Message for November 27, 2022

Read Matthew 1:1-17 (see also the previous post with “Matthew’s Begats.”

Note: This message is for a baptismal worship service. Where names have been elided, that is to protect the privacy of the family.

Well, that was a weird reading, right? No matter how much fun Andrew Peterson’s song was, it’s still a strange text for today. Dry and dusty history from three thousand years past. Names that are foreign to our ears and challenging for our tongues.

It’s like looking at someone else’s family pictures. You do your best to appear politely interested. All the time you’re thinking to yourself, “Who are these people?”

And yet, these days, genealogies are big business. All of us baby boomers are afraid we’re going to die, and no one will remember us. We have accounts. We’ve spit in a tube and waited for our genetic profiles. We watch celebrities in shock as they discover some hidden branch of their family tree.

I’ll bet a quarter of the phone calls we get at the church office start out like this. “I’m doing some research on my genealogy. Do you have any records on my relatives?”

Where do I come from? Who are my people? What’s my story? Am I part of a bigger story?

These questions matter to people. The answers help tell us who we are. The answers tell us where we belong. And the answers might give us some clues about where we’re headed.

It’s interesting to read a genealogy on a baptism day. … is the newest addition to your family trees. He carries the history and hopes, not only of his parents, but of generations of ancestors.

As he grows, you’ll probably tell him some of those stories. They will help him know who he is. And they will help him imagine who he might become.

I think of those stories in my family tree. A couple of my ancestors lived in one of the first sod houses in western Plymouth County. A young mother, six months pregnant, snared and slaughtered a hog to feed her children. She did that because her husband had stayed too long in town with his drinking buddies.

A young man left Germany to escape the gathering clouds of war. He became a Lutheran school teacher in my home church. Another young man couldn’t obey the rules. So, he became a farmer instead of a preacher. I often wonder how that story has shaped my own relationship being a preacher.

My family tree has its heroes and saints. My family tree also has its rogues and sinners. So does every family tree. My family tree has a large number of rebels and skeptics, investigators and inquirers, and no small portion of atheists. All of that explains a lot of who I am now.

Now my grandchildren are the leading edge of that larger story. … is the leading edge of the larger story in his family. I suspect that his family will spend some time today telling that story. That’s what happens when families gather.

Genealogy is about beginnings. It’s about origin stories. Matthew launches his gospel with Jesus’ origin story. “The book of the Genesis of Jesus, the Messiah,” Matthew writes in verse one, “son of David, son of Abraham.”

I know that’s not how the NRSV translates it. But that’s what it says.

That word, “genesis,” means “beginnings.” If you connect Matthew’s sentence to the first book of the Bible, give yourself a gold star! That first book is named “Genesis” because it’s about beginnings. It’s about the beginning of Creation, the beginning of humanity, the beginning of Israel.

Matthew wants us to hear Jesus’ story as part of that great big story.

Jesus’ family tree has heroes and saints. But Jesus’ family tree leans heavily toward rogues and sinners. Abraham plays fast and loose with the truth. Jacob is a trickster and thief. David is more like a mob boss than a wise king. Jesus’ family tree has cowards and cheats, frauds and fools, liars and losers.

We find a few heroes in the list. But they are the exceptions.

A close look at any genealogy produces humility. We like to highlight the heroes and saints. We brag up our successful and prominent ancestors. We try to claim a bit of their past glory for ourselves.

But for every hero or saint on the list, I have five stinkers slinking in the background. The genesis of Jesus makes me feel a bit better about my own ancestral line.

Maybe you noticed the women in that list of male ancestors. The women make the list even weirder. Not because the women are weird. But ancient family trees hardly ever mentioned the mothers. So, mentioning the women means something. Matthew has a trick up his theological sleeve here.

You may not recognize these women. Maybe you’ll check them out this week. The women are Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba. These four are outsiders. They’re not Israelites. They don’t have respectable jobs. The men in their lives use and abuse them, neglect and abandon them.

They’re on the list because these women are smart, courageous, desperate, and persistent.

So, watch Matthew’s story for outsiders. Watch Matthew’s story for those who have to buck and battle the system. Watch Matthew’s story for those threatened by the powerful. Watch Matthew’s story for those who threaten the powerful. Watch Matthew’s story for those who won’t take no for an answer.

These are the heroes and saints in Matthew’s story. These are the heroes and saints in Jesus’ story.

The real hero, after all, is Jesus. Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of David, the Son of Abraham, the Son of God. The genealogy begins with Jesus. The genealogy ends with Jesus. The story goes from blessing Abraham to crowning David. It goes from the triumph of Solomon to the tragedy of the Exile. It goes from the depths of despair to the hoped-for Messiah.

But what about those numbers? Does Matthew have a side-hustle as an accountant? If so, he’s not very good. Abraham to David – fourteen generations. David to Deportation – fourteen generations. Deportation to Joseph – thirteen generations. Did Matthew miscount?

No, Jesus is the fourteenth, the fulfillment, the completion, the goal. This is Matthew’s story. God’s people have waited for that final name. That final name is Jesus.

Today, … becomes part of that big story. Today … is baptized into the death and resurrection of Jesus, the Messiah. Today … is baptized into the love story of God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Today … is named Child of God, sealed by the Holy Spirit. Today … is marked forever with the cross of the Messiah.

Today is the beginning of that new life for …. Today is his “genesis day.”

As … grows, his family will tell him stories about his bigger story. And we – parents, sponsors, congregation – we promise to tell him the biggest story of all. We promise to tell him God’s story of salvation in Jesus.

You heard and made those promises a few moments ago. We promise to walk with … as he learns God’s story of salvation. We promise to sit with him in worship as we celebrate that story.

We promise to put the Bible in his hands and teach him to make that story his own. We promise to teach him the faith in the Lord’s Prayer, the Creed, and the Commandments. We promise to help … love his place in God’s story of salvation.

That’s why this congregation has Sunday School, Bible School, and confirmation instruction. That’s why we do preschool and youth activities and Christmas programs and music. Because we promised.

