes, the response never seems to surface.

            That’s why Abraham is the classic biblical model of faith; we see the height of both his doubt and his faithfulness in today’s short reading. Abraham (at this point, still Abram) speaks to God in distress, reminding God that while He promised Abram many descendants, here Abram remains, growing old in years and still childless. Abram is getting worried. He has been waiting for that proverbial whale to show up for so long already, and it’s getting to be too late; and he is losing hope, and tells God so. Amazingly, God does not rebuke him for this. Instead, God assures him, “Don’t you worry, Abe. I’ve got this. Your own flesh and blood will be your heir, not your servant.” Then to prove his point, he takes Abram out into the starry, starry night and says, “Look at all those stars. That’s how many descendants you will have – more than you can even count.”

            And then I think the most unbelievable statement in the Old Testament: “[Abram] believed the Lord, and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.” Abram believed! When there was no reason in the world to believe, beyond God’s word, Abram believed. God said it would happen, and so Abram believed.

            Faith. As much as I want to cling to it, to believe like Abram, even when the promise seems utterly unbelievable… I sometimes feel more like Abram at the beginning of the story, rather than the end. It can be hard to keep being faithful when there is no hope in sight: when conflict between individuals or groups or countries cannot be resolved; when climate change brings deadly floods and blistering temperatures; when the illness doesn’t respond to treatment; when despair keeps creeping into our hearts, leaving us breathless and hopeless.

            Into this heartbreak and discouragement come these words from Hebrews: “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” They are salve to a wounded heart – encouragement to continue hoping, encouragement that, although it may not result in just what we had planned, nor when we had planned it, our hoping will ultimately not be in vain.

Some years back, during Vacation Bible School at my previous call, the kids were raising money to help build a well that would provide fresh water to a place that doesn’t currently have access. One day, as we wrapped up for the day, one of our preschoolers came up to me, very distraught. She had conflated Jesus’ story with the building of a well, and thought that Jesus had fallen into the well and couldn’t get out! Through tears she told me how concerned she was about Jesus. I told her, “Jesus is so good, he will win every single time! Even when he died, he came back to life – nothing can beat him! Even if he did fall into a well, he would be just fine.” She was unconvinced. I gave her a hug, which seemed to help. But I was struck how fear and worry begin even at this early age: even when we do have faith, it is hard to hold onto hope when life seems dismal. In this 4-year-old’s world, the situation was hopeless: that well was so deep, so how would Jesus survive it? But Hebrews invites us to hold onto hope even when things do seem impossibly bad.

But Hebrews is not only about encouragement to keep hoping. I read these compelling words from Hebrews also as a challenge, urging us not just to quietly hope in our hearts, but to get in there and do something about it: to give money to build a well, to call your representative with your ideas for climate justice, to speak words of love into a world of hate, to listen to those in pain without judgment, to support and be present with someone who is stuck in that dark place. Sometimes it looks like kindness, sometimes like prayer for both victims and for perpetrators. Sometimes it looks like educating yourself about both sides of an issue and then speaking aloud a difficult truth, and sometimes it looks like getting physically and emotionally involved in a cause that is important to you. Whatever it is, I believe that hope has the power to motivate us, to move us, and to change us.

            Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. Faith is actively watching for the whales, even when it seems unlikely they will ever show up. Faith is not an “out,” not a reason to say, “Oh, God’s got this under control, so I’ll just sit back and wait.” No, faith is understanding that God might be using us to bring about the kingdom promised to us in our Gospel lesson, when Jesus tells us, “Have no fear, little flock, for it is the Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” It’s hard to believe it, sometimes, when that kingdom seems so far off in the distance. And indeed, we may not see the fullness of God’s promises in this lifetime – as Hebrews points out, Abraham and Sarah didn’t! But hold fast to hope, my friends: God might be using us to share that news with others, or to get out there and call out injustice, and work for peace, or to share love and kindness instead of hate. God might be using us in any number of ways, but as we act for and with God, we catch glimpses of those promises, and we are also assured that someday, somehow, the fullness of God’s kingdom will come, and God will win. The whales will appear. Jesus will get out of the well. Love will prevail. Meanwhile, we continue to live in the assurance of things we hope, to be convicted in the things we don’t yet see. God be with us as we live in this hope and this faith. God will bring the new life for which we yearn.

Let us pray… Faithful God, when life seems dismal, grant us faith: assurance in your promises, hope in the things we cannot see, and conviction to work to bring about the kingdom you have chosen to give us. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen


Monday, August 1, 2022

Sermon: Minimalism and being rich toward God (July 31, 2022)

 I suggest watching this sermon, because the meat of it is in what Becca responded to my questions - which is not included here! The interview begins around 35 minutes.

INTERVIEW

Here's my text:

Pentecost 8C/Proper 13C
July 31, 2022
Luke 12:13-21 

INTRODUCTION

      “Vanity of vanities! All is vanity!” exclaims the writer of Ecclesiastes. And some days, I can’t say I disagree! We work and toil so hard during this life, and sometimes don’t you just stand back and think, “What is it all for? We work so hard, and for what? Just to die and leave it all behind?”

      That’s exactly what seems to happen in the parable Jesus tells today, known as “the rich fool.” Jesus frames it as a parable about greed – which, if we’re honest, is often exactly what drives us to work so hard! A desire for more and more stuff and success! Yet, as Paul’s letter to the Colossians will tell us, we ought to instead “seek the things that are above,” and “set [our] minds… not on things that are on earth.” But how do we do that, when the things that are on earth are the ones looking us in the face all the time? Apparently this was as difficult for generations far past as it is still for us. We are still tempted to put our trust not in God, but in the things that we can see right now, right here before us, thinking that they can provide us what we need, what we crave.

      These are the questions our readings today will wrestle with, and I suspect they are questions we all wrestle with, even daily. So as you listen, I hope you will also wrestle. Notice what sounds like a balm to your troubled heart, and what feels more like a piece of rough sandpaper, or even a spear. Let your heart be in conversation with these texts, as we grapple together with these difficult and still so timely questions. Let’s listen.

