The Arrogant & The Awful

Cyear48gctpMessage on the Parable of the Pharisee & the Tax Collector Praying (Pentecost 20) in Luke 18:9-14 at St. Luke's Lutheran Church in Richardson, Texas

I have a small sticky note stuck to my computer monitor in my office—I don’t remember where I read this, so I cannot give the credit, but it as probably Fr. Richard Rohr, whose email devotions I read daily. This little sticky note says, “There is no manipulation in God’s love. This is why Jesus told parables—so we can see ourselves from a distance.”

Our parable today is a good example of this—a chance to see ourselves from distance—but the more time I spent in this parable this week, the more of a slippery slope I found myself on, the self I saw in me was not one I wanted to see., even from a distance.

The parable seems simple enough. The Pharisee is arrogant and self-righteous and that’s bad, the tax collector is humble and that’s good, so be humble. But, of course, there is much more to it than that. First off, we must be careful not to demonize the Pharisee, and therefore the Jewish religion, inadvertently promoting antisemitism by how we talk about these texts. Yes, Jesus had lively discussions with the religious leaders of his day, but Jesus himself did so as a Jew. We must read this parable as a corrective against self-righteousness of every sort, not just on the part of one type of religious leader.

Digging deeper: to first century ears, this parable would have drawn some laughter at its absurdity. The practices of this pharisee are truly over the top. “I fast twice a week”—nowhere in Scripture is there a requirement to fast twice a week, or even once a week, and not even once a month. The only required fast was once a year on the day of Atonement. Then there were other occasional fasts for special times of prayer—for illness or death of a loved one, for forgiveness, or the threat of war. But twice a week? No one ever even heard of that.

Then he says, I give a tenth of all my income—this is not just a regular tithe. He says he gives 10% of everything that passes through his hands or household, which would include gifts, favors, a pot of soup a neighbor cooked when he was sick. How would you even keep track of all that to give 10% of it? “ “I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.” He not only talks completely about himself, but has absurd practices of “spirituality on steroids.”

This makes us hate him even more so, because we are not even close to being that spiritually awesome, and we feel justified in judging him. Seeing ourselves from a distance—now who is arrogant? The listener who judges the arrogant ends up being even more arrogant. So where does that leave us? Like the tax collector perhaps?

Let’s look at him. Tax collectors were truly hated by others because they were seen as traitors. They over-collected taxes from their own people to pay the Roman oppressors and get a nice cut for themselves. What’s the equivalent today—giving an internet thief the password to your companies’ accounts, selling drugs in your own neighborhood or school, organized or white collar crime (Bernie Madoff, perhaps)—pretty rotten stuff.

The tax collector knows he is engaged in sin. Interestingly, his prayer does not admit wrongdoing, he does not promise repentance and a change in behavior, he does not seek a new life. He simply hangs his head low, and says, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’

This elicits two reactions—the first, honestly, is to be offended that there isn’t more of a commitment to change on this tax collector’s part. His forgiveness is just as offensive as the super-spiritual religious man’s arrogance. Forgiveness without an admonition to “go and sin no more?” Is he just going to keep being a tax collector? Is this his only career choice? Nope, he’s just forgiven.

Well, this is no way to run a universe so I would like to give God some advice. It may not surprise you that I have tried this advice-giving to God. Now who’s arrogant? The answer I have gotten is, ‘how many times have I forgiven you, and you went ahead and did the same dumb things over and over again? I thought you didn’t like fire and brimstone.” (notice how it’s the religious leader who’s the arrogant one in this passage, perhaps we could read, "Lutheran pastor!")

Our second reaction is to do what the parable seems to want us to do, which is to be humble like this tax collector, regardless of our sin. The problem is that as soon as we try to be humble, we are right back to being arrogant with the Pharisee—because that makes humility a work, a job, something we accomplish, rather than a disposition of the heart that we allow God to work in us. “Yeah, I went to the gym this morning. Now I am working on humility…”

There is no “working on humility… there’s only willingness—there’s only getting on your knees and being the creature rather than the Creator, the child, rather than the Holy Parent, the servant rather than the Lord, the sinner rather than Savior.

