Sermon for the 23rd Sunday After Pentecost: “Thoughts and Prayers”

sutherland-springs-1280x720

Sermon on Amos 5:18-24 and Matthew 25:1-13

“Thoughts and Prayers”

November 12, 2017
Lutheran Church of the Redeemer
Saint Paul, Minnesota
by Eric S. Fought, M.Div.

We have just listened to two challenging texts—the first from the prophet Amos and the second from Matthew the evangelist.

In the first we find a prophet reflecting on what will happen on the day of the Lord, a future time when God’s people will be judged for their actions in the past and in the here and now.

This passage is challenging because it’s a message that we can easily dismiss today as coming from a different time and place, a world that is long gone.

Indeed, there are some Christians who only read the New Testament for this very reason, believing that the texts of the Old Testament have no relevance for us today. And in so doing, those Christians not only miss some of the richest and most compelling narratives about how God has worked and does work in the world, they miss the opportunity to look deeper into the world in which Jesus lived and taught. These were the stories that formed him, and those who followed him in the beginning. These are the stories that shaped the church at its very start, the church we continue to imagine today.

Anyone who has taken an introductory course in psychology can easily see that Amos is projecting a bit, or a great deal, in this text. God is angry, and it sure seems that Amos is angry as well. He was likely deeply frustrated, living in a world that was deeply divided between two groups of people who were loyal to the late King David, one group which supported any successor of David no matter how corrupt, and another group that only supported those leaders who embodied what they believed to be David’s best qualities.

However, Amos wasn’t simply angry about the divisions playing out in his community surrounding governance and politics. He was concerned about how that community was gathering in prayer and how they worshipped their God.

“Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps.”

It wasn’t that the singers were off-key or the harps out-of-tune. It was that the people of Judah thought that singing songs and making sacrifices in the shrines and temples were enough in such a time as they were living. Such prayer and worship was important and necessary, but not enough.

God, and God’s people require more, and that more is found in working so that justice might flow like a flood into the driest of places, that righteousness might roll down like waves of light into a dark, dark world.

In the past week we as a nation have once again engaged in what has become a recurring argument, a discussion regarding our country’s lack of action to address the epidemic of gun violence. These shootings, which are not tragedies that can’t be avoided but atrocities that must be, prompt such a discussion, an argument over whether thoughts and prayers are enough.

And, of course, they are not.

Even more so, the statements and tweets of lawmakers who claim to be praying and thinking about the latest atrocity—in this case the loss of half of a Christian congregation, whose members had gathered to pray last Sunday morning—those statements, those tweets are nothing more than hallow, self-satisfying distractions.

We can hear today, in a clear voice, the God of Amos saying, “Take away from me the noise of your songs.” Keep your so-called sacrifices to yourselves.

Of course, we must pray for the victims of the shooting, and for the people of Sutherland Springs. And we must never stop praying for the families left behind in Columbine, Sandy Hook, Orlando, Las Vegas, the list goes on and on.

However, the God of our ancestors demands much more of us. It is long past time for justice and righteousness to roll down. And those who fail to act in Washington and in state houses throughout this country are acting as floodgates and dams, constructed by the engineers of a corporate gun lobby that they are so very afraid of losing favor with.

The second challenging text for us this morning is our gospel passage from Matthew.

We’ve returned to yet another parable, and another wedding feast. The disciples are gathered on the Mount of Olives, and the end is growing closer and closer. Jesus is no longer teaching them about the kingdom of the present, but the kingdom to come, that time soon when he will no longer be with them. He is preparing them for what is next.

And his message challenges us because we have come to believe that which is true, that Jesus never truly shuts the door on anyone, that there is, in God, no shortage of oil, no lack of abundance.

But Jesus seems to be seeking to shock his disciples a bit, disciples who knew that the door would not be shut, that there is enough oil. Shocking them much like the prophet Amos shocked those who heard him long before.

Stay awake. Keep your wicks trimmed. The night is long and the darkness is stark. Be ready.

And, perhaps the most challenging part of it all is the waiting. The day and the hour of the bridegroom’s return is not known.

For those in the Christian community that Matthew was writing to, the waiting was getting old. They had been waiting for the bridegroom, Jesus, for more than 50 years. Many, if not all, those who walked with Jesus in the flesh were gone, dying before his return, which they believed would have happened in a matter of days or weeks or months, not years.

