Putting God First

Putting God FirstA sermon preached for the 21st Sunday after Pentecost on Mark 10:17-31 on October 14, 2018 at St. Luke's Lutheran Church in Richardson, Texas

I have to confess that I am not qualified to preach on this text today, because I have not followed Jesus’s instruction to sell all I have, give it to the poor, and follow him. But as soon as I say that I’m not qualified to preach this text, I have to admit that I’m not qualified to preach any text. How could a sinner such as I, have any way of speaking truth to God’s people?

How do we all not feel like we’re flunking our faith when we hear passages like this? When we hear Jesus’ words, we all have to admit up front that we’re just not there. We’re not ready to give away everything we have and join the Benedictines or the Franciscans in taking a vow of poverty. Perhaps none of us are qualified, but Jesus’s words are unavoidable, so I invite you to lean into the discomfort of this text with me, trusting that God doesn’t call the qualified, God qualifies the called—and that’s you, me, all of us—called into a relationship with God in Jesus Christ, who looks at us as he does the rich man—with love—inviting us to see ourselves and our life differently.

The rich mean asks what he must do to gain eternal life. First-century Jews did not have the same concept of life after death that Christians developed after Jesus’s resurrection, so what was the rich man really asking? The Jewish tradition made a contrast between two kinds of life—Fleeting Life and Lasting or Eternal Life. Fleeting life, “chayei sha’ah” is living a life that is only focused on everyday things—working, making money, eating, and sleeping. A Fleeting Life is self-focused on survival, but doesn’t carry deep meaning.

By contrast, a Lasting Life, a Life of Eternity “chayei olam” refers to living a life focused on matters of eternal importance—things that last—such as love, relationships, prayer, compassion, doing good, and being good in the world. A Lasting Life or Life of Eternity here and now expends energy outward in service and generosity that gives us meaning, and has a lasting positive impact on others.

So the rich man was asking not so much about the afterlife as we think of it, as he was about a lasting, meaningful life here and now—like Jesus had. He essentially said, “I want what you have, Jesus.” Jesus responded to the man’s question with the 10 Commandments, and the rich man immediately assured Jesus that he followed the law. But for Jesus, the Lasting Life, the eternal life, the meaningful life is about even more than living by the 10 Commandments. “You lack one thing” Jesus said.

It’s an ironic statement, isn’t it? How can the man who is wealthy lack anything? Isn’t that the point of being rich—to lack nothing? But Jesus wasn’t referring to a material possession; Jesus was talking about his state of being. A better translation would be, “you are lacking in one thing.” The rich man’s way of being, his orientation toward life, his understanding of Lasting Life, and Eternal Life is lacking.

“Go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” The man may have kept the 10 Commandments, but he was not looking beyond that, to the community at large, to those in need. Jesus looked at him and loved him. Jesus wanted the rich man to do the same—to look beyond himself, beyond of the law and daily tasks, and love the poor with compassion, helping them have at least a Fleeting Life—a life of survival. Jesus invited the rich man to love God enough to put others’ needs before his wants, others’ hunger before his comfort, others’ brokenness before his pleasure, others’ shelter before his luxuries.

To live a Lasting Life with an enduring impact means trusting that your deepest meaning comes from your relationship with the living God who is standing before the rich man in Jesus.

Why is it so difficult for those who have wealth to enter the Kingdom of God, that is, to live a Lasting Life, a life of eternity here and now—one that is rooted in our relationship with God, filled with meaning, generosity, compassion and abiding impact? Because money is the easiest thing for us to revere more than God. It gives us power, choices, status, opportunities, comfort, enjoyment, access, education, travel, massages and facials (two things I’d like more of), and the list goes on. A spiritual relationship with God can feel pretty abstract next to all the things that money can do for us.

I read recently that 16 of the 38 parables of Jesus are concerned with how to handle money and possessions. In the Gospels, an amazing 1 out of 10 verses (288 in all) deal directly with the subject of money. The Bible offers 500 verses on prayer, fewer than 500 verses on faith, but more than 2,000 verses on money and possessions. It’s our #1 temptation.