Which is why I think Jesus’ conclusion to the parable is, “I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.” Yet this leaves us still in the arrogant shoes, doesn’t it, because we are left still judging the Pharisee, which is in itself arrogant. Is arrogance the truly unforgiveable sin?

But even here, we have a new insight. Jewish scholar, Amy-Jill Levine in her book Short Stories by Jesus believes “rather than” is a poor translation of the Greek preposition here. She translates it, “alongside” instead of “rather than”. So, she concludes the parable this way, “I tell you, this man (that is the tax collector), went down to his home justified alongside the other (the pharisee).

She believes they are both justified—the Pharisee is not justified because of his works, but simply because he is there praying, engaged in a relationship with God. Perhaps our Protestant arrogance snuck into the translation of the text, for it leaves us judging the religious leader and limiting forgiveness. From Dr. Levine’s perspective, being humbled for the spiritually superior is not being denied forgiveness but rather, discovering that he is seated alongside a traitor, and other sundry rogues, thieves, and adulterers in his salvation.

This is one reason why Jesus tells us to love our enemies—it is practice for the heavenly banquet where we will be seated next to those we despise the most. What surprising dinner companions will you have at the heavenly banquet? A drug dealer? A murderer? A white supremacist? A childhood bully? Someone in your own family?

Yes, we do have moments when salvation by unmerited grace and unearned forgiveness seems like no way to run a universe. Perhaps it’s human nature that we all have people whom we think do not deserve forgiveness, but this parable frees us from this worry, because Jesus makes clear that this is God’s business and not ours.

But deep down, this is truly good news for us because it means that we, too are forgiven! As I was living with this parable this week a memory from childhood came back to me. When I was about 10, I remember trying to pray perfectly before I went to sleep at night. I had a picture in my imagination for each petition of the Lord’s Prayer, and I tried to say the words with the each picture in my mind straight through without a break in my concentration. If I didn’t get it done seamlessly without distraction or a break in concentration, I would start over. There were nights I would cry myself to sleep because I could not say my prayer from start to finish perfectly.

What a relief to learn there is nothing we have to get right to be forgiven. The pharisee and the tax collector go home justified alongside one another—the arrogant, self-righteous, spiritually superior one is forgiven alongside the extreme sins of a traitor to his people. And we are freed from judging the arrogant, and we are freed from striving for a humility that cannot be attained, but only knelt for.

We do, however, all have a common prayer. At the beginning of our day, and at the end of our life, each one of us is just like the tax collector, and it turns out that one sentence is all it takes: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.”

It doesn’t matter what our sin is—we can all say the same prayer. The great thing about kneeling for Confession and for prayers during our worship together, is it puts us all on the same level—all in the same stance before God—no one is better than anyone else, no one needs less or more forgiveness, less or more prayer than the next person.

I encourage you to pray this prayer this week, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner,” every day, and see what happens for you. Do it on your knees if you can physically. I heard a speaker once say that after she made her bed in the morning, she knelt by her bed to pray, and that’s how she remembered to do it every day. As long as her bed was made, she remembered to pray. If she ran out of time, and made it later in the day, that’s when she got on her knees and said her prayers.

“There is no manipulation in God’s love. This is why Jesus told parables—so we can see ourselves from a distance.”

Today we see that we are forgiven by grace, and it is a free gift of God’s love in Jesus Christ. You don’t have to say a perfect prayer, a have perfect practice, or live a perfect life. You are forgiven and loved and accepted alongside the arrogant and the awful. The clearest view of this free gift is on bended knee.