[READ]

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

It’s hard to hear this parable and not think about minimalism. It’s a hot topic these days, one that encompasses not only decluttering, but living a simpler life in general. Most of the work around minimalism, though, is more secular in nature. But reading texts like today’s shows us that owning fewer possessions is a decidedly Christian principle. In today’s story, we see just how passionate Jesus is about the danger so much stuff poses to our well-being, our relationship with God, even our basic morality. You see, we might think that money and possessions are morally neutral, but this was a favorite topic of Jesus: he talks more about money and stuff than anything else, other than the kingdom of God. Today is one such example.

So, I wanted to dig into the topic of minimalism with you today, with an expert. We are lucky to have as our guest today a dear friend of mine, the Rev. Dr. Becca Ehrlich. In 2018 Becca and her husband Will started a journey of living more simply, including getting rid of 60% of their possessions, in an effort to find the perfect balance that allows for reduced stress and abundant life. Becca writes for a blog called “Christian Minimalism,” leads workshops on the topic, and recently published a book entitled Christian Minimalism: Simple Steps for Abundant Living. I’ve asked Becca if I could interview her about Christian minimalism, in light of today’s Gospel reading. Welcome, Becca!

To start, tell us a bit about how you and Will got into minimalism in the first place, and especially how this became a central part of how you live out your faith.

Now let’s get to the text. Jesus starts off this parable by warning us to “be on [our] guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” The second part seems an obvious connection to minimalism, but I’m interested in the first part. What do you think Jesus means here by “greed” and how does minimalism offer a counter to that?

In the parable, God tells the rich man that his life is being demanded of him this very night. I think we usually take this to mean that he’s gonna die that night. But I think it also means that God is demanding our lives here and now – not just on Sunday mornings, but in the way we live all aspects of our lives, even aspects concerning money and stuff! Would you speak to how minimalism has helped you with that?

Jesus also says, “one’s life does not consist of possessions,” I take that to mean, “your stuff is not what will bring you the life you crave” – that is, the sort of abundant life and joy and freedom we crave right now. So with that in mind, I wondered: how has your dedication to living a more minimalist lifestyle brought you to life? What new life have you found through this practice, and how has it changed your relationship with God?

Becca, thanks so much. I suggested at the beginning of this interview that many of us think money and stuff are morally neutral. You have shown us today that our relationship with our possessions (and yes, we do have a relationship with them!) is of great spiritual consequence, not at all morally neutral. 

I love where Jesus ends it, suggesting that rather than being rich for ourselves, like the rich fool in the parable, we strive to be rich toward God. When we can let go of our trust in stuff, and put our trust with God where it rightly belongs, then we find the joy, abundance, and freedom that we crave! That is life, and that “richness toward God” is indeed the only richness that we will keep. 

Let us pray… Bountiful God, you have given us so many gifts, both physical and spiritual, that bring us joy. But sometimes we let all the other stuff in our lives take our attention away from you. Set our minds on things from above, that we would, in all things, be rich toward you. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen. 



Monday, July 25, 2022

Sermon: When and why we pray (July 24, 2022)

Full service can be viewed HERE

 Pentecost 7C/Proper 12C
July 24, 2022
Luke 11:1-13

INTRODUCTION:

Last week, in the story of Mary and Martha, we talked about the need for Martha, and also for us, to reorient a distracted and worried heart toward God, in order to find the peace that we crave. One way to do that is through prayer. And today, we will hear lots about prayer! Directly following his encounter with the sisters, Jesus himself will go to pray (something, incidentally, that he does more in Luke’s Gospel than all of the other Gospels combined!). The disciples will be so interested in that, that they will ask him, “Lord, teach us to pray.” They are hungry to be close to God, as Jesus is. 

Our other texts today are also about prayer. In Genesis, Abraham will bargain with God, asking him again and again to save rather than condemn the people of Sodom and Gomorrah. “Come on, Lord, you don’t want to hurt innocent people,” he says. “Please, rethink your plan!” A classic prayer, right? “God, do this thing that I think would be better! Please and thank you!” And the Psalm gives thanks for the times when God has heard our plea, and responded. It’s a pretty strong theme today! So, as you listen to the readings, consider what your own prayers are like. Do you spend more time in prayer asking God for help with things, or thanking God, or confessing, or applauding God’s good work, or simply listening for guidance? What does it look or sound like when God responds (whether that response is a yes, or a no)? Where is your own prayer life strong, or where could it be stronger? Let’s listen.

[READ]


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

A couple months back, I invited you to think about your spiritual needs. I hope you did – only a couple people got back to me, but I hope you all thought about it on your own! The council shared some of their own reflections at our next meeting. One spiritual need that came up in various ways was around prayer. A couple folks mentioned that the prayers were their favorite part of worship, and a handful said they wished their personal prayer life was stronger than it is.

Well, they are in good company. Even Jesus’ closest companions had the same desire! I imagine the disciples watching Jesus go off to pray by himself (something that, according to Luke, he did often), and then coming back looking like he has found everything one hopes for in prayer: peace, connection, guidance, intimacy with God. I feel with them the ache of envy that Jesus has found what is to them all too elusive. I sense in them a longing to find this same connection in prayer. And then they ask, “Lord, teach us to pray.” Can you hear the yearning in that request? I can hear it, because I have felt it myself. Like those members of our council who expressed a desire for a deeper, or more intentional prayer life, I also have tried in many and various ways to find this for myself. But it comes and goes. I’m good at praying for or with others, not so good at the sort of prayer that is simply focused on my relationship with God. Practices that used to work well for me have stopped working in my current circumstances, and so I’m always searching for other practices that will work. It feels like I’m on a constant mission to find ways to connect with God. Lord, teach me to pray! 

And here is a passage that can teach us! And there is much to like about this passage. The Lord’s Prayer – I like that part. Here, Jesus gives us a formula, so that when we don’t know how or what to pray, we have somewhere to turn: Recognize God’s name and power. Ask God’s vision to come about. Request daily needs for life and sustenance – and only daily, lest we begin to rely too much on ourselves and forget to return to God each day. Admit the need for help with forgiveness, both asking and offering. And plead for safety from danger. It’s got everything! It’s a good and faithful prayer. Thanks, Jesus!

But the stuff after that… that, I find discouraging. Jesus insists that if we just ask with enough persistence, if we “ask, search and knock,” then we will get what we asked for – not scorpions or snakes, but the good stuff! In theory, I like it. But is it true? Has that been your lived experience? The way we talk about prayer, I’m not so sure. Ever notice that when we pray, and we get the outcome we prayed for (the person is healed, the relationship is saved, the conflict is resolved), we say, “God answered my prayers!” And yet, when things don’t go the way we requested, we are less inclined to claim that God answered. 