And, while we occasionally come across a wayward soul who predicts that the end is near, or that Jesus will be coming on a date certain in the near future, we continue to wait.

As Christians, we believe that Jesus will return. And as Christians, we know that we must be ready, our lamps lit with plenty of oil to keep them going.

And yet, we have moved from the Upper Room, realizing that the wait is longer than we anticipated. And we have come to realize that our waiting cannot be filled with passive acts of thoughts and prayers, or worship that simply fills the air with pleasing melodies.

Like Amos and his neighbors, we must turn to action. Our waiting must be a time of preparation, of evangelization and of readiness for all that will challenge us.

Jesus also taught his disciples to recognize that in serving others they served him.

As good justice-minded Christians, all of us in this sanctuary today know that the 25th chapter of Matthew not only contains the parable of the bridesmaids, or the parable of the talents which follows it. It is later in this chapter when we read, in his last teaching before the plot to kill him comes together, Jesus tell his disciples, “truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.”

Today, as Christians, we are called to wait, to be ready. But we are also called to let our collective light shine in a world that is so very dark.

We know exactly who the “least of these” are for us in this moment. They are the survivors and those of our brothers and sisters left behind in Sutherland Springs. But the “least of these” are also those praying in churches this morning and on Sunday mornings in the future, those children who will fill our schools tomorrow, those concertgoers who will fill arenas and those who will come to dance in nightclubs. All of whom, we know, we fear, could be among those we mourn next.

The “least of these” are the families who will be torn apart by ICE raids. The children who will walk the streets of this City tonight cold and hungry and afraid.  The next black body shot by police, the next transgender child of God bullied, the next woman sexually harassed or assaulted.

Our readiness, our light is found in our collective action, in a moral voice that responds to the evil that is found in the paralyzing passiveness of “thoughts and prayers.” Our call is to respond, to be ready and to show the world what the light of Jesus has to offer.

Let our songs and our worship in this holy place strengthen us for that difficult journey. Let us take the time to rest and be filled. But let us leave this temple with our wicks trimmed and our lamps lit.

Amen.

 

 

Sermon for the 20th Sunday After Pentecost: “Whose Likeness Do We Bear?”

Sermon on Matthew 22:15-22
October 22, 2017
Lutheran Church of the Redeemer
Saint Paul, Minnesota
by Eric Fought, M.Div.

This week’s Gospel reading provides a break from the series of parables we’ve been walking through, those moments in which Jesus has been telling us about the nature of the Kingdom of God.

This passage from Matthew’s Gospel is also a bit out of sequence liturgically. Jesus has just processed triumphantly into Jerusalem, that moment which comes at the end of the season Lent, that moment known to us as Palm Sunday. And Jesus has just entered the Temple in Jerusalem, questioning all those who were buying and selling goods there, overturning their tables and calling it a “den of robbers” before curing the blind and the lame.

He’s not making many friends in the process, and we know what is about to happen.

This is the context in which this story sits in the overall narrative of Matthew’s gospel. And we know it is a significant story, because it also shows up in the other synoptic gospels of Mark and Luke.

roman-coins

A group approaches Jesus, made up of Herodians, those loyal to Herod’s Roman dynasty and also the disciples of the Pharisees, those religious leaders who were growing in opposition to Jesus’s ministry and in opposition to Jesus himself.

They have come to test Jesus, to put him on the spot. In the ancient world, asking someone a question in a public space was the same as impugning someone’s integrity, questioning someone’s character.

To make matters worse, they start out by trying to flatter Jesus. Kind of in that way that your friend from homeroom would try and compliment your mother when he came over for spaghetti dinner.

Well, Jesus was just about as impressed as your mother was.

He knew that these men had come to trap him. And he wasn’t going to play along. Tensions were high, and so were the stakes.

Is it lawful, they ask, to pay taxes to the emperor or not?

The trap is set—if Jesus answers one way, he will anger those loyal to Rome. If he answers another way, he will prove to those who doubt him and his ministry, that he is to be suspected after all.