Because we promised to help each and all of our children to love their places in God’s story of salvation. So, we volunteer as teachers and helpers and sponsors. We support ministries of nurture and education. We offer these gifts to anyone’s children – because they are all God’s children.

God’s big story has a goal. And it produces results. We carry out these promises so … can fulfill his baptismal calling. That calling is to let his light so shine before others that they may see his good works and give glory to his Father in heaven. We all have that calling – to live in such a way that the world will know God’s big story of salvation and our part in that story.

Our part is to trust God in all things. Our part is to tell the big story in what we say and do. Our part is to care for all God’s kids and the world where they live. Our part is to work through the story so that no one is left out or left behind. When we do our part, we help …, and all of our children, grow in faith and life.

Today is a day of beginnings. It’s the beginning  of a new church year. It’s the beginning of a new church season. It’s the beginning of our journey through Matthew’s story. It’s the beginning of …’s part in God’s big story of salvation in Jesus.

So, today is not about endings. Baptism is a launch pad, not a landing spot. Our place in the big story lasts a lifetime.

Parents, thank you for allowing us to be part of …’s beginning. Thank you for bringing him into God’s story and God’s family. Thank you for your promises of love and faith. We promise to continue what we’ve begun together. Let’s pray…

Message for November 20, 2022

Christ the King Sunday

Luke 23:32-43

Loving Power

Christ the King, 2022

Luke 23:32-43

Today is Christ the King Sunday. The issue is power. How will that power get used? Will Jesus save himself? Or will he use his power in another way?

Here is the gospel in today’s Gospel. Jesus does not love power. Jesus uses power to love.

Bruce Almighty is a 2003 comedy film starring Jim Carrey. Bruce Almighty is my favorite theology movie of all time. The film wrestles with the connection between power and love.

Carrey plays Bruce Nolan, a television reporter in Buffalo, New York. Bruce is whiny, selfish, and irritated about everything. On a particularly bad day, Bruce rages against God. He makes fun of God and demands an explanation for his troubles.

God shows up. God tells Bruce that if Bruce can do any better, then have at it. God, played by Morgan Freeman, then leaves on a long-overdue vacation.

Bruce discovers that he suddenly has the power of God. He walks the streets of Buffalo accompanied by Snap’s 2003 hit, “I’ve Got the Power.”

Bruce blows the top off a fire hydrant with a wave of his hand. He steals a nice outfit from a store window by thinking about it. He gets revenge on his enemies. He makes his competition, played by Steve Carrell, look foolish on live TV.

We find Bruce standing atop the highest building in Buffalo. The sky is dark with flashes of lightning. Thunder rumbles and the music builds to a climax. “I am Bruce Almighty!” he declares. “My will be done!”

We would all like to be Bruce at that moment.

The issue is power. On that first Good Friday, Pilate had the power. He could execute this inconvenient imposter. Everyone knew it. Power over death means power over life.

Power is the path to privilege, pleasure and protection. Powerful men, for example, presume ownership of the female bodies around them. They grab whatever is handy. They then hide behind political and cultural machinery designed to shield them from consequences.

Bruce Almighty makes a prediction about that use of power. Bruce moves the moon to impress his girlfriend, Grace, played by Jennifer Anniston. He changes Grace’s body to suit his preferences. Bruce thinks he can use his power to manipulate Grace.

But for a while, Bruce loves power more than he loves Grace. That love of power nearly costs Bruce everything that really matters to him. For a while it costs him his relationship with Grace. The love of power will destroy us in the end. The power of love will save us in the end. The movie asks whether Bruce can learn that lesson or not.

For Jesus, the purpose of power is love. Jesus does not love power. Jesus uses power to love.

“The God we know in Jesus,” writes David Lose, “is revealed…not in power but in vulnerability, not in might but in brokenness, not in judgment but in mercy.” That is the God who comes to us in Jesus. Will we act as if that King is returning? Will we recognize Jesus where he chooses to be? He chooses to be the King who rules by serving, who conquers by dying.

Jesus does not love power. Jesus uses power to love.

Who has the power? Jesus, the Crucified and Risen Lord. He turns power inside out and upside down. He inaugurates a new order governed not by fear, force, and judgment, but by love, mercy and justice. Jesus is the King, reigning from his unlikely throne. He is the king the grave cannot contain.

Paul writes these words in Colossians one: Jesus “is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him.

Jesus showers that power on his body, the Church. Paul’s words are nothing short of astonishing here: “May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power, and may you be prepared to endure everything with patience, while joyfully giving thanks to the Father, who has enabled you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light.

Jesus does not love power. Jesus uses power to love.

For a while, Bruce is lost in his power. Habitual power produces spiritual blindness. This blindness is more than an image. It is a physical reality.

In an article in the Atlantic magazine, Jeremy Useem reported that “Power Causes Brain Damage.” “If power were a prescription drug,” Useem wrote, “it would come with a long list of known side effects.” He shares the results of various studies that demonstrate the corrosive and corrupting effects of power on human behavior and perception.

What grabbed me was a study that showed actual shrinkage in brain tissue among those accustomed to power. The brain tissue necessary for empathy and understanding was atrophied in such folks. Exercising habitual power makes us less human.

The historian, Henry Adams, puts it this way. Power, he writes, is “a sort of tumor that ends by killing the victim’s sympathies.”

Jesus does not love power. Jesus uses power to love.

Habitual care, on the other hand, makes us more human. Bruce comes to the end of his rope. He has lost his way. He has lost his friends. He has lost his job. And he thinks he has lost Grace. In desperation, Bruce kneels down in the middle of a highway. He pleads with God to make it all right again. As he prays, he sees a brilliant light coming toward him.

Unfortunately, that light comes from a semi-trailer. Bruce finds himself in heaven. “Why,” Bruce asks God, “Why, just when I understood things, would you let that happen to me?” The answer is practical. “Bruce, you can’t kneel down in the middle of a highway and live to tell about it.”