Apparently, we have told ourselves, largely because of texts like this, that unless God gives us what we asked for, God either didn’t listen, or didn’t answer, or answered but the answer was “no,” or “not yet.” I am guilty of offering that last response in a desperate attempt to understand the ways of God, but honestly, it doesn’t bring me much comfort. Why would God say no to my perfectly faithful requests? Does God not want the hungry filled, justice realized, our loved ones back at church, a fulfilling vocation that also pays the bills, our diseases healed? I thought these were things God is about, so why would God say “no,” or even “not yet”? Is God so cruel that God wants us to suffer a little longer? Is God saying we’re not praying faithfully enough, or in the right way? Ugh, to say that is getting painfully close to spiritual abuse! It’s your fault, your shortcoming, that is keeping God from responding in the way you want. What happened to a God of grace??

So how, then, are we to understand prayer – both our part, and God’s part? 

First, our part. I love that this exchange starts with the disciples asking for help. They admit that their prayer life is not as it should be. We would do well to start there, too! To be willing to admit, with self-awareness and vulnerability, “I need some help with this one, Lord. Would you teach me?” In fact, let this be our first prayer! Lord, teach us to pray! 

Then Jesus’ response, which begins: “when you pray…” He’s made a big assumption there already, that it is “when” and not “if”! Because let’s admit it: many of us only come to God in prayer when we have a particular need we would like God to address, like some cosmic gumball machine. Insert prayer, receive sweet return. 

But here Jesus assumes that prayer for a disciple is a given, a practice as natural and readily exercised as breathing or blinking. And what if it was? What if we did see every breath, every action, no matter how mundane, as a prayer? Chopping vegetables becomes a prayer of thanks for providence, perhaps a prayer for those who hunger. An agitated sigh reading the news becomes a prayer of lament. What if we trained ourselves to do that, to see every breath and action of our day as a prayer, by setting a reminder maybe 5 times throughout the day, and whenever it goes off, we stop for one minute – just one! – and simply breathe, understanding each breath as a prayer, a communion with God. How might that change our outlook on the rest of our day?

Next, a return to that challenging part of the text: “Ask, seek, knock.” Yes, I know there may be some resentment or discouragement here that what Jesus says will happen doesn’t always happen. We have been knocking on that door, seeking and asking for an answer, for years, and our kid still hasn’t come back to church, or the disease has only worsened, or gun violence keeps getting more prevalent, or the planet continues to warm. What gives, Jesus? 

But that perspective is focused on the outcome of prayer. And while of course we want a certain outcome, I’m not convinced that’s the main point of prayer. The point here is in the asking, the seeking, the longing, and the imperative to come to God with it all. It is an invitation to wrestle and yearn with God as our companion, to trust that God can hold our deepest desires, to trust indeed that in our audacious asking, we draw closer to God, and God draws closer to us. 

And that is the most important point of all. Jesus offers one promise in this text, and only one, and it is not, “You will get the outcome you desire if you pray hard enough or faithfully enough.” It is this: “If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” Did you catch that? His promise is that, when we come to God in fervent yearning, when we voice our needs and desires to God, and then voice them again, God will give us the Holy Spirit. God will give God’s own self, as our companion and comforter. It may be that the power of Spirit then guides us to a solution, or empowers us to be a part of the answer to our own request, or it may simply be the promise of presence. Whatever the case, in this promise, God will never fail.

Is that enough for us? Is the promise of God’s Spirit sufficient for us, when we come to God in prayer with our deepest desires? Or do want stuff from God, a fix from God, more than we want God’s own self? I admit sometimes the latter is exactly what I want! It’s a lot easier, after all, for God just to take care of it – to change other people’s hearts and other situations until I get the outcome I yearn for – than for God’s Spirit to transform me, and empower me to be a productive answer to my own prayer. It would be easier, yet who said a life of faith was easy? 

And so here is my prayer this week: That I could trust that God’s presence with me in the brokenness of this world would be sufficient for me. That my trust would allow for enough vulnerability and humility to be transformed. That my transformation would be such that I feel empowered to bring about God’s kingdom. And that I would see God’s promised presence through it all, even in things that didn’t have the outcome I had in mind. Will you join me in that prayer?

Let us pray… Lord, teach us to pray, even through every mundane moment of our day. Make us bold in our asking. And focus our attention not so much on the desired outcome, but on the ways you are present throughout it all. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen. 


Monday, July 18, 2022

Sermon: Two parts of discipleship (July 17, 2022)

Full service HERE.

Pentecost 6C/Proper 11C
July 17, 2022
Luke 10:38-42

INTRODUCTION

Last week we heard from Luke the story of the Good Samaritan, which begins with the statement that we are to love the Lord our God with heart, mind, soul, and strength, and our neighbor as ourselves, and ends with that famous line from Jesus regarding being a good neighbor: “Go and do likewise.” Today’s story follows that encounter directly, but today, instead of focusing on the loving neighbor bit, we’ll see what it means to love God. In Martha, we will see the “doing” part of loving God that many of us are so good at, but in Mary, as she sits at her Lord’s feet, we will see the listening and loving God part that sometimes comes less easily. So as you listen today, look for anything that might help you in the difficult work of listening to God. Where do you hear God? How do God’s word and God’s voice become apparent in your life? What in today’s scriptures speaks to you, or perhaps comes through to you as something you need to hear from God this day? Let’s listen.

[READ]

"Mary and Martha," by Grace Rehbaum, age 6
(drawn during worship)

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

The other day, I was bustling about my home, as I do, cleaning up, making food, getting people ready to get out the door, while my family sat on the couch having some interesting conversation about history or something. I was growing increasingly frustrated and stressed that no one was helping me. Finally, I walked in the room, flustered, and blurted out something like, “Would someone please help me??” Michael, in a genuine effort to help me calm down, said, “Relaaaax,” but I shouted all the more, “Telling me to relax only annoys me more! No one calms down just because someone tells them to!” 

So… yeah, I resonate with Martha in today’s story.

My guess is there might be some other Marthas out there among you?