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Ten Lepers: Risking for Community & Healing

IndianaJonesMessage on the Ten Lepers (Pentecost 18) Luke 17:11-19 at St. Luke's Lutheran Church, Richardson, Texas

Shared pain brings people together—sometimes even enemies. The ten lepers included men from Samaria and Galilee—traditional adversaries. Normally, they would have nothing to do with each other, but here they are, living together as exiles from their respective communities and creating their own island of misfit toys, if you will, in the borderlands between Samaria and Galilee. They were all outsiders who belonged nowhere—no country, no home, no community who wanted them or could have them for fear of contagion. They live on the outskirts of a village away from everyone.

The ten lepers shared a common ailment that caused both physical and mental distress and pain—whether it is the leprosy known has Hanson’s disease today or another skin ailment that disfigured them, it made them look like the walking dead—it was like the first zombie apocalypse right there in the wasteland between two rival territories. Their shared suffering fused a common bond—a small community in which they endured not just a social isolation in their life at the edge of civilization, but also economic deprivation, religious rejection, political disenfranchisement, personal powerlessness.

Notice how when you have nothing—no one has energy for enemies—they are all suffering together and ultimately—what difference did it make if their worship practices, ethnicities, histories, skin color or whatever were different? Deep suffering bonds us together as one thing: human. Do you think survivors and rescuers in the aftermath of Hurricane Ian who were reaching out for help and offering help were asking each other if they were a democrat or republican? If they were vaccinated or not? If they supported governmental disaster relief or the current governor? If they were for or against abortion rights or the current direction of the Supreme Court? Of course not-- because they are living in the borderlands of shared suffering—where holding onto enemies and adversaries makes no sense—and human community with whomever shares our plight or shows up to help, is a sign of God’s presence and the gift of life and hope.

I want us to notice what we never talk about in this story—which is that these lepers living with immense suffering, are building community across enemy lines before Jesus even shows up. They recognize the God of their common ancestor Abraham and they find a way to get over enmity.

We have been living in the borderlands of shared suffering the last 2 ½ years, yet I am afraid it has caused us to become more divided, and more prone to make enemies than to reach out to one another in compassion for the grief, fear, trauma, loss, and isolation we have all experienced. It is almost like we have lost the ability to have a civil conversation with someone who has a different viewpoint than we do on politics, masks, race, or any other issue, rather than being able to identify the very real fears underneath that many of us share: Will my children or grandchildren be ok—not just physically healthy, but mentally, socially, and emotionally? How do we help them heal and make progress in school? How am I going to handle these rising costs; will I ever be able to retire? Or will my income last my lifetime at this rate? I fear I am being left behind and my story or my families’ story no longer matters.

Instead, we find out one tidbit of information about someone, and we write them off and make all kinds of assumptions about who they are and what they think. I wonder what it would be like for us to listen to someone’s pain instead of their politics, to inquire and empathize with their suffering instead of their social stances.

The one thing these lepers did for each other before Jesus even arrived, was they listened and understood each other’s pain, and that was more important than the fact that some were Jews from Galilee and others were Samaritans from Samaria. The do not lie about the truth or the terrible reality of their lives; they do not cancel each other for saying the wrong thing or being from the other side. And it’s a good thing. Because no one else was noticing, listening, or paying attention to the walking dead in the wasteland between Galilee and Samaria outside a small insignificant village.

Until, of course, Jesus showed up with his disciples. Word has gotten out about Jesus’ healing powers because they call him by name. And not only that, they address him as if they were his disciples, calling him, “Master:” What’s more, they do not ask for healing individually—there is no individual identity, there are no mavericks in this group, looking out for #1—they ask for healing together: “Jesus! Master!” Have mercy on US”—not me, US—have mercy on US, together—as a group—enemies who have made a community of support through suffering as outcast lepers. They are all for one, and one for all. “Jesus, Master Have mercy on US.”

Jesus enters the wasteland of the suffering and does what no one else does. Jesus starts by doing what they have done for each other—He sees them, he listens to their pain, and pays attention to their suffering regardless of who they are, and where they come from, and then kicks it up a notch as the Messiah. But he does not heal them instantly.