God asks Bruce what he really wants. Suddenly, all that lust for power is gone. All that greed for gain is gone. All that fever for fame is gone. Finally, what Bruce wants is Grace. No, not Grace. What Bruce wants is what’s best for Grace – whether that makes Bruce happy or not. God smiles and says, “Now that’s a prayer.”

The love of power will destroy us in the end. The power of love will save us in the end. The movie asks whether Bruce can learn that lesson or not. Bruce learns that lesson. And they all live happily ever after. Well, what do we expect? After all, it’s a movie.

For Jesus, the purpose of power is love. Jesus does not love power. Jesus uses power to love.

The love of power will destroy us in the end. The power of love will save us in the end. The daily question for us is whether we can learn and live that lesson.

We are powerful people. That is the economic, political, social and racial truth. We are Americans. We are mostly white. We have enough money to live. We are educated. We are powerful people. The only question for us today is how we will use that power. Will we love our privilege, pleasure and protection? Or will we use our power to love?

Jesus loves the lost, the strayed, the injured and the weak. Jesus loves the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick and the imprisoned. Jesus loves them enough to be one with them. Do we? After all, we’ve got the power – the power of Jesus’ love.

Let’s pray…

Sermon for Luke 21:5-19

23 Pentecost C/November 13, 2022

Lawrence Peter Berra was better known by his nickname, “Yogi.” He was an eighteen-time All-Star catcher for the New York Yankees. He played on ten World Series champion teams. He later coached and managed the Yankees. Berra was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1972.

Yogi is famous for many weird and wonderful phrases. They’re called “Yogi-isms.” It ain’t over till it’s over. You can observe a lot just by watching. When come you to a fork in the road, take it. It’s like déjà vu all over again.

Today’s text reminds me of another Yogi-ism. “It’s tough to make predictions,” Yogi once said, “especially about the future.” Ain’t that the truth! We’ve spent a week hearing about failed predictions. Many so-called experts were sure the voters would go a particular direction. But…they didn’t.

It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future. But predicting is what we humans do. What’s the weather supposed to be like today? I’m trying to decide what to wear. Where will interest rates be a year from now? I’m trying to buy a house or manage my business. What training or education do I need to get a job when I graduate? When is the right time to retire – if I can retire at all? Doctor, how long do I have?

Predicting is what we do. Neurologists tell us we use more of our brain circuits for predicting than for any other activity. Even our memories exist for the purpose of prediction. If you’ve ever hit a deer with your car, for example, you will always tighten up a bit when you pass that spot. It happened there once. It could certainly happen again.

In today’s Gospel reading, some of the disciples ask Jesus for a prediction. Jesus and the disciples are in Jerusalem. They’re watching people come and go in the Temple. Some of the disciples go full-on tourist. They start oohing and ahhing about the Temple foundation stones. I don’t them blame. Some of those stones were the size of railroad cars. They were cut and moved by hand. I’d be pretty impressed too.

Jesus deflates their delight. “As for these things that you see,” Jesus tells them, “the days will come when not one stone will be left on another; all will be thrown down.” That sounds like a prediction to me. And it sounded like a prediction to the disciples.

They ask the obvious question. When? Teacher, when then will these things be? And what will be the signs that these things are about to happen? Jesus answers the questions. But it’s not the answer we want. Jesus doesn’t give a timeline for escape. He gives a checklist for faithfulness.

How do disciples respond when the world is unraveling? I summarize Jesus’ words with three P’s: perspective, perseverance, and prayer. I hope you can take those three words with you this week. This checklist helps whether the unraveling is personal or communal or global. How do disciples respond when the world is unraveling? We seek perspective, perseverance, and prayer.

We’ve lived through some scary times in the last few years. There will always be those try to use our fears against. Us. There will always be those who try to profit from our fear. There will always be those who use our fear to gain power. That’s true even of people who claim to be Christian.

“Beware that you are not led astray,” Jesus warns us. Many will come in Jesus’ name. Some will claim to represent him. Some may even claim to be him – the one chosen by God, anointed by God, speaking for God. Some will declare that it’s time for the End of the World. Don’t pay attention to them, Jesus says. Don’t go after them.

Stop and get some perspective. Perspective is a “seeing” word. It comes from a Latin verb that means “to look at closely.” We can ask ourselves, “Do I see what’s there? Or do I see something that’s not there?”

We humans always search for patterns. Patterns can help us make accurate predictions. But sometimes we see patterns that aren’t there. For example, there was a total eclipse of the moon early Tuesday morning. I wasn’t up, but I’m pretty sure it happened.

The reddish color of this eclipse gives it the name “Blood Moon Eclipse.” This was the first time in history that a Blood Moon Eclipse coincided with an American election. Some people thought that meant something. They thought it indicated a particular election outcome. It didn’t.

We look for patterns to find our way through crises. Crises come, and crises go. Crises matter. Crises are scary. But they don’t mean that God is unfaithful. Instead, the greatest crisis in the history of the universe broke every pattern. The greatest crisis in the history of the universe is also the greatest sign that God is faithful.

That crisis is the cross on Good Friday. That sign is the empty tomb on Easter Sunday. The Resurrection of Jesus means that no crisis is forever. The Resurrection of Jesus means that nothing good will be lost. That’s how we Christians see the world – from the perspective of the Resurrection.

That Resurrection perspective fuels our perseverance as Jesus followers. Because God is faithful, we stand firm. Jesus expects that following him might get us in trouble. You don’t get hauled in front of the authorities for being polite. We may need to speak truth to power for Jesus’ sake. If that happens, Jesus will not leave us on our own. So, we can persevere.

On Luke 21:15, Jesus assures us of his help. “For I will give you a mouth and wisdom, “Jesus tells the disciples. Jesus remembers the story of Moses in the book of Exodus. God calls Moses to lead Israel out of slavery in Egypt. Moses says, “I won’t know what to say!” God says, “Don’t worry. I made mouths – including yours. When the time comes, your mouth will work fine.”