Because of that, my guess is there might be others out there who hear this story and think it is not really fair for Jesus to be chastising Martha for tending to all those tasks. Someone has to do it, after all! Wouldn’t it be nice if we could all spend our days in Bible study, instead of doing the dishes! Couldn’t Jesus have maybe suggested they all chip in and give Martha a hand?

Yes, it sounds an awful lot to this “Martha” like Jesus is chastising Martha for being a busybody while Mary just sits there and listens to Jesus. 

But, on closer look, I don’t think that is at all what is happening here. In fact, you’ll notice that Jesus doesn’t even comment on Martha’s faithful work of service. See, his observation is not about her actions, but on the state of her heart. Not: “you’re being a busybody, Martha,” but rather, “You are worried and distracted by many things.” And that is a very different observation! 

With that in mind, let’s take a closer look. First, let’s paint the scene. It is not actually clear that this scene takes place in Martha’s home. The phrase “into her home” is not in the earliest manuscripts, so this was likely added later. And you’ll notice Mary doesn’t say anything – she may not actually be there. The Greek verb tense Luke uses to say she “sat at the Lord’s feet” (a phrase used to refer to a disciple, who metaphorically sits at the feet of a teacher to learn) indicates that this is not a one-time event, but a repeated one, one Mary does with regularity. So you can see, the picture of this scene is not clear, but here is what we do know: the sisters are engaging in two different parts of discipleship. Mary is engaging in a ministry of study and learning, and Martha is engaging in a ministry of service. The word Luke uses for Martha is “diakonia,” the word from which we get the word “deacon,” a minister of service. So, Martha is a sort of deacon, engaged in some sort of community care ministry. 

But we also know that Martha is not particularly enjoying her service. Luke tells us she is “distracted” by her ministry. It’s not clear why she is distracted, or what is distracting her. But if I may project myself once more on this story, here is my typical response when I am feeling stressed or anxious or distracted by my many tasks: I make lists, I go into hyperdrive, and I get incredibly frustrated when people around me don’t do their part. (Refer to my earlier story!) In short: I try to bring order to the chaos, in hopes that these efforts will bring my heart the peace that it craves. And often, this effort (and others’ apparent lack of interest in it) stresses me out even more. Anyone else? 

Perhaps that is what is motivating Martha. If she can bring order, she thinks, she can assuage her anxiety and frustration. She powers through, serving more and more people, tiring herself out, and finally, she triangulates Jesus into trying to get Mary to help her: “Don’t you care that my sister has left me to do all the work? Tell her to help me!” Surely Jesus would help her make right the disorder of the situation!

But Jesus sees that the real disorder is not with Mary’s choice to pursue the ministry of learning. The disorder is with Martha’s heart. Martha has convinced herself, you see, that changing the circumstances around her will bring her the peace and wholeness she craves. Just like I so often convince myself that a clean house and a fully crossed off to-do list will allow me, finally, to rest. That is why I am so irritated by my well-intentioned husband telling me to relax: who can relax when there is so much stress to be had?? But of course, crossing off the to-do list will not change Martha’s heart, which is where the real trouble is, any more than it will change ours. 

And Jesus knows how to get this message through to Martha, and to us, if we have ears to hear.

The first thing Jesus does, is he sees Martha. He says her name – not once, but twice. She is in such a state, you see, that she can’t at first even hear him trying to reach her. Like in my story, I was not in a position to “Relaaax,” because I had worked myself into such a state that I didn’t even feel that anyone saw my efforts or cared. So Jesus gently says Martha’s name, twice, not in a “tsk tsk” way, but in a kindly compassionate way, to let her know that he sees her. 

Having gotten her attention, the next thing Jesus does is to name Martha’s ailment, further proving that he sees her, perhaps even better than she sees herself. And again, her sin is not that she is a busybody. “You are worried and distracted by many things,” he says. Truly, this is the problem. I have often heard this text as chastising and accusing, which hardly seems fair because someone has to do All The Things! But that’s not it. What Jesus does here is name what is causing her suffering: not her tasks, but the worry and distraction with which she does them. 

Here is something interesting I learned about those words, worry and distraction: the root meaning in the Greek of the word “worry” is “strangle” or “seize by the throat and tear.”  The root meaning of the word “distraction” is “a separation or a dragging apart of something that should be whole.”  These words evoke an image of woundedness and fracture.  They are states of mind that leave us fragmented, lacking wholeness. Jesus identifies that Martha is in such a state of fragmentation. It has left her unable to enjoy his company and savor his presence. Further, she is unable to find the usual joy and inspiration in her work, nor to receive anything Jesus might offer her. Indeed, she is unable to show him genuine love. Instead, she questions his love (“Lord, do you not care?”), she focuses on herself (“My sister has left me to do all the work by myself”) and she triangulates Jesus (“Tell her then to help me.”) 

With this insight, I begin to wonder: what am I losing, how am I suffering, spending so much energy on my worry and distraction? 

We all crave wholeness, right? We all want balance, and peace, and contentment. But our worries and distractions consume our minds and keep this peace out of reach. Worst of all, we thought our worries and distractions were helping us! We worry, so we seek distraction from our worries, and keep ourselves busy tending these external things, instead of tending to the state of our hearts. 

Jesus’ last move here, made only after he makes sure Martha knows she is seen for her efforts and her struggle, is that he offers her a different way. “There is need of only one thing. Mary is doing it – see? That choice will bring her life, peace, and wholeness, the sort that won’t be taken away.” Suddenly it becomes clear that all those efforts we make to bring order to our external circumstances will not bring lasting peace to our hearts. We think, “If I could only change this situation and that mess and those people, fix them, and make them the way they should be, then I will find personal peace.” But that’s a lie. That will never work to bring lasting peace to our hearts. Lasting peace comes from a change inside ourselves, not from changes in other people or external circumstances. Lasting peace comes from dwelling in the Word, from time with Jesus – perhaps in the form of contemplative prayer, or reading and reflecting regularly on scripture. These efforts won’t change our circumstances, but they will change the state of our hearts, and how we respond to our circumstances. That peace, that effort, in Jesus’ words, is the “better part, which will not be taken away from [us].” 