Healing for the ten lepers is participatory and it requires action before results. Jesus instructs them to “go and show yourselves to the priests.” The priest can declare them clean and restore them back into the community, welcome them back into worship, and send them back to their family. But they have to get moving to the priest on faith while they still look like zombies! Nothing has changed yet. There has not been any healing. They have to act in faith before they are healed!

Now the border they have to cross is in their own heart. Are they going to act on Jesus’ words when there is no evidence to show that it will work? It’s like the movie, Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade—he has to step off the cliff and trust that the bridge across the chasm will appear so he can reach the Holy Grail—the cup that Jesus used at the Last Supper (just in the movie!)

Following Jesus requires stepping out in faith and obedience before we see the results of what we are called to do. Jesus wants the lepers to participate in their own healing. He does not just zap them and send them on their way. I think sometimes we wish that’s how God works—we can lay on the couch, isolating and judging others and then get zapped by God. No—faith is a relationship –it is participatory—it requires doing our part and taking action.

Jesus wants the lepers to trust in his power and his word and to start their journey out of the borderlands, out of the margins, out of this place of isolation. Jesus invites them to claim a new life before it becomes a reality. Perhaps you have heard the phrase “fake it till you make it” or “act as if”—in other words, “act as if you’re confident, until you feel confident;” act as if you have given 50 presentations at work until you have.” Jesus sends the lepers off, acting as if they are already healed—behaving and believing the miracle is complete before it has happened. Believing Jesus Christ will act on your behalf, that he is with you and will provide what you need even before he does—that’s faith! Hebrews 11:1 tells us, Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.

The ten lepers do have this kind of faith, they can step out in obedience and trust because—they have already done the impossible—

• they already connected with each other making community among enemies;
• they already embraced adversaries through shared suffering;
• they already experienced the miracle that their common humanity was more powerful than centuries of hatred.

So when Jesus, the great Healer shows up and says, start walking out of this wasteland of suffering, even though you still look affright, their spirit was ready, they were already obedient to something greater than their own ego, they already believed in a power greater than themselves, they already trusted the God of Abraham, their common ancestor, who showed them a new experience of community.

So they followed Jesus’ instructions obediently, and they were made clean on the way. The miracle happened AFTER they started participating in their own healing—as a group. They got better “on the way..”

Now, I wish all ten of them had turned around to thank Jesus once they were healed—but only 1 Samaritan—an enemy of the Jews does so.They are all healed, and one becomes whole—one has a relationship with Jesus through gratitude and he moves from physical cure, to whole soul redemption because he finishes the relationship loop with Jesus. He’s obedient and trusting and does what Jesus says, and when the gift comes, he returns for worship, gratitude and praise. That’s what y’all are doing here at worship—you are the 10th leper, retuning to Jesus for gratitude and praise, so “good on ya” as my dad likes to say (has anyone told you you're the 10th leper full of gratitude for being here?!).  Those are church statistics—don’t you know 9 folks who are not in church today? Well, there you go. Good on ya, for being the 10th leper and going for the whole soul healing with gratitude in a relationship with Jesus.

That’s step 3 in the story. So when you go from here today, I want you to engage in steps 1 and 2—who can you connect with who is an adversary, or someone who is very different from you and with whom you can create a conversation? I want you to find one person this week to connect with who has different views and find a point of commonality that helps stop “othering” them, and with the power of Jesus, moves you toward compassion. Practice seeing them, hearing them, listening to them without arguing or writing them off.

Secondly, where is Jesus inviting you to step out in faith—is there a relationship, a work situation, a personal situation, where you cannot see the outcome, you do not know the end result, but it’s time to step out and move forward and trust that God is with you? Pray about this question and ask Jesus where he wants you to move forward in faith trusting him with the results. 

This is the faith journey of the lepers—of all us in the borderlands. But God shows up in these in-between spaces in new ways with unexpected community and the gift of Jesus Christ and his healing for all. Jesus can take the walking dead and raise them to new life and us with them. A new life that restores hope and healing turning enemies into friends, and zombies into disciples where spirits come alive!