As a preacher, I experience this every week. I don’t just show up on Sunday mornings and say whatever pops in my head. I spend ten hours a week preparing a sermon. I spend most of that time listening for Jesus amidst all the noise in my head. If I wait, if I persevere. Jesus gives me the words to share with you.

Perspective, perseverance – and prayer. Jesus ends his speech with these words. “Pay attention in every critical moment,” he says in verse 36, “asking to be strengthened to get away from all these things that are about to happen…” This is another version of the Lord’s Prayer – “save us from the time of trial.”

If we’re following Jesus, we don’t have to look for trouble. Trouble will find us. But we can pray for Jesus to keep us out of the trouble we cause ourselves. And we can pray for Jesus to get us into the trouble that will do some good for God’s kingdom.

Yogi Berra also said, “The future ain’t what it used to be.” I think that’s what Jesus is telling his disciples. We think we know how things are supposed to go. But Jesus is doing something new. When Jesus dies and is raised, everything will be different.

The most common question I get as an interim pastor is, “What’s next?” I’m here to help you think through that question. I’m here to help you walk Jesus’ path to the future. That path is perspective, perseverance, and prayer. We’re currently in the “perspective” phase. I’m here to help you look at how you’re taking a look.

Maybe you think this is simple. Pastors are like machine parts. You take one out. You put the replacement in. Easy-peasy, and on we go. But that’s now really how it works.

We’ve all been through some stuff in the past few years. Churches are not the same. Churches are not going to be the same. There’s no going back to the way things were. Churches that try to do that probably won’t survive. They certainly won’t thrive.

Thriving churches see things in new ways. We’ll see church as more than an hour on Sunday mornings. We’ll see that Sunday attendance is smaller, but church impact is bigger. We’ll see that both face-to-face and online church are necessary and good. We’ll see that personal connection is critical in an impersonal world. We’ll see that ministry is about partners, not competitors.

That last sentence describes our conversation this afternoon in Red Oak. I hope you’ll be part of that conversation.

Mamrelund can thrive in the future. That’s true even if the future ain’t what it used to be. This congregation has numerous strengths. Worship and music. Facility. Children and Youth. Community involvement and engagement. History and heritage. Love and compassion. Mamrelund is poised to thrive. So, let’s see together where the Spirit wants to lead you.

What’s next? It’s a journey of perspective, perseverance, and prayer. You can help with that third one right now. Let’s pray…

Sermon for October 30, 2022

“The Great Pretender”

Luke 19:1-10 (11-27)

That’s how most people know Zacchaeus. He’s a rich, short guy who wants to see Jesus. The crowd gets in his way. He climbs a tree to see Jesus. Instead, Jesus sees him. Jesus invites himself to dinner. Zacchaeus is so happy he starts handing out cash. Jesus says nice things about Zacchaeus. They all live happily ever after.

It’s a good story. But it’s not the story in the Bible. The real song for Zacchaeus is this one. “Oh, yes! I’m the Great Pretender!”

Have you ever pretended to be someone you’re not? Have you ever hoped people would see you as one person even when you know you’re another? Have you ever been an outsider looking in? Have you ever known that no matter how hard you try, you’ll never belong?

Then you “get” Zacchaeus. He’s the Great Pretender. But his pretending is ending.

Tomorrow is Halloween. It’s the high holy day for being something we’re not. We wear masks and costumes. Little tykes come to our doors. We ask, “Oh, who (or what) are you?” The kiddos are dead serious about their identities. Some of them really are, at least for the moment, Batman or Elsa or the Hulk or Moana.

Why do we like those masks and costumes? It’s fun to dress up and pretend. Psychologically, it’s also about escaping from ourselves for a while. That’s true for adults as well as kids. Historically, it’s about hiding from death for a while. If we have a good enough disguise, death might miss us – at least for the moment.

Pretending to be someone else. Hiding from death. We’re getting to know Zacchaeus a bit better.

Zacchaeus was head tax collector in the Jericho jurisdiction. He didn’t manage the regional IRS office. Zacchaeus was more like the local mob boss. Collecting taxes for the Romans wasn’t processing Form 1040s. It was more like theft, fraud, and extortion.

We shouldn’t be surprised that his neighbors spat on the ground whenever he walked past. We shouldn’t be surprised that they called him a sinner with their spit. We shouldn’t be surprised that they didn’t budge an inch to let him see Jesus.

We should be surprised  that Jesus invited himself to dinner at Zacchaeus’ house.

Or maybe not. A few weeks ago, we heard two of the Lost and Found stories in Luke fifteen. We heard about the Lost Sheep and the Lost Coin. You might not remember the verses that introduce those stories.

“But all the tax collectors and sinners wee coming near to hear Jesus,” we read in Luke fifteen, verse one. In verse two we read this. “And some of the Pharisees and scribes were grumbling as they said, ‘This one is welcoming sinners and sharing meals with them.”

As that great philosopher, Garth Brooks, might say, “Jesus has friends in low places.” We shouldn’t be surprised by Jesus’ actions. Welcoming and eating with miserable sinners is what he does. That’s always worth remembering.

Zacchaeus is the one who surprises us. When that crowd along the Jericho road saw what happened, they weren’t happy. The started grumbling. They were just like some of the Pharisees and scribes in Luke fifteen. Jesus had no business going to Zacchaeus’ house, they said. Zacchaeus was a sinful man.

At that point, Zacchaeus had had enough. He drew himself up to his full height. Of course, his full height might have been all of four and a half feet. Maybe he climbed up on something to be seen and heard. Anyway, he stood up and set the record straight. He was talking to Jesus. But he was addressing the crowd.

“Look,” Zacchaeus shouted, “I’m giving half of what I own to the poor. If I’ve defrauded anyone, I’m paying four hundred percent in damages. Get off my back, you ungrateful fools!” I added that last part. But I think Zacchaeus would approve.