By producing a coin, these men indeed are proving to be hypocrites, as Jesus charges. For the Pharisees, possessing a denarius proved that they were participating in and benefiting from the economy of the oppressor. For the Herodians, if they produced the coin, it would have not been a coin that King Herod had minted, which indeed had followed the Jewish custom avoiding idolatry by not casting images of persons.

The denarius featured the likeness and title of the emperor, Cesar, asserting his divinity.

In the end, Jesus doesn’t get caught in the trap at all. Instead, he answers the question. But, he answers in a way in which his adversaries cannot win, and in which God does.

The answer Jesus gives is both practical and spiritual. Give what belongs to the emperor—those coins in your pocket, for instance, those belong to him. But, once you’re done with that, and even before, give to God what is God’s.

Because, what belongs to God? Everything. All that we have, all that we are, all that is, indeed all that ever will be belongs to the Creator of all things.

Jesus is reminding those gathered around him what is really important.

The message isn’t about compartmentalizing what we have. It’s not about the separation of church and state—giving to the government what is the government’s in mid-April and giving to God what is God’s in church on Christmas and Easter.

No, what Jesus is saying here is that everything belongs to God, and that while the empire might seem God-like, and those in power in the empire might believe they rise to divine status, in the end there is only one God, and it is to that God in which all belongs.

The coin presented to Jesus bears the likeness and title of the emperor. And Jesus calls those who present the coin hypocrites, for they have forgotten that what is etched on the coin, the words claiming divinity for Cesar, are false.

But even more importantly, and truly important for us today, the Pharisees and Herodians had forgotten whose likeness is etched on themselves.

Certainly, the Pharisees would have been familiar with the beginning of Genesis. The 27th verse of the first chapter reads, “so God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.”

Hopefully you know we are included in that act of creation, in that declaration that humankind is created in the image of God. You might question whether or not the entire universe could have possibly been created in six calendar days. But we know, we’ve experienced, we believe, that God created us in God’s very likeness.

And with that comes, of course, great responsibility. Because, if we are to heed the statement of Jesus, the directive to give to God what is God’s, then that means that we not only have to give our all, we must act in God’s image in the world today.

We are not to act as gods of course—that’s exactly what Jesus was speaking out against—but we are called to act as God’s partners, God’s agents, God’s co-workers in the vineyard.

As we reflect on the idea and the reality of empire, we know that many characteristics of the way empire was experienced in the time of Jesus are the same. We have rulers—in some parts of the world they even continue to be called kings. And governments still work in ways that capitalize on fear, indifference, suffering and human failings. Remarkably, this empire, the government here in our own country even continues to view execution, the manner in which Jesus himself was killed, as a valid form of punishment in the year 2017.

However, as we reflect, we must also recognize that in many ways empire is much different in our world today.

Empire no longer shows up in the form of one ruler, or even solely in the form of government. It is a part of every aspect of our lives, from the media we consume (and the phones in which we do that consuming) to the vehicles we drive and the books we read. Every moment of every day the empire of which we are a part markets to us, capitalizing on our fears, our desires, our hopes, our dreams and our weaknesses.

In today’s gospel, Jesus is asking us whose image do we bear? The image of God or the image of the empire?

Like many of you, I have really struggled to find a way in which to interact as a Christian in the political world of our day. As the media reminds us each day, we as a people have become more and more polarized. This, of course, is part of empire too, the more divided we are the easier it is to distract and defend actions that most of us object to.

But let me be clear. This isn’t solely about the current occupant of the White House. Empire existed long before he was elected, and empire will exist long after he gratefully returns to his gold-platted patio furniture.

We have been deeply divided as a country before. Indeed, it is hard to pinpoint a time when we weren’t, with perhaps the days following the September 11th attacks or Pearl Harbor being exceptions.

The question before us this morning is this: whose likeness do we bear? The empire’s or God’s?

We know how it is that we were created. We know that in our baptism we were once again literally bathed in Christ. And yet we act as though we aren’t really sure whose likeness we bear in the end. We act as though we can lead a compartmentalized life—bearing God’s likeness here on Dale Street while bearing the empire’s while walking done Grand Avenue.

Jesus isn’t asking us to be perfect, far from it. But he is reminding us, today and always, that we are beautifully and wonderfully made in the image of a God that asks more of us. To give to God what is God’s means that we have to try and give our all—to resist the empire and the way in which it exploits, imprisons and executes.