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Sharing Assets: A New Look at the Parables of the Lost

20220924 155710Message for Pentecost 14 on Luke 15:1-10 given on Sept 11, 2022 at St. Luke's Lutheran Church, Richardson, Texas

I am not sure society or the religious community has changed much in 2,000 years. The sinners still host the best parties, and the religious leaders are still the expert grumblers. Notice that Jesus likes hanging out with the partiers and the sinners—the fun bunch. He is perpetually criticized by those in power for enjoying too many meals and too much fellowship with people with bad reputations, questionable career choices, and who were always being turned away at the worship door. The “holy” people thought they knew better.

Since Jesus is portrayed as the Good Shepherd in Scripture, it’s hard to get away from the image in these parables we are the lost sheep and the lost coin and Jesus is the persistent shepherd and seeking woman who will do whatever they can to find us and save us. And of course, God’s intention is to save us, no matter the cost—that’s why Jesus is here, after all—he has come to save all of us, not matter what. We trust that Jesus came to show us God’s never-ending love, to forgive us, that he conquered death and rose again, that we might live eternally. But is that what these parables are really about? I think at least in Luke’s version, we might look at them a new way today.

I noticed a word in this passage I have overlooked before, “you.”

“Which one of YOU, having 100 sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it?”

The YOU Jesus is talking directly to are the grumblers—to the religious leaders—or more broadly, to the church folks—who do not like to let in the riff raff—tax collectors who colluded with the Roman oppressor, the sex workers, and others on the low rung of society—or today, maybe someone with multi-colored hair, or face tattoos, someone with addiction, an obvious mental illness or who is homeless --whatever sort of person makes us slightly squirm in our seat.

“Which one of YOU,religious folk, having 100 sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it?”

Jesus does not want us to imagine ourselves as the lost sheep, but as the shepherd. The pharisees and scribes then have to think about everything they know about the job of the lowly shepherds:

Every shepherd is financially responsible for their sheep even though they are not the owner—if they lose one—it will come out of their pay. So, if one strays, a shepherd will do everything they can to find that one sheep. Sheep normally stay with the flock—but they can wander off, chewing a patch of yummy grass, and soon they’re over the hill by themselves. The countryside has bushes with thorns that grow inward, so if sheep get stuck in them, they can’t get out. They must be rescued, or they will just die of thirst or get eaten by a predator. Now, the shepherd is not really leaving the 99 alone to be eaten by predators either—because shepherds work in groups. The biggest flock each shepherd would have is about 40 sheep, so if there were 100 sheep, there was probably the Lead Shepherd and two others. A good shepherd is going after the lost sheep—they won’t rescue themselves--while the other shepherds watch the rest of the flock, because it is too costly to lose even one.

Then Jesus changes the metaphor from sheep to coins, and from a shepherd to a woman. He does not ask the male religious leaders to imagine themselves as a woman with 10 coins, which would be an insult in their culture, but I like to think it’s implied because he just had them imagining themselves as a shepherd. I love to picture Jesus digging in just a little as they listen to a story about a female, wondering how in the world she got 10 coins, and then identifying with her behavior. Of course, like her, they would sweep the house and turn it upside down until they found the coin they had lost. Because lost coins don’t find themselves, they must be searched for and found, just like the sheep.

Again, Jesus does not want us to imagine ourselves as the lost coin, but as the woman who has lost something of great value, and who is willing to work hard until she finds it and restores it.

So, if the lost are not us, who are they? Any person not in a relationship with the living and loving God. Jesus was always hanging out with people who were excluded from religious life to bring them into relationship with God. These two parables invite the religious leaders—the church—(us!) to get out of the “judgment and grumbling business” and instead, to move out into the world and get into the “saving the lost” business. And the first step is to see the people called “tax collectors and sinners”—the unworthy or untouchable, or those who are homeless or ill, or whatever—as the valuable treasures they are to God—someone of great value whom Jesus wants restored to community and to forgiveness and to love.