The truth was out. No more pretending. No more hiding. No more masks. No more double life.

Zacchaeus had lived on the shadowy boundary between two worlds. When he was around rich people, he was the wealthy businessman. He was backed by the full might of the Roman Empire. No one messed with Zacchaeus.

But all the old money types in Jericho wrinkled their noses when he walked by. They sniffed in disgust. They turned their backs on this new-money social climber.

Behind the scenes, away from the powerful, Zacchaeus tried to put things right. He kept poor people from starving. He paid restitution and reparations when his employees got too enthusiastic about their work. There were people in that Jericho crowd who had jobs and homes and food because of Zacchaeus.

But all his neighbors wrinkled their noses when he walked by. They sniffed in disgust. They turned their backs on this thief, this fraud, this extortioner.

Zacchaeus was the Great Pretender. And all his pretending got him precisely…nothing. He was rich. He was powerful. And he was seeking something more. So, he climbed a tree.

But the seeker became the “seek-ee.” Zacchaeus wanted to see Jesus. But Jesus saw him first. There Zacchaeus was, in that tree, with nowhere to hide. He was exposed for who and what he was. He was revealed for what he needed. The Great Pretender could pretend no more.

Have you ever been up that tree with Zacchaeus? Have you ever lived in the world of “Damned if you do, and damned if you don’t”? This story is for you. Zacchaeus was a sinner. There was no pretending that away. But that’s not all he was.

“Each one of us,” Bryan Stevenson writes in his book, Just Mercy, “is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.” Zacchaeus needed to hear that message. So do we today.

Zacchaeus also needed to become a Beatles fan. He needed to learn that money can’t buy me love. “Look at what I’ve done!” Zacchaeus shouts in frustration. “Can’t you see that I’ve earned your love and respect? What else do you want from me?”

They don’t want anything from you, Zacchaeus. Money won’t buy you love.

Jesus goes to Zacchaeus’ house. He goes after he knows Zacchaeus is a sinner. He goes before he knows this man is a saint. Jesus goes to Zacchaeus’ house because God loves Zacchaeus no matter what. For even this man, this Great Pretender, really is a child of Abraham. He was lost and has been found. He was dead and is alive.

What are some take-homes from the Zacchaeus story?

First, each one of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.

For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” Paul writes in Romans three, verses twenty-three and twenty-four, “they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus…” This is the great reminder of the Reformation we remember today.

Second, if we follow Jesus then what we do, we do for love.

We don’t do good deeds for God’s approval or for human rewards. Zacchaeus learned that money can’t buy you love. But it can buy food, clothing, and shelter for our neighbor in need. As Martin Luther often said, God doesn’t need our good works. But our neighbor surely does.

Third, doing justice for Jesus is more likely to get us rejected than rewarded.

Zacchaeus outed himself that day on the road out of Jericho. I imagine his Roman bosses weren’t very happy about his covert good deeds. When we challenge unjust and oppressive systems, those systems are going to hit back.

If you want some additional reading this week, read the Parable of the Pounds that follows our gospel reading. This is a story about what happens when brave people refuse to be part of corrupt systems. Jesus tells that story to help us understand Zacchaeus.

No more pretending for us. Through Jesus, we are freed from sin and freed for service. We are called to come down and rejoice. Jesus has come to our house today. Where will he lead us tomorrow?

Let’s pray…

Message for October 23, 2022

Luke 18:9-14

20 Pentecost C

How are You Standing?

Here’s a story you know better than I do. It’s harvest time. A local farmer gets sick or injured. The farmer can’t bring in the harvest. It’s a crisis for that family.

Soon, help arrives. Neighbors come with combines, trucks, tractors, grain carts, and fuel. Meals are organized and delivered. In the blink of an eye, the farmer’s harvest is in the bin. Disaster is averted. Scenes of tearful gratitude make the local news.

Why do people do that? Well, it’s just what neighbors do, right? Most of you can’t imagine doing anything else. In that scene, differenced disappear. Old resentments recede into the background. Competition for ground is put on hold. We’re all in this together. Nothing else matters.

Why do you do it? It’s more than a sense of obligation. It’s not just repayment of previous help. Ignoring that neighbor would make us feel less human. Answering the call makes us happy. We get real joy in coming together around deep human need. Responding to that need makes us whole, content, more fully human.

It’s what God has made us for. I thank God today for all those times when you’ve helped a neighbor in need. I thank God today for all those times when you’ve dropped everything and answered the call. And I thank God for all those times when you’ll do it all again.

Stories of harvest help create a painful contrast to day’s Gospel reading. It’s the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector. When we’re helping, we’re at our best. When we’re at our best, we stand with each other and for each other. When we’re at our worst, we stand apart from each other and against each other.

Today’s reading asks a question. How are we standing? I hope that question rattles in your brain this week. How are we standing?

Two men go up to the Jerusalem Temple to pray. One is a Pharisee. He’s not a bad guy. He does everything right. In fact, the Pharisee does everything more than right. He should be the hero. But’s he’s not.

I need you to listen closely here. The Pharisee’s problem is NOT that he’s Jewish. There’s a lot of anti-Jewish garbage floating on Christian parts of the Internet these days. It’s wrong – theologically, historically, and morally wrong. The New Testament is not a stick to beat the Jews. Anti-Jewish perspectives are un-Christian.

The Pharisee’s problem is NOT that he’s Jewish. His problem is how he stands. In verse eleven, we hear that the Pharisee is standing “by himself.” He stands apart from others. He rejects community and connection.

He stands “by himself.” That phrase can also mean “toward himself.” That’s the more literal translation. The Pharisee is focused on himself. He is turned away from God and neighbor. The Pharisee’s problem isn’t his identity. His problem is that he is turned in on himself. So, his prayer isn’t about gratitude. It’s about self-congratulation.

How are we standing? Don’t stand like that Pharisee.