Jesus still loved the rich man, he just made it clear to him, how easy it is to love our possessions more than God. Jesus made clear how easy it is for us to pretend if we’re a good person who follows the commandments, that that’s all Jesus asks of us, and that’s good enough. But God doesn’t want to be second best in our life. God doesn’t want to be runner-up, the bridesmaid and never the bride, the consolation prize, the wild card, or the pennant-winner instead of the World Series champion. God wants to be #1—that’s why he sent Jesus to live with us and be like us. God sent his very best, his #1, so that we can give God our very best and make God our #1—the very first place in our heart above all else. 

This is why spirituality, and spiritual practices have become more and more important to me as I’ve gotten older and continued to work in ministry. I know how sinful and broken I am, how easy and quickly my own ego, my wants, fears, attachments, comforts, and issues can dominate my thoughts and actions. I need practices and tools every day to remind me that God is first, that Jesus is my #1.

There are also ways to manage our resources to keep God #1 in our life, and one of them is tithing, that is, giving 10% of your income back to God through the church. I didn’t know a lot about tithing until I attended a workshop my last year of seminary. This pastor was so excited about what a blessing it was to tithe—that you give your first offering to God, and you trust that God will provide for what you need.

I figured it was part of my job description as a pastor, so I thought I’d better try it. It was 1989 and my first congregation in Detroit paid me $17,000 and I lived in the parsonage next door. After I received my paycheck, I would write my first check back to the church, but the issue was the math wasn’t really adding up. It turns out $17,000 wasn’t a lot to live on when I had student loans to repay, I bought my first car and so on. But tithing was a practice I wanted to try to consciously put God first in my life, so I thought I had better stick with it. In truth, I was motivated more by perfectionism than trust in God.

A month or two after I started this new call, I was out visiting a homebound member who lived the furthest away from the church—I still remember her name, Gladys Steinheiser. It was a Tuesday, and I looked at my gas gauge which was below a ¼ tank. I thought to myself, “this will be my last visit this week because I’m almost out of gas, and I’m out of money, and I don’t get paid until Friday.” Gladys and I had a lovely visit, shared Communion, and then she walked me to the door. I gave her hug and before I could leave, she handed me an envelope and said, “here, this is for gas.”

I got in the car, looked up to heaven and said, “ok, I get it!” It’s just as the pastor said: you trust God with your tithe first, and God will make sure you somehow get what you need. And it’s been true ever since. We’re not perfect at it, it still doesn’t qualify me to preach this passage, and we need to improve--our growing edge financially and spiritually is to increase the percentage and grow in our giving.

St. Ignatius of Loyola, who was the founder of the Jesuit order in the 16th Century, wrote a brief Principal and Foundation for living a spiritual, lasting, eternal life. It focuses on not being attached to the stuff, comforts and outcomes in this life, but instead, on being attached to God. A spiritual mentor gave me a version that’s re-written as if it’s a letter from God. As you hear this, imagine this is what Jesus is saying to the rich man and to all of us:

The goal of your life is to live with me forever. I gave you life because I love you. Your own response of love allows my life to flow into you without limit.

All things in this world are my gifts, presented to you so that you can know Me more easily and make a return of love to me more readily.

As a result, appreciate and use all these gifts of Mine insofar as they help you develop into a loving person. But if any of these gifts become the center of your life, they displace Me and so hinder your growth towards your goal.

In everyday life then hold yourself in balance before all of these created gifts insofar as you have a choice and are not bound by some obligation. Do not fix your desires on health or sickness, wealth or poverty, success or failure, a long life or short one. For everything has the potential of calling forth in you a deeper response to your life in Me.

Make this your only desire and your one choice: Want and choose what better leads to my deepening My life in you.

When Jesus offered this kind of deep abiding relationship, the rich man wasn’t ready, and he walked away. We don’t hear the end of the story. Did he return? Was he at the foot of the cross? Did he hear of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead and believe, sharing his wealth for the sake of the good news?