Resisting empire doesn’t mean building a hermitage in the woods where you leave the world. Although it could I suppose. Resisting empire for those of us who aren’t hermits means remembering who we are, and whose we are. And by recalling the likeness we bear, we work for justice, for peace, and for a better world.

Please pray with me.

Lord God, Creator of all, in your wisdom, you have bound us together so that we must depend on others for the food we eat, the resources we use, the gifts of your creation that bring life, health and joy. Creator God, we give thanks.

Holy be the bodies of those who know hunger, sacred be the bodies of those who are broken, blessed be the bodies of those who suffer.

In your mercy and grace, soften our callous hearts and fill us with gratitude for all the gifts you have given us. In your love, break down the walls that separate us and guide us along your path of peace, that we might humbly worship you in Spirit and in truth. Amen.

Prayer adapted from Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals.

Sermon: “Deep Gratitude” (Luke 17:11-19 and 2 Kings 5:1-3, 7-15c)

Sermon on Luke 17:11-19 and 2 Kings 5:1-3, 7-15c
21st Sunday After Pentecost, October 9, 2016
Lutheran Church of the Redeemer, Saint Paul Minnesota

The Healing of the Ten Lepers - Luke 17:11-19
The Healing of the Ten Lepers – Luke 17:11-19 (JESUS MAFA Project, 1973)

I was fortunate throughout my childhood, adolescence and early adulthood to know, love and be loved by two amazing women, my grandmothers. They were both women of deep religious faith, from two different traditions, one Roman Catholic and one Anglican.

My Anglican grandmother, Grandma Wardlow, immigrated to this country with my grandfather, the Rev. James Wardlow, from Belfast Northern Ireland. She was a very proper woman, attending Eucharist each Sunday dressed well and returning home to a cup of tea and an afternoon of knitting while listening to classical music.

My Catholic grandmother, Grandma Fought, was very different. She went to Mass every day, usually in whatever she was wearing that morning. Nothing fancy. She went through life with a sense of self and true humility. Her faith drove that perspective, which was always optimistic, and always filled with gratitude. Her life was very simple. She died in the same house that my father and all of his brothers and his sister were raised in, the same cast iron skillet on the stove that had been there since the back sun room was once a neighborhood grocery store.

When you asked her why she didn’t buy a new fridge, or an air conditioner, or an answering machine, or even put a shower in her bathroom, Grandma’s response was always, what I have is good enough for me.

It was good enough for her. She had all that she needed. And she was grateful.

I was thinking about my grandmothers recently when I heard a wonderful story about gratitude.

It was a story about a young student chaplain who was assigned to visit an elderly woman in an extended care hospital. The woman was declining fairly rapidly. The student kept going back, drawn in by what she found when she stopped in to see her—the woman’s unfailing sense of joy.

She could not move her arms and legs. But she would say, “I’m just so happy I can move my neck.” When she could no longer move her neck, she would say, “I’m just so glad I can hear and see.”

When the chaplain finally asked the woman what would happen if she lost her sense of sound and sight, she said, “I’ll just be so grateful that you come to visit.”

Gratitude.

That’s the common thread between our first reading this morning and our gospel text. Both tell stories of healing, the healing of lepers in antiquity.

In the reading from 2 Kings we hear the story of Naaman, a mighty warrior, a military hero in fact. He was powerful, a respected Army commander. And yet, we are told, even though he was a man of such stature, he suffered from leprosy.

And here is Naaman, desperate to be healed, fully aware of how devastating such an illness was, off to see Elisha at Elisha’s house. He rides up in all of his glory, with his horses and chariots, stopping at the entrance to the house. But Elisha doesn’t come out. Instead, he sends a messenger.

It’s kind of like the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff driving up to the White House in a motorcade expecting to meet with the President of the United States and the President sending him a text message.

The message sent was for Naaman to go wash himself in the river. Simple enough. But, the nerve! To not even come out of the house! You can almost hear Naaman say, as he rides off in anger, “doesn’t he know who I am?”

But then something happens, what we might call a moment of clarity. His servants convince him to take the generous offer, to humble himself and go down to the river to wash and be clean.