You see, there is nothing inherently wrong with serving others – indeed, this is good and faithful and necessary! As we heard last week, loving and serving our neighbor is foundational for our faith! But this part must go hand in hand with the work of loving God, dwelling with God, listening and learning “at his feet.” This is what will orient or re-orient our hearts and minds toward the God of life, and will, even when things get stressful and difficult, bring us the peace and wholeness that allows us to love and serve one another. 

Let us pray… God of peace, we are worried and distracted by many things. Orient our hearts toward you, so that we would find the peace and wholeness that only you can bring, and so that we could serve with joy. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.


Monday, July 11, 2022

Sermon: The one who showed him mercy (July 10, 2022)

Pentecost 5C/Proper 10C
July 10, 2022
Luke 10:25-37


INTRODUCTION

Last week we heard a lot about the kingdom of God – what it is like, what it is not like, and how to proclaim it. This week, right on the tails of Jesus sending out 70 of his followers to proclaim the kingdom, and their return, we hear a very familiar story, the Good Samaritan, which gives us a concrete example of what it would look like if we did, indeed, love our neighbor. The familiarity of this tale has perhaps diminished how very scandalous it is! Today, as you listen to the first readings, hear that God’s law and hope for us has not changed since the Israelites entered the Promised Land; give thanks in the Psalm that God is present with us as we strive to live God’s word; and hear in our reading from Colossians a prayer for you as you strive to live a life of faith. Then, as you listen to the story of the Good Samaritan, place yourself in the story – not as the hero, the Samaritan, but as one of the other characters. Maybe the guy in the ditch, or one of those who crosses the road, or the innkeeper. For that matter, maybe you’re the lawyer asking the questions at the beginning. As you listen, imagine your character’s thoughts and feelings as this all plays out. Let’s listen. 

[READ]



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

I read an opinion piece in the New York Times a couple weeks ago entitled, “America the Merciless.” The author, Pamela Paul, argues that a defining characteristic of our country is our lack of mercy for our own citizens. She cites several examples, including lack of access to affordable health care, the amount of gun violence, and several recent Supreme Court decisions, but she focuses mostly on prohibitions and restrictions around euthanasia (aka “mercy killing”) and our criminal justice system (America has the highest incarceration rate in the world). For the latter, she refers to the book-turned-movie by Bryon Stevenson, Just Mercy. The article includes this quote from the book: “Fear and anger can make us vindictive and abusive, unjust and unfair, until we all suffer from the absence of mercy and we condemn ourselves as much as we victimize others.”

I have been mulling this over these past couple weeks as I’ve been thinking about the parable of the Good Samaritan. It’s such a familiar parable, even to the point of its title being colloquial, that we may not anymore notice the details. But this week, after reading that New York Times piece, I noticed anew how the lawyer, in the end, answers Jesus’ question, “Who was a neighbor?” with: “the one who showed him mercy.” 

First of all, did you see what Jesus did there? You remember, the original question the lawyer asked was, “who is my neighbor?” As in, who am I supposed to love with all I’ve got? The implied answer to that question is: anyone! Especially, anyone in need. But Jesus flips the question, instead asking back, “Who acted like a neighbor?” So not, “who should I love?” but instead, “how should one love? What does love look like?” And the answer the lawyer rightly gives is: “The who showed him mercy.”

And that is worth dwelling on for a moment. I know I usually assume “love your neighbor” means “care for your neighbor in need.” And, yes - but that’s not exactly what he says here. The neighbor here is “the one who showed mercy.” And so, Christian love and service must be rooted in mercy.

Mercy is not a word we use much outside of church, which is why the title of the article I mentioned caught my attention. Even in church, we mostly use “mercy” in reference to God. God is merciful. But mercy is, really, at the root of so many Big Moral Issues, and questions about how to act in a Christian way in this complicated world. 

So then, what is mercy, exactly? Let’s first look at what mercy is not. Listen again to that quote from Stevenson’s book: “Fear and anger can make us vindictive and abusive, unjust and unfair, until we all suffer from the absence of mercy and we condemn ourselves as much as we victimize others.” Fear and anger are the culprits that lead to lack of mercy, leading us instead toward vindictiveness, injustice, and abuse. While Stevenson is writing about incarceration practices in America, we can imagine this playing out in the parable. The first two people who pass by the man in need – why do you think they pass by? They are religious men, after all, who would have known well the same law the lawyer cites to Jesus: to love God and neighbor as yourself. So then why didn’t they stop? I suspect there is some self-preservation instinct at play – they likely know that this road from Jerusalem to Jericho is a dangerous road. A common trick was to beat someone up, and leave them as bait for some merciful passer-by, and then beat and rob that person too. But what is that self-preservation rooted in? Fear. Justified fear? Yes, of course! But don’t we always think our fear is justified? That’s why we don’t pick up hitch-hikers, or invite the homeless we encounter to come and live in the ample space in our own homes, or even speak up in public on behalf of someone in need if it might harm our reputation. We have a healthy fear. We weigh the consequences, we decide on what is safest, and we act (or don’t act) accordingly. 

Or maybe the reason the two men don’t act is the other reason Stevenson mentions: anger. I don't know that that’s what is going on in this story, but I do know that I am guilty of this, too, sometimes. I let my anger about something or someone fester to the point that when something bad happens to the person or situation causing my anger, there is a vindictive part of me that says, “Good. They deserve it.” And no, in these situations, I don’t feel inclined to help or have mercy.

I know (and feel) that there is a lot of anger and fear in our country right now. People fear for the future of their rights. They are angry at injustice. Many are fearful that we are so divided, and feeling so helpless and increasingly hopeless, that the only way out of this will be civil war. These fears and angers are justified. BUT… we must not let them rob us of mercy. Listen again to this quote: “Fear and anger can make us vindictive and abusive, unjust and unfair, until we all suffer from the absence of mercy and we condemn ourselves as much as we victimize others.” This is what a lack of mercy does to us as individuals and as a country.

So how do we combat all of that – vindictiveness, injustice, abuse, and self-condemnation? We cultivate mercy, in our individual lives and in community. Knowing now what mercy is not, let’s define what mercy is.

Mercy sometimes means kindness. It is noticing that your waitress is having a rough day, and so you don’t tell her your order is wrong, and instead you tip a little extra. 

Mercy is sometimes forgiveness. It is a willingness to hear someone’s genuine apology, and choose to believe them, and to release the grudge over them.