Mark doesn’t tell us because he wants us to finish the story with our own choices. As we do so, remember that "for mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for with God all things are possible!"

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Divorce, Justice and Vulnerability

Divorce Justice and VulnerabilityA Sermon preached for the 20th Sunday after Pentecost on October 7, 2018 on Mark 10:2-16, Genesis 2:18-24Hebrews 1:1-4, 2:5-12 at St. Luke's lutheran Church in Richardson, Texas

Perhaps you’ve heard the line spoken by Algernon in Oscar Wilde’s play, The Importance of Being Earnest, “Divorces are made in heaven.” He’s poking fun at the rules of Victorian England, and by implication, also of Christian thought, tradition, and biblical interpretation over the centuries. Our Scripture passages from Genesis and Mark today are two sources for the belief that  it's marriages that are made in heaven, and that divorce is unforgivable, creating reason enough to exclude people from Christian community.

In fact, since moving to Texas, I have met a retired pastor from another tradition who lost his entire pension because he married a divorced woman. Now at age 70, he’s considering learning how to sell cars and grappling with the fact that he’ll never be able to retire. I was appalled by this story and saddened this is practiced by those who call themselves Christian.
Is this really what the Biblical tradition promotes about marriage? That human brokenness and failure in relationships is somehow worse than other sin?

As in our Children’s Message today, one of our tasks in Biblical interpretation is to correct mis-interpretations that are culture-bound, affected by historical context, and limited by looking at the text only through the lens of patriarchal systems of power.

The Pharisees in our Mark text tried to start an abstract argument about the law with Jesus. “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” It’s like a student going to a counselor to ask advice for “a friend.” But Jesus’s response is alarmingly personal, “What did Moses command YOU?” he asks. How are YOU treating YOUR wife and family?

The Pharisees quoted Deuteronomy where the law allows a man to give his wife a certificate of divorce. The Law allowed for divorce if a man’s wife proved to have “unseemly characteristics”—usually interpreted as unfaithfulness. Many Jewish leaders believed adultery was the only legitimate reason for a divorce. Other schools of thought, however, believed a man could give his wife a certificate of divorce if she displeased him in anyway, if he found someone he liked better, or whom he deemed more beautiful. The Talmud, a post-Biblical collection of Jewish texts, says that a man can divorce his wife if she burned his soup, wore her hair loose, or talked too loudly. In the patriarchal culture of Jesus’ time, a woman had no right to issue her husband a certificate of divorce and had no legal recourse if she or her children were abused or mistreated.

In his response, Jesus cited not only Genesis, but the 6th Commandment against adultery in making his argument discouraging divorce. He does this not because it’s an unforgiveable sin, not because there should be no divorce no matter what, not because divorce can’t be the best, healthiest option available, but because God’s heart is always on the side of those who are most vulnerable—those who have no rights, who are marginalized or powerless for any reason.

Women couldn’t own property, they were property. Divorce could easily leave women and their children destitute—with no means of income or support if the woman’s father or brother were dead or not able to take them in. Jesus knew human sin leads us to pursue our own self-interest at others’ expense, so by then raising divorce to the level of breaking one of the Ten Commandments, he was protecting women and children from undeserved suffering, and from being treated as disposable.

In the previous chapter, Mark repeatedly emphasized the importance of protecting the most vulnerable with stories about healing a child, welcoming children, and not causing children to stumble. In this passage, children still figure prominently when Jesus scolded the disciples for shooing them away and said, "‘Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.’ And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them."

The writer of Mark doesn’t want us to miss the point that Jesus words about divorce are not only about personal morality, but also about society’s attitude toward those who can most easily be cast aside as disposable. God’s heart is always with those who are in need.