It’s a story about humility, God showing up in unlikely ways, and in the end, it’s a story about gratitude. Because, once Naaman decides to humble himself, as soon as he allows a moment of conversion, he is healed. And it causes him to return to Elisha’s house, in gratitude, singing God’s praises.

We find a similar set of events in this morning’s gospel. We’ve been following along with Jesus and his disciples for quite a while now, on a journey toward Jerusalem and all that will come. By now, you can imagine that Jesus and his companions are tired and ready to arrive at their destination. And in this account they are once again just outside of what is considered to be extremely dangerous territory for Jews of the day, near Samaria.

Ten lepers—outcasts, broken, dirty and sick, keep their distance while pleading for healing. In Luke’s version of the encounter, Jesus doesn’t engage with the lepers in any tangible way, simply telling them to go and show themselves to the priests. The priests were the ones who would determine whether someone was to be deemed worthy to be a part of the temple practice, and, thus, part of the life of the community.

And, as they followed their instructions, they were healed. We know that nine went on their way. One turned back. The Samaritan.

Now, I’m sure that all of you remember my sermon of a few months ago, on the parable of the Good Samaritan. But for those of you who may have forgotten some of the superb analysis and historical context I offered then, I’ll share a bit once again.

Samaritans were a group of people despised for their differences and their identity by first century Jews and Samaritans viewed Jews through the same lens. Galilean Jews were heretics in the eyes of Samaritans, and vice versa. The vitriol, the hatred, was so great that Jesus’ own followers, his disciples James and John, asked if they should destroy the Samaritans with fire when they refused to allow Jesus and his disciples to stay in a Samaritan town. They wanted to kill them.

And here, in this story, it is the one of the 10 that is a Samaritan who turns back and expresses gratitude. Perhaps this is because he has experienced a greater sense of being an outcast, as both a Samaritan and someone suffering from leprosy. No matter the reason, he falls at the feet of Jesus in deep gratitude.

Naaman and the Samaritan, both cured of their leprosy, find themselves praising God in a loud voice, in gratitude for not only the physical healing they have received, but also in gratitude for the many ways that they have been allowed a new life.

Because they have been healed, because of the conversion that has taken place, they are able to return fully to society, to their community.

Much has been written and said about gratitude in popular culture, self-help literature and spiritual writing. We know that our mood, our outlook on life can be adjusted if we are able to choose an attitude of gratitude. And, we can help others by sharing with them what we are grateful for.

My Grandma Fought’s gratitude list likely consisted of her children and grandchildren, but also her bingo winnings and the fact that my Uncle Dave won at golf that afternoon.

However, the gratitude shown by Naaman and the one leper of the 10 in this morning’s readings is much deeper than what might be written down on a gratitude list in one’s journal. Yes, we should be grateful for the crisp fall air, the friends we will meet this afternoon, or the new job.

But I believe we are called to a deeper understanding, to be grateful for the wide variety of experiences that we encounter each day. After all, I don’t know about you, but there have been days, months and even years, when I have had a great deal of difficulty writing much on a gratitude list.

And yet, sometimes the list simply needs to read, I’m still standing. Or, I made it. And I’m grateful for the experience—the pain, the loss, the feelings of brokenness, of otherness.

Because it is in that place, after we have walked through the humiliation that life offers, as Namaan did, or find ourselves restored to our community after a time of being separated or removed, as the Samaritan who suffered from leprosy experienced, we can sing God’s praises.

It is a song that is pleasing to our God, for sure. But even more pleasing to the One who Created us is the heeding of Jesus at this end of this morning’s Gospel. Get up and go!

Luke uses this same language elsewhere by the way, using the phrase get up and go, to emphasize significance. The prodigal son gets up and goes back to his father, after the annunciation, Mary gets up and goes to see Elizabeth. In Acts, Luke writes about Paul getting up and going to Damascus.

Here, the command to get up and go comes with a promise to the Samaritan. Get up and go, your faith has made you well. Your faith has saved you.

Indeed, the good news of this encounter carries with it the promise that through Jesus, God empowers people to step across boundaries, share mercy with outsiders, pay attention to things worthy of praise and move forward into God’s future with assurance that there is more to God’s story than meets the eye.

And, as Grandma Fought would say, that is good enough for me.