Mercy could look like grace. It is choosing not to shame someone publicly, but instead coming to them in private to correct them gently, using the opportunity to build the relationship instead of damage it. Mercy does not undermine or overlook the need for holding someone accountable, because accountability can be merciful – it can be exactly what helps set someone down a more life-giving path. But mercy does offer accountability without shame. 

Those are all important expressions of mercy that we can and should strive for. But the mercy that I’m thinking about especially this week is mercy as the action that springs from compassion. This is what we see in this parable, and it is the sort of mercy that can help us deal with the division and the moral issues we face as individuals and as a country. 

And my friends, I admit to you that no matter how many times I have returned to this sermon in the past week, this is where I get stuck, every time. I’ve rewritten this sermon several times, and each time, I run into this wall. Because I confess, as your pastor, that I am struggling these days with having compassion for the people who are causing me to feel that fear and anger that can, as Stevenson observes, “make us vindictive and abusive, unjust and unfair, until we all suffer from the absence of mercy.” If showing mercy for someone – even someone I despise, as a Jew would a Samaritan, or vice versa – if that is what makes us a neighbor, then I confess that I am struggling to be a neighbor. 

Oh, I have lots of good, faithful, justified reasons for this, don't you worry (and like the lawyer, I’m awfully good at trying to justify myself). Those people are abusing their power, I think. And those people are liars. And those people are doing just fine, only caring for themselves, and have no compassion for the people I think they ought to have compassion for, so why should I be compassionate and merciful toward them? They surely don’t need my care!

But here’s the thing: if, in my justifying my lack of mercy for these people, I have discovered all the things that are, in my mind, wrong with them… then it sounds like they could indeed use my mercy and compassion. Because I know from personal experience that my less attractive qualities usually rear their ugly head when I am suffering in some way – when I feel something lacking, or I feel uncared for, or tired, or stressed. When I am not my best self. Those are the times when I really could use some mercy. That’s not to say that I, or they, should not also be held accountable – remember, accountability can be an act of mercy. Just that this accountability is rooted in compassion and mercy for their struggle, their suffering, whatever it may be.

I’m grateful every day that I receive this mercy from my God, who relentlessly listens, and guides, and cares, and forgives, and gives me another shot to get it right. I receive God’s mercy every single day, and Lord knows, that can’t always be easy! Yet it is also a daily reminder that what the lawyer in this story says is true: to be a neighbor, to love God and neighbor with all that we’ve got, is to show mercy. And as Jesus says, when we do this, we will live – not just eternally, but right now. We will, today, find what it means to have life. May God, who is gracious and merciful, full of compassion and abounding in steadfast love, grant us the will and the strength to do it!

Let us pray… Merciful God, you often put people in our paths who cause us to feel more anger and fear than love. In these times, soften our hearts to feel mercy and compassion, so that we might be a neighbor. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen. 



Sunday, June 26, 2022

Sermon: You are called to freedom - love each other (June 26, 2022)

Full service HERE.

Pentecost 3C/Proper 8C
June 26, 2022
Galatians 5:1, 13-25
Luke 9:51-62

INTRODUCTION

Today’s texts will show us both the joys and the challenges of discipleship. In the Gospel, after rebuking his disciples for wanting to get vengeance on some Samaritans who don’t welcome them, Jesus tells three would-be disciples about how challenging it can be to follow him. In Galatians, we will hear about how tempting it can be to give in to our fleshly desires, like jealously, anger, drunkenness… quite a list. In contrast, Paul will offer, when we live by the Spirit, we will see the fruits of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. This is the life God wants for us!

The first reading from 1st Kings is pretty difficult to follow without any context. So here’s some: just before this, Elijah killed all the prophets of the false god, Ba-al, and Queen Jezebel is furious! She wants Elijah killed. Elijah runs off to the wilderness, where he finally lands, exhausted, depressed, and begging God just to kill him now. After giving Elijah rest and food, God tells him to go out and stand in a cave on Mount Sinai, where Elijah encounters wind, an earthquake, and fire, but God is found in the sound of sheer silence. And God asks him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” Elijah laments, “I’m the only faithful person left in Israel, and they’re trying to kill me!” What we will hear in a moment is God’s reply, which is basically, “I’m sending you to completely rearrange the political and spiritual order in and around Israel” (you know, no big deal), including anointing Elijah’s successor, Elisha. In the missing verses, God promises that there are still 7000 people in Israel who remain faithful. And then we will hear the part of the story in which Elijah passes the prophetic mantle on to Elisha, a call Elisha will in turn take very seriously, by basically eliminating his past life.

Yes, discipleship is difficult, and often requires some sacrifice! As you listen today, listen for some nugget that will help you in your own life of discipleship, that will give you strength for the journey ahead. Let’s listen.

[READ]



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

         I took a class in college as a part of my religion major on theologies of the 20th century. It was an incredible class – our conversations were fascinating, and I never worked so hard in a class. (I've never been prouder of an A-!) One thing in particular that the professor said has really stuck with me. She said, “Lots of things are true: the sky is blue, I love my dog, Christ died so that we would have freedom from death. They are all true. But which of those will you stake your life on?”

         Which of these will you stake your life on? The question has nagged at me through every crisis I have had since then – whether a crisis of faith, or a more tangible crisis, or a combination. What truth will you stake your life on? And of all those things, I bet you can guess which is the one that gets me through a crisis. I’ll give you a hint: it is not the color of the sky.

         “You were called for freedom. Love each other as Christ has loved you. Guided by the Spirit, find joy, peace, and love.” This short song was written by Pastor Matthew Nickoloff, of the South Wedge Mission congregation. It’s based on today’s text from Galatians: “For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” The text goes on to urge us to live not by desires of the flesh, but by the Spirit, describing the fruits of such a life as love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, and self-control. These fruits, or virtues, says the apostle Paul, are the ones we embrace when we live in a way that is guided by the Spirit, by Christ, by love for one another, and not by self-indulgence. In short, this is what it looks like to live in Christian freedom, to live a life that reflects the truth that Christ died to free us from sin and death.

         It sounds like a pretty good life, right? Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, self-control… these are all things that we want to teach our children, because we know that without those things, the world can be a pretty nasty place. Michael and I frequently tell our kids, “We want you to be successful, but most of all, we want you to be kind.” We want to instill in them a value of treating others with respect and love, so that they will indeed find delight in loving and treating people well. Who wouldn’t want to live a life like that?