The universal truth behind the passage is that all of us are vulnerable and in need in some way. Most older people I know are not afraid of death itself, but of dying—the process—of losing agency and independence, of becoming dependent and increasingly vulnerable. Some are worried about taking care of someone who is losing capacity, or maybe you’ve already done that for your spouse and you wonder who will take care of you if you need it. Perhaps you have financial anxiety, and like the retired pastor I met, must keep working after age 70 and pray your body holds out, and that you can find a job or keep a job. For others, our vulnerability may be one of identity and meaning—we’re doing everything we’re supposed to--providing for our family, and we look like a success, but we wonder if that’s all there is. Maybe our vulnerability is something we hide, like many do with mental illness, chronic depression, anxiety, or addiction. Perhaps divorce is part of your story or of someone you love. Maybe it wasn’t a “divorce made in heaven” and you’d like to be free of the pain, or guilt that lingers and you just want to feel loved for who you are and where you’re at in life. Jesus’ words include you today, not exclude you.

All of us come with a vulnerability today—none of us escape the effects of human limitation and brokenness. We can’t simply issue a certificate of wholeness or healing for ourselves and change our situation to something that looks better. As harsh as Jesus sounds, he really is communicating God’s heart for those in need, and that includes all of us—single, divorced, married, partnered—no matter what our family configuration is. When we are in touch with our own vulnerability, we can enter the kingdom as Jesus calls us to—like a child, aware of our need for God and our dependence on Jesus Christ.

That’s why Jesus came, who, as Hebrews says, “is the reflection of God's glory and the exact imprint of God's very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word.” We may wonder as the psalmist, "What are human beings that you are mindful of them, or mortals, that you care for them?” Yet God sent Jesus to communicate God’s heart of love for us, making us one with him. Through his suffering and death, Jesus grants us forgiveness and newness of life, claiming us as precious children so that we might be sanctified with the one who sanctifies.

Because God’s heart embraces, loves and forgives us in our need and vulnerability, we can follow Jesus in protecting others who are vulnerable. We don’t have to go far to identify those who need our support. Some of us help care for our vulnerable family members. Sixty percent of students in the Richardson School District are receiving free or reduced lunch. Many seniors need to work and are having a hard time finding employers who will hire anyone over the age of 50. Increasing housing costs are making difficult for more and more people to pay their bills.

It can be as simple as leaving a bigger tip for low wage workers, remembering to offer prayer to those strangers we meet during the day, or responding with love to people in need who join us on Sunday morning, which I have already witnessed many of you doing. Jesus calls us, not to a perfect life, but to a life that is saved by the unmerited gift of God’s love so that we can join Jesus in protecting the vulnerable and making sure no one is treated as disposable.

In Jesus Christ, God issues all of us a certificate of eternal love and salvation and calls us to reach out to those who need it most and share the good news!



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Be Opened to Healing

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The Supreme Court Hearings, the Corrupting Power of Sin, Jesus's Victory over Hell, and the Healing Power of Resurrection Community

The Corrupting Power of Sin and the Healing Power of CommunityA sermon preached for the 19th Sunday after Pentecost on Mark 9:38-50 and James 5:13-20 on September 30, 2018 at St. Luke's Lutheran Church, Richardson, Texas

Because this week's news has triggered many of survivors of assualt and abuse I offered this "trigger warning" after the Children's Message and before the Gospel reading:

Before we hear the Gospel lesson and sermon, I want to let you know I’ll be talking about what’s happened this week with the Supreme Court nomination. Given our Gospel reading today, we can’t avoid it. I will also share some of my own experience with misconduct. I want you to know ahead of time as a trigger warning or if, for whatever reason, it’s not something you or your child can hear today. You can slip out during the Gospel Alleluia, listen from the Gathering Area and return for Communion, or read the sermon on-line later. As always, I am available to listen to whatever issues this week’s events or today’s message brings up for you.

In the Christine Blasey Ford/Brett Kavanaugh hearing this past week, we’ve certainly had a powerful reminder of the corrupting power of sin. Someone, Dr. Ford is certain that is was Judge Kavanaugh, sexually assaulted her 35 years ago. That horrific event still resonates and impacts her life. Judge Kavanaugh is appalled that he is being accused of this act. There is anger and pain and acrimony on every side. But what strikes me is that regardless of what happened and who did what, we can see the power sin has, not only in a moment in time, but for years and years to follow.