Sermon: “God Shows Up” (Luke 10:25-37)

Sermon on Luke 10:25-37
Eighth Sunday after Pentecost – July 10, 2016
Lutheran Church of the Redeemer
Saint Paul, Minnesota

Our Gospel reading this morning is a familiar story—perhaps the best known parable in all of Scripture. Most of us know it as a message of the importance of showing mercy and kindness to our neighbor. We may understand the parable as one in which Jesus is reminding us of the importance of following the spirit of the law rather than getting stuck in worrying about adhering to strict dogma. We may also understand the text as a reflection on what it means to be neighbor to one another.

he_qi_good_samaritan
Good Samaritan, by He Qi

All of those are perfectly good readings of the passage. However, in many ways throughout our Christian tradition, the familiar story seems to have lost its edge and significance. In our attempts to understand what Jesus is saying in light of our own lives today, we may be missing what his use of the parable meant in the lives of those around him then and in the lives of those who first read Luke’s account.

In that tradition, we’ve attached the word “Good” to the Samaritan who finally comes to the aid of the one in the ditch, a descriptor not found in the text and one that would have been difficult for the first followers of Jesus to understand. In their lived experience, and in their judgement, Samaritans were far from good. Indeed, they were a group of people despised for their differences and their identity by first century Jews and Samaritans viewed Jews through the same lens. The relationship between Jews and Samaritans were generally characterized by that special hostility found among close relatives who feel themselves betrayed by the other.

Luke alludes to this animosity in the previous chapter, writing that the Samaritans would not receive Jesus as his traveling party made their way south through Samaritan territory on their way to Jerusalem. Galilean Jews were heretics in the eyes of Samaritans, and vice versa. The vitriol, the hatred, was so great that Jesus’ own followers, his disciples James and John, asked if they should destroy the Samaritans with fire. They wanted to kill them.

And yet, it is a Samaritan that Jesus carefully chooses to show mercy and compassion in a parable about what it means to follow the law of God and who is to be considered neighbor.

Just as the story of the Good Samaritan has become very familiar to all of us, this week as we turned on the news or tuned into social media, we were once again presented with stories that have also become too familiar.

Stories of the brutal killing of African American men by police, captured on video for all the world to see. The stories of grieving families, partners and children screaming in pain and communities seeking to respond. From Dallas, the story of five police officers killed in the line of duty and others injured. And then the story from North Minneapolis, where gang violence contributed to the shooting death of a two-year child, and another toddler injured.

These stories, all too familiar, cause us to lament. They cause us to grieve and to try to understand. But in their familiarity, these stories can also cause us to miss the underlying complex set of problems and oppressive structures that must be addressed.

The ongoing slaughter of our black brothers and sisters is happening as a result of our country’s shameful legacy of racial oppression and economic exploitation. The forces of evil: fear, hatred and violence are pervading our culture and destroying our lives. Too many of us have failed to resist these forces, instead falling prey to voices of doubt and our fear, causing us to sit on the sidelines in silence and inaction.

We are called by our faith to lament the evils we face. We are also called by our faith to speak the prophetic truth.

The truth, the story we must tell, is that we live in country built on the genocide of our indigenous brothers and sisters, a legacy of slavery, racial oppression and economic exploitation of black and brown bodies. Until we confess our collective sins and wrestle with the implications of that legacy, we cannot achieve reconciliation. God calls us to do that work, to move beyond the division that seeks to destroy, the same spirit of division that caused the otherness of the Samaritans to fill Jesus’ disciples with hatred and to contemplate violence.

In his book, America’s Original Sin, Jim Wallis, president of Sojourners wrote,

“From Ferguson, Missouri, to Charleston, South Carolina, communities are suffering the lethal consequences of our collective silence about racial injustice. The church should be a source of truth in a nation that has lost its way. As the dominant religion in the United States, Christianity is directly implicated when we Christians fail to speak more honestly about the legacy of racial inequality.”

He continues:

“Racism is America’s original sin and must be named as such. Sometimes it expresses itself explicitly and overtly, with the Charleston murders being perhaps the most extreme example in decades. But racism lingers far more pervasively in implicit and covert ways in American institutions and culture, in often unconscious attitudes, and in the very structures of our society.”