And when this happens, the real party starts! People throw a party when their lost sheep is restored to the flock, and when the lost coin is found! Friends and neighbors are called for great rejoicing and parties and celebration because something of great value that was lost has been found! “But there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents!” Imagine the joy in heaven with all angels when someone who was lost to God and far off, is brought into relationship;  who felt unloved, is welcomed; who felt unworthy, experiences forgiveness; who felt totally alone, finds community.

No one talks about this set of parables as a reversal, or trading places, but I think it really is. Jesus is telling the religious folks to take the precious gift of their faith, get out of the Temple and into the streets and use it like a diligent woman searching for precious and valued lost souls, shepherding people into a relationship with God! And Jesus wants to take the fun and fellowship, the joy and the parties, the excluded know how to have, and bring them into the church!

Jesus is really doing asset-based community organizing! He is taking the assets of the religious faith—a relationship with God—and bringing them where there is separation from God, and getting them out into the community; and then taking the assets of the community—fellowship and joy—and bringing them into the church where there is too much focus on rules, worthiness, and grumpiness! Do you see it?!

 This is the kind of faith community I think Jesus was really after -–religious folks letting go and seeking out the lost, joined together with the formerly excluded, who , as saved sinners, join together all in one place, with complete joy in their faith, having one big festive, awesome party! Can't you see it?

There are 15 allusions across the 4 Gospels to eternal life as a feast, a banquet, a party, a wedding feast, the marriage feast of the lamb— Jesus keeps telling us over and over that when we gather together as saved people, it’s a party! One person coming into a relationship with Jesus makes the angels sing for joy! —There are 2.6 billion Christians worldwide—that’s a lot of parties! The saints who have gone before us into heaven are having one big constant party!

Jesus wants us to have joy on both sides when all these assets are shared! More people being brought to faith in God! Such joy for the religious! And Joy for those who had been excluded at being included and experiencing forgiveness—talk about a reason to celebrate! And the promise of less grumbling when the party planners arrive!

This means there is joy in our faith, in our singing, in our worship, in the fact that we are saved by Jesus. Why do you think I am always trying to get you to dance in church? Our faith is joy because of what Jesus has done for us, and what Jesus has done for the person next to us, and the people we are mission to reach!

Now if you are not feeling joy in faith, if you are feeling lost—like you are the lost sheep or the lost coin spiritually, mentally, emotionally, physically—in anyway at all, then please let me know—put an SOS on your attendance slip, write to me on Facebook Messenger, text, call, email, so I can help Jesus find you again. And I will walk with you until you know that God searches for you and has found you, chosen you, loves you and claims you as his own.

Because God is giving away love and forgiveness and joy, freely and without merit. God has found us and given these gifts to us, filling us with Christ’s Spirit at this table every week, so we can be Jesus’ hands and feet in the world—a shepherd searching for the lost, a diligent woman searching for a coin—seeing all of God’s people as a valuable treasure that God wants us to help love and redeem.

This is why our church, the ELCA's motto is God’s work, Our Hands. We don’t just do service—we accompany people and look for the assets they bring to our community as well.

So I want you to find one way to share your faith this week, and as you do, look for the assets and the gifts others have and can bring to our community:
• Pick up a Hunger Helper lunch to pass out; and think about how much trust it takes for that person to believe their needs will be provided for. Every person on a street corner is an example for us of what it means to live the petition, “give us this day our DAILY bread”—they don’t have a refrigerator full of food. Or
• Invite someone to join you for online worship at home, or in person worship here—see if they’re good at parties or if they can dance! Or
• Pray for the Lord to lead you to someone with whom you can share what God has done for you and listen to their story and gifts
• Do one random act of kindness this week and add the simple words, “God loves you.”
• Someone in your circle of influence is lost, and this week, I am praying that God will use you to be the diligent woman who searches, and the good shepherd who notices them and reaches out for conversation

As you do one of these things or something else the Lord leads you to, know that there is joy in heaven in the presence of the angels over one person who experience God’s love through you, and I promise, next Sunday, there will be dancing!