Jesus knew how severe the effects of sin can be—and to make sure his disciples and we understand this, he used extreme language and extreme symbols in our passage from the 9th chapter of Mark’s Gospel.

First, Jesus is holding a child—it doesn’t say this in our passage, but in the verses just preceding which we heard last week, Jesus took a child and put her among the disciples admonishing them that to receive a child is to receive him and indeed, to receive God, giving children an almost sacramental status. Scripture gives no indication that Jesus put the child down, so as we hear today’s verses, we do so imagining that Jesus speaks with a toddler in his lap.

The second extreme image Jesus uses in this teaching is the word, “hell.” The Greek word here is “Gehenna” or "Valley of Hinomm" in Hebrew. Gehenna is a small valley southwest of ancient Jerusalem where two kings of Judah, Ahaz and Manasseh, sacrificed their children to the Canaanite God, Moloch using fire. Such practice was forbidden in Leviticus, condemned by the prophet Jeremiah, and many believe that the story of Abraham preparing to sacrifice his son Isaac was recorded as a polemic against child sacrifice in the ancient world. Leading up to Jesus’ time, the valley of Gehenna could have become a refuse dump with smoldering fires, explaining its later association with hell and the place that the wicked go. In the Gospels, Jesus uses this term “Gehenna” or Hell, to refer to life that is opposite from the kingdom of God, a life that is separated from God and against God’s will, as in child sacrifice.

Jesus’ first century audience would have immediately understood his vivid messages about Gehenna as he held a child, warning others against sin, and against being cast into the valley where some of Judah’s kings separated themselves from God, God’s will and God’s kingdom. This also underscores why, later in Mark 10, Jesus tells us we must become like a chld in order to enter the kingdom of God--their natural trust and belief is sacred, is a model for the rest of us, and constitutes egregious sin to break their trust in God.

Finally, Jesus drives home the corrupting power of sin and human brokenness by using violent and disturbing language about cutting off one’s hand or foot or cutting out one’s eye if they cause us to sin. I remember a psychologist I worked with at a state psychiatric hospital during seminary who commented that she really wished Jesus had not said this, because those who are not in their right mind, take these words literally.

Jesus does not intend us to self-mutilate as penance for sin; he uses hyperbole or extreme exaggeration to make clear an essential teaching about the kingdom of God and what it means to follow him. Human brokenness and sin are so corrupting and damaging, we need to take great pains to avoid hurting others, especially children and others who are the most vulnerable in society.

Jesus uses this graphic and disturbing imagery to say in no uncertain terms that choices have consequences, that our behaviors lead to outcomes and we need to pay attention to the damage to others those outcomes might create. Our sinful choices and behaviors cause others to suffer. And other people’s sin and brokenness causes us to suffer. This is the shadow side of free will that we don't talk about much. We suffer from others’ sin and others suffer from our sin. That’s hell. That’s an experience of separation from God. We don’t need to wait until after death to experience hell, we do so right now in anything that separates us from God’s love. Jesus does not want us to miss the seriousness of this aspect of human life.

This is what we’ve seen played out on the national stage between Dr. Blasey Ford and Judge Kavanaugh. No matter what your views are politically, we cannot come to worship today as Christians and avoid the truth that we suffer from the consequences of each other’s sin, and those consequences can be deep and long-lasting for everyone.

It’s only since the recent #Metoo movement began that I have begun to understand the impact of some of my own experiences. I frequently experienced sexual harassment in seminary, on internship and in my first call, especially when I was the first woman clergy many had encountered. I have never told this story publicly, but the most egregious instance took place on internship when I naively invited a colleague over for dinner. He was a married pastor with a child whose family hadn’t moved to the area yet, and I was a wide-eyed seminarian, anxious to learn from someone older and wiser than me. I had supper and learning on my mind, but he had other ideas. First he tried to get me to smoke pot which I declined, and then he propositioned me physically and explicitly. Fortunately, it did not turn into assault and he left when I asked him to.