The Pharisee stands toward himself. So, he turns away from others. “I’m so glad I’m not like the rest of those people,” he prays. “I’m really glad I’m not like that stinking Tax Collector.” Tax collectors make easy bad guys in the New Testament. They were a combination of thief, traitor, and torturer. No one wanted to be “like” the Tax Collector – not even the Tax Collector himself.

But the Pharisee got it wrong. The Pharisee is like the Tax Collector in all the ways that matter. The Pharisee is created in God’s image and likeness – just like the Tax Collector. The Pharisee is in bondage to sin, death, and evil – just like the Tax Collector. The Pharisee needs to be put right with God and his neighbor – just like the Tax Collector.

These two are different in one way. The Tax Collector knows what he needs. “God,” the Tax Collector prays, “be merciful to me, a sinner.” The Tax Collector doesn’t have low self-esteem. He just sees himself as he is. That’s what it means to humble oneself. Humbling oneself isn’t about feeling bad or small. It’s just about telling myself the truth about myself.

How are we standing? That’s a question about direction, not distance. The Pharisee is in the front pew. But he’s turned toward himself. The Tax Collector is barely inside the back door. But he is turned toward God. Jesus says the Tax Collector goes home “justified.”

God turns the Tax Collector in the right direction – toward God and neighbor. That’s what being “justified” means.

God stands “toward” you. That’s the good news today, and every day. God stands for you. God stands with you. God stands by you. That’s who Jesus is and what Jesus does. No matter how I twist and turn, God is there for me. When I stand far off – wrapped in my own wrongs and regrets – God comes to me in mercy and love.

I think about these words from the Letter to the Hebrews. “Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness,” Hebrews 4:16 says, “so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” God comes to you in Jesus. Jesus untangles you from yourself. The Holy Spirit frees you to turn every day toward God and neighbor.

How are we standing? Do we stand toward ourselves? At our worst, we stand apart from God and against our neighbor. At our best, we stand with God and for our neighbor. Think about the joy in that harvest help story. Standing with God and for our neighbor is how we’re made. Standing that way keeps us straight with the world.

In the past few weeks, I’ve talked a couple of times with other ELCA pastors in our area. We’ve talked about the present and future ministries of our congregations. For some of those congregations, the present is challenging. And the future is troubling.

You know the issues facing those congregations. Average attendance is going down. Average age is going up. Their communities are declining. The way we did church forty years ago doesn’t work now. The way we did church ten years ago doesn’t work now. Those congregations can’t call full time pastors. Some might not last another ten years.

Well, Pastor, you might ask, what does have to do with Mamrelund Lutheran Church? That depends on how we’re standing. If we’re standing toward ourselves, those congregations have nothing to do with us. But I don’t think we can be right unless we stand with God and for our neighbor. It’s time for some of that harvest help in the church.

Mamrelund Lutheran Church is the “mother church” for many of these area congregations. Look at their histories. You’ll find Mamrelund pastors and members in many of those histories. Mamrelund has helped to birth new ministries in this community and across several counties.

When I started as an Iowa pastor forty years ago, I heard about Mamrelund Lutheran Church. I knew this was a leading congregation. I knew this place as the “cathedral on the prairie.”

Let’s remember this leadership role. I don’t know what that means for ministry here or with our neighbors. Neither does our synod staff. But we know the Holy Spirit knows. We trust that if we turn in the right direction, the Holy Spirit will lead us into a faithful future together.

Members of area congregations will discuss our futures on Sunday, November 13th. We’ll meet at Bethlehem Lutheran Church in Red Oak from two to four p.m. We’ll speak plainly with and to one another. I’m inviting as many of you as possible to come to that meeting. I know it won’t work for some of you. But we need to have this conversation together. We need to do it for us and for our neighbors.

How are you standing? Toward yourself? Or toward God and neighbor? I’ll wrestle with that question this week. I hope you will too. Let’s pray…

Text Study for Luke 18:1-8 (Part Five)

This may be what I do for Sunday — not sure yet.

“You can pray until you faint,” Fannie Lou Hamer said in 1964, “but if you don’t get up and try to do something, God is not going to put it in your lap.” Fannie Lou Hamer knew that truth from her own experience. I read her story in the book, 50 Women Every Christian Should Know, edited by Michelle DeRusha.[i]

The year was 1962. Fannie Lou Hamer was forty-four years old. She was married to a sharecropper. She was the mother of two adopted daughters. Fannie Lou was a black woman, the first person at her church in Ruleville, Mississippi to raise her hand. She was the first who volunteered to go the twenty-six miles to the county courthouse and register to vote. She was the first in line when the white clerk snapped, “What do you want?”

Fannie Lou knew the risks. Blacks in rural Mississippi in 1962 didn’t register to vote. If they did, they risked public abuse, job loss, physical beatings, and lynching. “I guess if I’d had any sense, I’d a been a little scared,” she said later. “The only thing they could do to me was kill me,” she continued,” and it seemed like they’d been trying to do that a little bit at a time ever since I could remember.”

Mississippi had a literacy test for voter registration. The first time Fannie Lou tried to register, she failed that test. The clerk required her to read and explain section 16 of the Mississippi state constitution. That section described and defined “de facto” laws. Fannie later said that she knew “as much about [de] facto law as a horse knows about Christmas day.” Me, too.

Because Fannie Lou tried to register to vote, she lost her job. Local people threatened to kill her, and she was forced to flee. She dodged bullying and bullets. She also returned to the county courthouse thirty days later to take the voter registration test. This time she had studied. She passed the test.

However, her registration was rejected because she hadn’t paid the poll tax in the previous two years. Of course, she hadn’t paid the poll tax because she hadn’t been a registered voter! Fannie Lou joined the ranks of activists who worked to register other black people to vote. In that role, she was falsely arrested and jailed. she was beaten almost to death. She challenged both local and national power structures.

Fannie Lou Hamer never gave up. And she never gave in to hate. Because of her Christian faith, Fannie Lou Hamer loved even those who wanted her dead. “You have to love ’em,” she said.