Image: Art by Jorge Cocco Santangelo Purchase prints on his website. View his art at the Biblical Museum of Art in Dallas.

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Wholehearted Faith

whole hearted faith acrylic edit.crop 212x300Message for Pentecost 13 on Luke 14:25-33 given on Sept. 4, 2022 at St. Luke's Lutheran Church, Richardson, Texas

I really did not want to preach on this text when we are celebrating a Baptism, but it is the lectionary, and Baptism does not mean avoiding hard things--but trustiing God is with us to deal with them, so hear we go.

We have all grown accustomed to almost every product we buy coming with a warning label. Medicines warn us of side effects. Every package with a plastic bag warns us to keep them away from children and not to put them over our head. Even mattresses and couches come with legal warnings about removing tags that guarantee their manufacturing materials. I dried my hair this morning while a big label hanging from the cord warned me not to take a bath with my hair dryer(!).

Our Gospel reading today is like a big white warning label in the middle of Luke. Jesus is warning us about what it really means to follow him. Don’t do this lightly or easily. It may be fun now, but there may be side effects later. Some warnings may seem unnecessary, but plastic bags and electricity can be dangerous, and following Jesus has a cost, so when Luke compiles his Gospel, he does not remove the label. There is a cross in Jesus’ future, and there is persecution in the early church to which Luke is writing. Jesus wants truth in advertising about what it means to follow him.

At first Jesus warning about the requirements of discipleship sound impossible—none of us would ever make the cut—If hating my family and giving away everything I have is the litmus test for discipleship, then I am flunking—perhaps all of us are, and everyone who first followed him did, too. But Jesus is not encouraging us to have violent animosity toward our family, or even toward life itself.

Jesus is, however, using hyperbole in the starkest of terms, warning us to count the cost of discipleship, making sure our values and priorities are straight so that we put first things first every day—that is, our relationship with him and our devotion God. This is a first commandment passage. “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt. You shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:2). Jesus takes our first commandment faith in God alone and includes devotion to him as God’s Son, and to his reign of justice and love that his kingdom embodies. This requires a wholehearted faith that comes before all else in our life. This kind of discipleship comes with side effects in the world—things we have to give up, or do without, priorities we pass by, and pain we are willing to endure. Are Jesus’ followers ready for this?

Up to this point, Jesus has throngs of people following him throughout his ministry—they are mesmerized and amazed at the miraculous healings he has done. Huge crowds witnessed him raising from the dead the widow’s son at Nain. Throngs heard him preach his sermon on the plain—they are awed by this wonder-worker who is full of the Holy Spirit as he heals a leper, a paralytic, a man with a withered hand, the demon-possessed and feeds 5,000 of them miraculously.

Discipleship is easy when Jesus is healing and teaching and people feel loved, connected to God, and renewed. But what is going to happen when the authorities in the government become threatened by his power, and consider it treason to call Jesus, “Lord” instead of Caesar? And where will the crowds be when the religious leaders disagree with Jesus’ teachings or become angered at how many people follow him? And how devoted a Jesus-follower will they be when Christians are persecuted after the resurrection and they might be jailed for it and tortured, or even killed?

Jesus drops down in the middle of all of this healing and teaching with a warning label. The kingdom is feeling good to you now, but what happens when the going gets tough? 

Right before this passage, Jesus tells the parable of the great banquet and when it is ready—all the invited guests offer excuses for their absence-—“I just bought a field, so I cannot come. I just bought 5 oxen, I just got married, please excuse me, I cannot come.” So, the host of the banquet sends his servant out to the streets and country roads inviting the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame and everyone else available to fill his house to overflowing.

Sitting in the background of this warning label is the question, “what’s your excuse?” What is getting in the way of following Jesus with a wholehearted faith? Is it relationships? Is it possessions? Earthly status and power? Fear?