This week, Alton Sterling and Philando Castile joined the growing list of those we remember, victims of our country’s original and ongoing sin of racial injustice.

In his telling of the parable, Luke specifically notes that all three of those who encountered the half-dead naked man lying in the ditch saw him. The priest saw him and deliberately walked to the other side and bypassed him. The Levite saw him and did the same. They were too busy, too focused on what might happen if they acted, too afraid.

They saw him, but not as a neighbor, perceiving him instead to be a burden, perhaps even a threat.

It makes you wonder, what did the officer see as he approached Castile’s car in Falcon Heights? What did he see as he shot Philando multiple times with his girlfriend and her daughter in the car?

What did the shooter in Orlando see as he entered the Pulse nightclub? What did the gunman see in that bible study in Charleston?

What did any of them see? Certainly not their neighbor. Certainly not men and women created by a loving God, worthy of life and dignity.

The Samaritan man, in seeing a man robbed and removed of dignity, nearing the end of his life saw himself. He identified with the one set aside to die, lost and discarded. And because he could see himself, he was moved to act. It became personal. He had no choice but to respond, to take him to the inn and care for him. And through that empathy, two lives were changed forever.

“No one is beyond the reach of God’s love,” the theologian David Lose wrote this week. “No one. And so Jesus brings this home by choosing the most unlikely of characters to serve as the instrument of God’s mercy and grace and exemplify Christ-like behavior. That’s what God does: God chooses people no one expects and does amazing things through them. Even a Samaritan. Even me. Even you.”

The Good News I find in this morning’s Gospel text is the notion that God often shows up where we least expect God to be. For the man left to die on the side of the road between Jerusalem and Jericho, the last person he expected to show up and show mercy was a Samaritan, and a Samaritan was the last person the Jews hearing the parable would have expected to be lauded as the hero of the story.

Our communities are yearning for God to show up in big ways, as fear and anger and grief have a hold on all of us. It seems that we are in a place where we expect more violence, more division, more hate, more people to see suffering and walk to the other side of the road.

As we walk that road ahead, full of opportunities to see, draw near and show compassion, let us work to make sure that God shows up in unexpected ways through us.

Amen.

Sermon: “They Came to Dance” (Luke 8:26-39)

gettyimages-540006698_wide-7907da13bb0abc6be60ca62869fff87d4d58c2b3-s900-c85
June 19, 2016

Lutheran Church of the Redeemer, St. Paul, MN

Luke 8:26-39

It has been a challenging week. As we gathered for worship together last Sunday, details were emerging regarding the massacre in Orlando. Like many of you, I spent the remainder of the day watching as news reports confirmed those details: 50 people dead, including the gunman, more than 50 injured, in the deadliest mass shooting by a civilian in modern American history.

It’s clear now that the gunman intentionally targeted the LGBTQ community, his act of unspeakable hate and terror taking place in the Pulse nightclub, a popular venue. It was Latin night, and most of those killed and injured were from the intersections of the Latino and LGBTQ communities.

They came to dance, to spend time with friends, to be themselves.

For those of us in the LGBTQ community, our bars and nightclubs are not simply places to unwind and have fun. They are sanctuaries—sacred spaces where we can be ourselves, be affirmed and connect with each other in the midst of ongoing struggles that are at the same time personal trials and shared experiences.

Throughout recent history, before the Internet and smartphones, before Ellen came out, before Minnesota and the Supreme Court made history, bars and clubs provided a place for solace and sanctuary. And they still do, particularly during this month set aside to celebrate Pride.

They came to dance. They came to be the beautiful, authentic children of a God who loves them without condition.

Hate and terror entered that sanctuary last weekend. Today, in this sanctuary and in sanctuaries throughout the world, we as people of faith are called to respond. And while this congregation has a longstanding history of being open and affirming, that is not what many of our LGBTQ brothers and sisters experience from the Christian world. The deafening silence from many corners of the church confirmed this reality this week.

It wasn’t supposed to happen. Pulse, the nightclub, was supposed to be a safe space. But so are our schools, our parking lots and our movie theaters, our temples, our mosques and our churches.

This week we also mark the one-year anniversary of the shooting in Charleston, where nine of our brothers and sisters in Christ were brutally murdered on a hot Wednesday evening. They had come to open the Word of God in bible study and a gunman opened fire.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve had enough. And I’ve had enough of having enough.