“Whether confronting a belligerent voter registration official, lying bloody and beaten on the cold floor of a jail cell, or standing triumphant as a delegate before a national audience,” Michelle DeRusha writes, “Fannie Lou Hamer lived out that love day by day.”

Jesus tells his disciples a parable. This parable is about our need to keep on praying and not be discouraged. Jesus describes a persistent widow to illustrate his point. The widow is a lot more like Fannie Lou Hamer than she is like me.

There’s this judge. He’s not afraid of God’s judgment. He doesn’t give a hoot what people in town think of him. This judge likes his position. He likes his peace and quiet. Beyond that, he just doesn’t care.

And there’s this widow in town. She’s getting a raw deal. The details don’t really matter. Jesus says she’s getting the dirty end of the stick. The judge can straighten things out if he wants to. But he doesn’t want to. He doesn’t care. If he ignores the widow long enough, maybe she’ll just go away.

But the widow won’t go away. She keeps confronting the judge. “Give me justice against my adversary!” she demands. After a while, the judge has a little meeting with himself. “It’s true,” he says, “I don’t fear God’s judgment. I don’t care about public opinion. But this widow! All up in my business wherever I go! At some point, she’s going to punch me in the face! Best if I do what she wants and get rid of the problem.”

So, the widow wins. She never gave up. She never backed down. She used dogged determination and physical intimidation. The widow got her justice.

Fine, Jesus. Cute story. A little slapstick humor. The underdog triumphs. What’s not to like? But how does this tell me about my need to keep on praying and not be discouraged? Jesus, I’m not quite following you on this one.

“Pay attention to what the unjust judge is saying,” Jesus tells us, “And won’t God bring about justice for his chosen ones – those who are shouting to him day and night? Will God delay in helping them?” The answer seems to be obvious. Of course, God delays in helping God’s chosen ones. Just look at our personal experience and our history. God hardly ever seems to be in a hurry to set things right!

Except, that’s not really what Jesus says. You know, even Bible translators have a bad day now and then. The wording in the King James Version is much better than the NRSV for this verse. “And shall not God avenge his own elect, which cry day and night unto him, though he bear long with them?”

Jesus’ story isn’t about how fast God’s response time is compared to that miserable judge. The parable is about how God hangs in there with us no matter how long it takes. The judge doesn’t care about the widow’s case. But God does! The judge delays because he’s unjust. God bears with us until the world is redeemed. If that terrible judge finally gets to the right decision, then certainly our loving God will get us to the New Life where all things are put right.

The story really is about our need to keep on praying and not be discouraged. But it’s not the kind of praying we usually think about. Jesus is talking about the kind of praying we find in our first reading. Sometimes praying means wrestling with God until we’re ready to be blessed and changed. Answers to those prayers don’t come easy. And sometimes we walk away limping.

Many of you don’t know this. But I’m a widower. My first wife died not quite twelve years ago. I took her to the emergency room on November 8, 2010. She died at home on November 20. She was fifty-one years old. It was awful.

My world collapsed. Most of my prayers were screams of anguish and anger. The one answer I wanted I couldn’t get. Sometimes I thought God had abandoned me. But that didn’t happen. As I raged and wrestled, as I shook and shouted, the Holy Spirit remained within me and around me. God bore with me. God waited until God could help me limp across the river of acute grief onto a new path of life.

That’s the personal angle on this parable. God does bring about justice for God’s chosen ones. God bears long with us – even in the moments of deepest darkness. I can’t scare God off with my anger and despair. That’s my experience and my testimony. I’m always glad to talk about that if you’re interested.

But there’s more to the story here. God’s justice is personal, but it’s much more than that. That’s why I started with the story of Fannie Lou Hamer. She testifies that the Holy Spirit sustained her when she was beaten and abused, when she thought she might give up all hope. And she testifies that the Holy Spirit sustained her when the unjust judges of this world refused to give her justice.

You may be crying out to God day and night for personal rescue and relief. In Jesus, God is standing with you in that struggle. And God will bring healing and hope in the end. As a community of faith, we are called to cry out to God day and night for social justice as well. The widow represents all who are abused and oppressed by systems of unjust power. She reminds us that God intends to transform victims into victors – no matter how long it takes.

Jesus ends the parable with a question. All the best parables end with questions. I think all the best sermons do too.  “And yet,” Jesus wonders, “when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”

Jesus isn’t wondering about faith in general. Jesus wonders about finding the widow’s faith here. Jesus wonders if he will find the sort of faith that hangs in there, that won’t give up, that won’t take no for an answer. Jesus wonders if he will find the kind of faith that won’t settle for injustice.

Jesus asks you and me that question. How will we answer?

[i] Michelle DeRusha, 50 Women Every Christian Should Know: Learning from Heroines of the Faith (Grand Rapids, MI.: Baker Books, 2014), pages 327-333).

Text Study for Luke 18:1-8 (Part Four)

Yes, well, ahem…perhaps the solution is to decrypt the text with some Greek translation magic. These exegetical reflections unfold in real time during the week. I am often more surprised than you at where we end up. And I would never pretend that what I write here is some final conclusion – for me or for anyone else. Nonetheless, Sunday’s coming, as Tony Campolo says. And it will be best if I have something intelligible to share.

The phrase in question at the moment is in Luke 18:7c. The NRSV translates the phrase as an additional question: “Will [God] delay long in helping them?” However, in the Greek text, the phrase is not a separate question. It is the added qualifier to the initial question: “And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night?” The answer to that question is, “Of course God will grant such justice (or vengeance) to God’s chosen ones!” The question is, “When?”

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The phrase in verse 7c is “kai makrothumei ep’ autois” in Greek. The important word here is “makrothumei.” Rogland’s article examines the meaning of that word. It’s a brief note, and I’d encourage you to read it for the full effect. He notes that the most common meaning of the verb is to be “forbearing, longsuffering, patient.” It can have the meaning of “to wait patiently.” It is this secondary sense that leads some to think that in Luke 18:7c it means something like “to be slow, to tarry, to delay.” That’s the choice the NRSV committee has made in rendering our text.