I reported him to my supervisor the very next morning, expecting that he would be severely reprimanded for this grotesque breach of trust and professional conduct. Later I was told that I had “misunderstood his message.” The man took off his shirt, laid on my bed, and asked me to touch him; I didn’t misunderstand the message, but that was the end of it. For the rest of my internship, I was not able to make any visits to our members at the nursing home where he was a chaplain. I didn’t tell anyone else, except eventually my husband, because I learned that to do so meant I would be dismissed and belittled.

It wasn’t until this year that I realized that one of the consequences of this experience and the many other instances of sexual harassment by male clergy (whcih are too numerous to detail this morning), was that I have only pursued solo calls—I never allowed myself to try team ministry because I didn’t trust any male senior pastor to behave, or to believe me if I reported misconduct. If that wasn’t enough, just last June in spiritual direction, I uncovered that one of my struggles with losing weight and keeping it off is rooted in a decades-old fear that if I do, I will become a target for more sexual harassment. Over and over in my ministry, I have seen that extra weight and even obesity is often a form of protection for survivors of abuse, but I never once thought to apply it to myself.

I tell this story to remind myself that others’ sins who have had an impact in my life, do not define who I am. I also tell this in hope of giving courage to others here to share their story—if not with me, then with someone you trust. Sometimes we need to witness the story of someone we know in order to have the courage to come forward, and if my experience helps one person tell their story, then it’s worth both our discomfort (and believe me, I am uncomfortable) and our time. 

So where does Jesus call us from here? First, we need to give permission and courage for survivors of any abuse, male and female, to tell their story, whether it happened 5 days ago, five years ago, 35 years ago or 85 years ago—because the effects of sin remain. I know of all kinds of survivors, including male survivors of spouse abuse. As people who follow Jesus, we are called to create a safe place where incidents are not minimized but rather, taken seriously so that healing and recovery can begin. When we can offer listening and healing as part of our ministry of following Jesus, survivors do not end up dealing with recovered memories decades after the fact.

Second, we need to challenge narrow and limiting concepts of what is masculine and feminine, boxing men out of experiencing and expressing the whole range of human emotions and criticizing and shaming women who express assertive leadership. This is a gift of the LGBTQ community to the rest of us—helping us break out of binary, "either—or" thinking and accept that each of us can be a whole complex of feminine and masculine characteristics. We need to teach about power dynamics, appropriate boundaries and learn how to identify and protect our own boundaries. (Perhaps this also helps the Council understand why I have a statement at the top of every pastor's about appropriate boundaries, and why we need to get windows installed on all of the office doors).

Most importantly, God calls us to live and proclaim the Gospel that sin does not define us or anyone else. Jesus’s graphic language reminds us that it’s not enough for us to try to personally avoid sin, although that’s a start. Following Jesus and living in the kingdom of God calls us to be instruments of healing and hope, creating communities where God’s children know that they are not defined by sin or what has been done to them, but by what God has done for them in Jesus Christ.

Sin does not define you--not yours, not someone else's. Sin doesn’t define Christine Blasey Ford--not hers, not someone else's. Sin doesn’t define Brett Kavanaugh--not his, not someone else's. Sin doesn’t define me, not mine, not someone else's—for my path has led me here, to St. Luke’s and that’s good news! In the Joseph story in Genesis, we haer that what some intended for evil, God can redeem and use for good, and I want to you to hear that being here is part of that good for me.

Jesus’s victory over sin, death, the devil, and Gehenna—or any hell that threatens to separate us from God, has been defeated on the cross and raised victorious with Christ. God calls us to live out this good news in a community of healing, forgiveness and hope—where we are defined by what Jesus has done for us—offering us grace and the power of resurrection in all of life. That's the kind of community James describes and calls us to live in and pray for, as in verse 16, "Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for the one another that you may be healed."

In every situation, Jesus calls us into being as a community of resurrection—a community of hearing the stories, healing the pain, and sharing the hope—that’s what defines us, and that’s a church where spirits come alive!

Image: I have not been able to find the artist for credit/permission and have only found it on the linked site.

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Quotation of the Week

The church does not have a mission in the world, God's mission has a church in the world.