Each day this week has been filled with an intense cycle of emotions—from rage and disbelief to deep sadness and grief to cynicism and resignation to, gratefully, a sense of hope and determination.

I’ve wept, and have feared for my own safety and the safety of those I love. But the fear that has been the most pronounced, the fear that keeps coming back, is the fear that we as a society are too broken to fix any of it. I’m truly afraid that we are too divided, that our most dangerous demons of polarization, division and brokenness have a hold on us that we can’t release.

In our Gospel reading this morning, we find Jesus arriving by boat in a land away from his home. The story in Luke’s account follows the calming of the sea, an exorcism itself, removing evil forces from the water. Upon arriving on land, Jesus is met by a man who is deeply troubled, and a community of people that have set this man apart, chaining him up and leaving him in the tombs far from the comfort of their lives. The man is naked, being without the decency of clothing for some time.

It is unclear the nature of the demons that possess him, although we know this is a story that is found in both Mark and Matthew as well, which points to the significance of the encounter. Further, it’s the one story in Luke of Jesus ministering outside of Jewish territory.

Jesus, as he often does in moments such as this, asks the man his name. So overcome by the possession, the man replies that his name is Legion, for the demons are so numerous that they have completely changed his identity.

It’s easy for us to get stuck in Jesus’ ability to act in a way that we are unable to relate to, the manner in which he is able to drive the demons out of the man and how he then agrees to the pleas of the spirits to be placed into the swine standing nearby. We might even get fixated on the visual of this herd of pigs jumping off the side of the cliff to their demise.

We can get stuck in the miracle itself, and miss the message altogether.

This passage from Luke reminds us of the power and challenges found in mercy and inclusion. The man is restored, fully clothed and returned to a place of mental stability, sitting at Jesus’ feet. Filled with gratitude, he is eager to do whatever Jesus asks of him, even to follow him on to the next leg of his journey.

The man’s neighbors, the community assembled, have a very different reaction. They are overcome with fear. This sudden change in the man, the one that they needed to protect themselves from, the one that they sent away and chained up, causes such distress that they demand that Jesus leave town.

They weren’t caught up in the miracle. They weren’t impressed. They were afraid.

Love and mercy change us. And in a world that seems so deprived of it, it can shake us when we see it happen.

In the past week, there have been plenty of reasons to despair and be overcome by fear. From the shooting itself, to the response of politicians and some pastors, to the sense that solutions seem so far away.

And yet there have also been tremendous examples of love and mercy being poured out, examples of God intervening in profound ways. People came together, in prayer and vigil, in parks and churches throughout the land. In Washington, elected officials took a stand on the Senate floor. And in LA and other cities across the country, Pride celebrations go on, as the LGBTQ community stands strong and united.

The choice offered us today is how we react to the challenges that we face—from gun violence to the structures of hate, division and polarization that prevent us from walking the path that our Creator intends. Do we act as people who have been healed, responding in gratitude by not only sitting at the feet of Jesus but by heeding the call of Jesus to go out and declare how much God has done for us? Do we go out and proclaim that another path is possible to all the corners of our city, our state and our world?

Or do we give in to fear and exhaustion and send Jesus away, deciding instead to stay stuck in the politics of division and destruction that have a hold on all of us? Do we see the possibility of restoration and reconciliation as a step in the right direction, or do we buck at the change and loss of comfort and control?

The world desperately needs us to be transformed, and to return to our homes, our streets and our communities, declaring how much God has done and will do for us.

Let us pray.

O God, your people are hurting. Many feel lost, afraid, ready to give up.

Bring us back to a place where we seek authentic community, where we long to understand each other, especially those that come from differing places and views.

You call each of us to reconciliation. Give us the strength and wisdom and temperament to get there.

For those that have died, our brothers and sisters, we pray for a peaceful rest. For those who were injured, we pray for healing. For those who fear for their safety, we pray for comfort. For those who seek to do evil, we pray for a change of heart. For those who are weary and ready to give up, we pray for courage and strength. And, for a world in need of joy, we pray for voices that laugh and sing and shout.

We ask this in the name of our loving, liberating and life-giving God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Amen.