I visited a family last week who gave me a profound example of wholehearted Christian faith. This family is a member of my husband, Dan’s church, and they are from Pakistan. They have been in the US for 6 years, seeking asylum and safety because of the persecution of Christians in Pakistan. Due to Covid slowdowns, their case is still pending. The government of Pakistan is unfortunately run by an extreme form of Islam that does not allow any evangelism of the Christian faith—before I continue their story, I will say we must be careful not to stereotype the Islamic faith based on this. The Muslim community here in Richardson is involved in interfaith activities and very open to dialog and cooperation. Our Feeding Starving Children event next Sunday is at the Islamic Center in Plano, but this is not the case in Pakistan. We do not want to be stereotyped ourselves by Christians who picket gay funerals, so we must agree before I continue, not to use this one story of one faction of Islam to stereotype the Islamic faith or Muslims in general--are we clear?

Ok, in Pakistan, many Christian churches have been bombed. The father of this family, I’ll call him Steve, had a good friend from the Muslim faith, and over the course of their friendship, his friend came to believe in Jesus Christ. Steve was careful not to evangelize since it was against the law, but just the witness of his life and his family changed his friend’s heart and faith. They had to keep this conversion a secret because if anyone found out, his friend would be killed along with Steve, his wife and their 3 children. Their greatest joy, bringing someone to faith in Jesus Christ by the witness of their lives, became their greatest threat. So, Steve brought his family here to the US seeking asylum, first to save their lives and that of their friend, and second, so they could be free to worship and live their Christian faith without fear of death.

The oldest 2 children are in college, and the oldest one has to pay out of state tuition because they did not go to high school long here long enough. This family of 5 lives in a small 2-bedroom apt, where the daughter just as a "space" in the upstairs hallway instead of a bedroom. They all gratefully sacrifice whatever it takes to pull together college tuition money and to build their Christian Pakistani community here because living out their faith freely is everything to them.

When we ask what American Christians can learn from Pakistani Christians who are fleeing persecution and the threat of death for their faith, they tell us, “our faith really matters. It is the center of our lives and to freely worship, share, fellowship and tell others about Jesus’ love is the greatest gift we can imagine.” The church community is the center of social life and all that they have—their life and breath and hope comes from Jesus Christ.

Even though we do not live in such extreme circumstance, I have had similar faith conversations with many of you—that you could not get through the hardships of your life—illness, death, grief, calamity and crisis without your faith—because our faith matters and most days, it is all that matters because Jesus calls us to wholehearted faith where nothing comes between us and him. Jesus offers us truth in advertising—he gives us fair warning that we will face adversity in this life, and difficulty in following him. And when we do—whether it is at the hospital bedside, the graveside, a dark night of the soul, or a family crisis, we, as disciples of Christ, look to Jesus as the source of our strength and salvation:
• Family members and friends can support us, of course, but only Jesus saves us;
• Material possessions give us means to live, but only Jesus gives us life and life eternal.

And when we are crystal clear and rock solid in our faith—that Jesus is the beginning and the end, and everything in between, then we can rest each day in Christ, living wholeheartedly centered in him. And we can give that hope to one another, which is why we need the Christian community to encourage us forward. This is how Martin Luther taught us to live, daily reminding ourselves as we wash our face or shower in the morning that we are baptized into Jesus Christ and claimed by him with Giuseppe today in the waters of Baptism. When Martin Luther had a troubled soul, he would run into the sanctuary and splash water on his head and say to himself, “remember you are baptized, Martin, remember you are baptized.”

The same Jesus who claimsus  in the waters of Baptism invites us to this banquet of love and forgiveness, healing and salvation, hope and new life—we have left our excuses behind, and we will come even when the going gets tough. The tough like us will stay faithful and still follow Jesus. Regardless of the side effects or the cost, we will love the unlovable, and still invite the outcast to join us. We will welcome sinners like us and forgive the unpopular. We will welcome those who society and even other Christians will not accept, and we will carry that cross together, because our faith matters and we know how precious it is and how important it is to share it. That’s what it means to put God first in our life and live wholeheartedly for Jesus.



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