         And yet, we don’t always do it. We all, at some point, give in to self-indulgence, and do not do what is kind or loving or patient or generous, but rather what indulges our broken, human desires in that moment. At some point we are all like the disciples in today’s Gospel lesson. They encounter the Samaritans, whom they already despised for their different historical and racial background (see, prejudice based on race has long been an issue!). When they discover these Samaritans will not receive Jesus as he travels through their country, they are outraged. They likely think, “Oh, this is the last straw. Those people, those Samaritans, are no good. They worship wrong, their blood is tainted by the enemy, they do not belong to our kind. And now this! Of course they would be behave like this, rejecting Jesus. We already knew they were bad people, and this just confirms it.” With all of their past opinions, assumptions and prejudices as proof of the validity of their hatred, the disciples ask Jesus, “Do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven to consume them?” Their response is not to love, but to destroy! Granted, they offer this with the best of intentions – they are defending their Lord, after all! Surely, he would agree with them; after all, don’t we always assume that Jesus loves or rejects all the same people as we do?

         Now, I’m going to assume that no one here has ever wished death and destruction on an entire town based on one action. But I’m also guessing everyone here has at some point, maybe even in the past few days, wished or spoken some sort of ill or punishment against someone who upset us, or who acted in a way that pushed against our deeply held values, or who said something offensive, or who treated someone we love cruelly. We see this behavior all the time: in politics, in our workplaces, in our families, in our friend groups, on both social media and traditional media. We see it in others, and yes, we see it in ourselves. And the worst thing is, sometimes it feels good to voice something nasty about someone else, even if it’s something we don’t really mean. And, we can convince ourselves that our anger is righteous, and justified. And frankly, it may well be! 

But as good as it may feel in the moment, such a nasty response is not the way Christ intends for us to use our Christian freedom. The Constitution may grant us the freedom to say what we want and how, but Christ grants us a different sort of freedom – the freedom to love and serve our neighbor. That freedom may well compel us to speak strongly to someone, to speak up for the disenfranchised, to speak truth and justice to power. I’m not saying not to do that; indeed, that is more important now than it was even a week ago. I’m also not saying that engaging according to the fruits of the Spirit is easy – especially when we are feeling enraged, sad, or scared, as many are right now. Yet still, the manner in which we speak that truth, or listen to another’s story, is what makes our response rooted in the Spirit, or in our fleshly indulgence. 

You were called for freedom: Love each other as Christ has loved you. Guided by the Spirit, find joy, peace, and love.

 Of all the truths you know, which would you stake your life on? 

Would you stake your life on the belief that someone who hurt you or someone else should be brought down and put in their place by words or actions? 

Would you stake your life on the belief that when someone you dislike or disapprove of falls upon bad fortune, they deserved what was coming to them? 

Would you stake your life on the need to tell some offender exactly what you think of them?

I admit those are all things I have felt viscerally in my bones at some point or another. But would I stake my life on them?

         Or would you stake your life on God’s promise that God is stronger than death, stronger than sin, stronger than captivity; that if God is for us, nothing can defeat us? 

Would you stake your life on the truth that because God has broken the bonds of death for us, that we can live lives of freedom – not the freedom to self-indulge and say and do whatever we want, as Paul writes, but the freedom to love one another, to live by the Spirit? 

Would you stake your life on the truth that because God loves us bunch of sinners, God is capable of loving any bunch of sinners, and that to live in God’s Spirit means that we, too, strive to love all the sinners of the world – even if they sin differently from you?

         Those are hard truths, very hard. They sometimes go very much against the grain of our human inclination, which says that people should get what they deserve. They are truths I sometimes find it difficult to apply to other people, even as I’m so grateful that they apply to me. But they are truths that I can, indeed that I must, stake my life on, because they are truths that bring us to life – life with God, and life with one another.

         Let us pray… You called us for freedom, to love each other as Christ has loved us. Guide us by your Spirit, to find joy, peace, and love. In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen. 


Monday, June 20, 2022

Sermon: Unchained from our pain (June 19, 2022)

Full service HERE.

 Pentecost 2C/Proper 7C
June 19, 2022
Luke 9:26-39


INTRODUCTION

Today, after a couple months straight of festival Sundays, we enter into what is called “ordinary time.” It’s marked by the use of green paraments, and during this time through the summer and fall, we work our way through the daily ministry of Jesus, hearing his teachings and stories of healings, stuff like that. 

Today is also Juneteenth, as you know, which is perfect because today’s texts are all about freedom! Well, Isaiah is more about the need for freedom, in particular freedom from sin. At this point in Isaiah, the Israelites have returned from exile, and divisions are emerging in the worshiping community, and in this text, one group is expressing their frustration toward the other group – a situation we know something about! 

But Galatians offers a response to this. Speaking to the divisions and disagreements inherent in the new Christian communities, and whether those differences are lawful or not, Paul offers this liberating exclamation: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ!” It remains a powerful message as we remember the freedom from slavery that we celebrate on Juneteenth, and as we manage and celebrate diversity in our 21st century world.

Finally, in the Gospel reading, we’ll hear of a man who is captive in numerous ways – he is captive to a Legion of demons, he is chained up outside of town, trapped in a graveyard. And Jesus comes and declares his freedom. The townspeople are not thrilled by Jesus’ declaration – as I’m sure slaveholders in the 19th century weren’t thrilled with the declaration of their slaves’ freedom! We have continued to long for freedom for all God’s people, even as we have, like those in this text, continued to feel uncertain and suspect of it as well. 

As you listen to these readings, I hope you will find yourself in them. Where and how do these stories help you to tell your own story? Where do your story and the text intersect? Let’s listen. 

[READ]

Katolophyromai, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>,
via Wikimedia Commons


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

Last week we had a new member class. Since these folks bring a fresh perspective to our congregation, I asked them what they’d like to see at St. Paul’s. One of those in attendance said she’d love to have a place where she can talk with others in the congregation about where they have seen God working in their lives, and how we could pray for each other. 

I would love that, too! That’s exactly what a faith community can offer that is different from what other organizations can offer. So where can this happen? Well, perhaps the best place is in the context of Bible study. We believe that scripture is the means by which we hear God’s voice and see and understand how God is working in our lives. So if we want to see and know God’s action in and among us, then spending time dwelling in this sacred telling of God’s story, the Bible, is the logical place to start!

Now, I know, “Bible study” can sound very boring to some. Or maybe, it is intimidating, because many of us have so little experience, we don’t even know where to start with the Bible, and we’re afraid we will feel dumb. It just isn’t relatable to me, we think. It’s so esoteric, with lots of people, places, and rituals that are so foreign to me. I get it – I felt that way most of my life before going to seminary, too, and I still do sometimes! But it doesn’t have to be boring, OR intimidating. When I say “Bible study,” what I mean is this: looking together at a story – not necessarily the particulars of it, but the arch of the story – and finding ways that this story can help us tell our own story. Because scripture tells stories about how God works in the world, right? So, if we can find how our own story overlaps with God’s story, then we have a better shot at seeing how God is working in our world, our story. Right?

But how do we do that, we ask, when the story we are given is just so… weird. Like today’s Gospel: it’s a cool story, one of the most graphic and bizarre in the Bible. Just picture it, and it is, truly, creepy. It’s in a graveyard, this guy is breaking his chains and clearly out of his mind. It’s a horror flick. So where are we supposed to find ourselves in this intense story of demon possession, and pigs flying off a cliff? I’m not saying demon possession isn’t real, I’m just saying it is likely not familiar to most of us. So how can it possibly relate to our 21st century lives?

But look beneath the surface, and there is a point of entry. We may not all know about demon possession, but we do all know something about how it feels to be metaphorically chained by or to something that works against who we want to be in the world. I’m thinking about… our past traumas, the emotional pain we carry, the defenses we have learned to put up in order to feel safe from whatever is our biggest fear – be it abandonment, or shame, or failure, or insignificance. Like the Gerasene demoniac, we may find ourselves chained by these things, such that they hold us back from living a life of wholeness – they keep us from being in trusting relationships, from deep connection, from contributing something meaningful to the world. No, we are not physically chained in a graveyard, but we do find ourselves no less trapped in a place that is more death than life. 

And then along comes Jesus, and with him the possibility of healing, of freedom, of breaking those chains that would hold us back and keep us from the life we crave. Jesus soon realizes how stubborn those demons are (and don’t we know about how stubborn our pain and trauma can be, often hiding deep inside where even we can’t see it, but emerging, often unexpectedly, and wreaking havoc in our lives and relationships). And what does Jesus do? He asks for its name. He asks for the demons, the pain, the trauma, to be named. What happens when we name what is troubling us? Once specifically named, that thing immediately begins to lose its power. It cannot hide any longer. Anyone who has spent any time in counseling knows this – once something has been identified, named, we can find a pathway forward, away from that pain and trauma. It’s not always an easy path, or one we want to take. But it promises far more life than staying put does. 

Sure enough, once Legion has been identified, Jesus knows how to get rid of them: he sends them into a herd of swine, who in turn race off a cliff and into the sea. I can’t help but notice the baptismal imagery here – the demons are literally drowned, the very same language we use when talking about baptism. Luther writes in his Small Catechism, that the significance of baptism is “that the old person in us, with all the sins and evil desires, is to be drowned and die.” In a moment, when Reeve, Alex, and Bobby affirm their baptism, they will say that they continue to renounce that “old person,” that Legion that would try to make their way into our lives. I love that image of renouncing, rejecting those evil desires and God-defying forces, and picturing them as a pig flying through the air and into the sea! 

So, once that renunciation is complete… what do we have left? Jesus has cast out the Legion, and what is left is a man, bloodied and bruised from the shackles, naked and completely vulnerable, without any of his former coping mechanisms. This can be the hardest part of emotional healing. When you have spent so much time letting yourself be defined by your pain, trauma, ailments, troubles – and you’ve built up defenses to keep that false identity safe – then who are you without it? Who is this man without his demons? Who is the alcoholic without her wine? Who am I without my anger? Who are you without your shame? Who are we without our fear and pain? I know people who have gone to therapy and, as they chip away at healing, they discover that they need to find something to fill the space that was left by whatever unhealthy behavior or pattern they dispelled. Otherwise, we are left with an identity crisis. Who am I, without that?

But Jesus does not let the man stay there long, hurting, naked, and completely vulnerable. By the time the townspeople arrive, the man is clothed again – much as we, in our baptism, are “clothed in Christ.” The Apostle Paul talks about how we “put on” Christ in baptism, and here that is what has happened. It’s why we wear baptismal gowns, and confirmation robes – we are “putting on Christ.” And so here, the man is clothed and sitting at Jesus’ feet. He has become a disciple. But that isn’t all – Jesus gives him a charge, a new purpose. “Return to your home,” he says, “and declare how much God has done for you.” This is remarkable! For years, this man has been defined by Legion. He was The Demoniac. And now, just like God does in our baptism, Christ has given him a new name and purpose: he is an apostle, one sent to tell how God has worked in his life, how his story and God’s story have intersected and overlapped. He is sent to tell the good news.

This, too, is our own story. In a moment, our confirmands will affirm the promises made at baptism, and with them, we will be reminded of our own baptism. Among those promises is this: “to proclaim the good news of God in Christ through word and deed.”  That sounds an awful lot like Jesus’ charge to the man in the story! I’m not saying you all should become preachers, or go door to door with pamphlets. I am saying that finding the words to tell our own stories of the ways Jesus has shown up on the shores of our lives, and helped us to name what keeps us bound, so that we could find a more fulfilling life, is a part of what living out our baptismal promises looks like. How has God worked through your story to bring you to fuller life? 

There are other parts to our baptismal covenant, too, of course: serving all people, engaging in the word and the sacraments, striving for justice and peace in all the earth. It is all good stuff to aim for. But what the study of scripture can do for us, even creepy and intense stories like this one, is to give us words by which to tell the story of how God has brought us to life.

I pray that our three confirmands will find ways to live into that. I pray that our graduates, as they head off to the next phase of their lives, will encounter God’s story playing out in their own story, in many and various ways. And I pray that all of us would become more intimately familiar with God’s story told through scripture, so that we might know how to make it our own.

Let us pray… Life-giving God, encourage us to dwell in your word, so that by your word we may find language to share the story of how you unbind your people, and bring them to life. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.