A minority of English translations go with the sense of “forbearing” rather than “delaying.” The King James Version is closer to the actual Greek text, perhaps, here than the NRSV: “And shall not God avenge his own elect, which cry day and night unto him, though he bear long with them?” A brief trip to will show you the distribution among those texts. Martin Luther’s translation tends toward God sticking with people for the long haul as well.

Horst (TDNT, Vol. IV) offers several comments on our passage. “The persecuted community in its longing expectation that justice will be done to it by its enemies (this is how ekdikehsis is to be construed…) is to realize that this ekdikehsis cannot possibly fail,” Horst writes, “It rests in God’s hands” (page 381). It is certain that God’s justice will come and will come unexpectedly. The community suffers from the delay of justice like the oppressed widow. The response to this suffering comes from the assurance that God is longsuffering along with the community.

The “justice” in the text, Horst continues, is not only the eschatological resolution and setting all things right. It is also about the need for ongoing and serious self-examination by God’s elect. This is the source of the final question, whether the Son of Man will find faithfulness on earth when he returns. The time of delay is intended to kindle and strengthen the faithfulness of the elect. It is trust in God’s own longsuffering faithfulness to the community of disciples.

Rogland notes that the passage most often compared to Luke 18:7 is Sirach 35:19. The larger context is also similar to our text, but verses 19 and 20 offer the closest material for comparison. Sirach 35:19 is best read with the sense of “being patient” or “longsuffering,” not with the sense of “to tarry or delay” (page 300). “In contrast to the unrighteous judge who is motivated purely by self-interest,” Rogland writes, “God is patient with his chosen ones…” Rogland cites the specific words of Luke 18:7c to make his point (page 300 to 301).

So, let’s take another swing at the Lukan framing following the parable proper. “But the Lord said, ‘Listen to what the unjust judge is saying; but won’t God bring about justice for his elect — those who are shouting to him day and night, and [God] is longsuffering with them?” (Luke 18:6-7, my translation). Of course, God will do precisely that!

It is the case that the Lukan author argues from a lesser to a greater case – the rabbinic strategy of qal v homer. But we must attend closely to the nature of that argument. The unjust judge waits for a long time because the judge doesn’t want to accede to the widow’s demands. God, however, waits for a long time because God wants to allow for justice and mercy to have maximum effect. God will grant justice to them at the right time “without delay” (Greek = en tachei).

The question, however, is what triggers God’s action? It is not the request of the chosen ones. It is the appropriateness of the time in regard to God’s intentions. That being said (Greek = plehn), even if God is extraordinarily patient and allows huge amounts of time to pass for people to repent, even after such patient waiting, might the Son of Man then find faithfulness on the earth? The text leaves the answer to that question in some doubt. The particle, ara, makes the answer to the question as indefinite as the answer to the question in verse seven was definite.

In this reading, then, the widow is indeed the hero of the story. That’s the case in the small parable (verses 2-5) and in the larger framework (verses 1-8). The judge is indeed the villain in both cases and is the negative contrast to God. The judge delays due to perverse motives in opposition to the demands of the widow. The judge relents based on the widow’s pressure and the judge’s self-interest.

God waits patiently for people to “get it” and encourages the elect to keep working for justice just like the widow. God waits on the basis of a desire to save. As we will see in the next parable, that patient waiting is sometimes rewarded in surprising ways. The God we see in this parable is the God we see in the law and the prophets – “Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing” (Joel 2:13, NRSV).

This understanding of God’s timing continues to develop to the very end of the Christian scriptures. Second Peter, perhaps the latest of the New Testament documents, addresses this issue in chapter three. In fact, we get the same terms that were in question as Rogland compared Sirach and Luke. The Lord does not delay (bradunei) the promise as some might consider delaying (bradutehta), but rather the Lord is patient (makrothumei) toward you (pl.), not wanting anyone to be destroyed but rather wanting all to make space for repentance (see 2 Peter 3:9).

There we have the words in question for our understanding and interpretation. The translation that tells us God is patient (not late) is the more accurate and helpful one. When God is ready for the end, of course, it will come unexpectedly. We get that sense throughout the gospel accounts. We certainly get that sense in 2 Peter 3:10. In the mean times, and in the meantime, disciples are called to live in and toward justice and to do so with patient and persistent faith.

What to do, then, with the NRSV translation that seems to be causing all the problems? If I were doing an adult bible study, I would probably walk my students carefully through this issue and the textual evidence supporting the conclusion. That could be a good bible study. That would be a terrible sermon. It will be a challenge to communicate the meaning of our previous discussion here without putting everyone to sleep with all the details.

I’m thinking about a message with the title “Time for a Change.” Sermon titles aren’t worth much, really. But I hope you might catch the double meaning in that title. On the one hand, our parable reminds us that things are not as God makes them to be. In a world where sin, death, and the Devil still have power, it’s always time for a change. It’s time for me to change. And it’s time for me to be involved in changing the world. The widow in the parable is a model of persistent faith for me in a world where injustice remains the order of the day.

The parable also tells us that there’s time enough for a change. That’s the good news in the text. It’s in that little phrase we’ve been worrying for the last ten minutes or so. There’s time for me to embrace the new life that God offers me every day in Jesus Christ. There’s time for God’s justice to be done in a world where injustice is the norm. There’s time for others to come to know the God of justification and justice – the God we know in the loving face of Jesus Christ, our Lord.

In the mean times and in the meantime, it’s time for a change. And there’s time enough for change. Resignation and despair are responses that don’t give life. Even when death seems to have triumphed, we know that there’s more time for a change. We look forward to the time when all things will be made new, when all things will be changed, when all will be set right.

There’s time enough for changing. And there’s plenty of changing to do. We can take a lesson from our Black siblings who have been working for change for five centuries. If we get tired after a few decades, or a few lifetimes, we antiracist White Christians need to learn from them the power of sustained resistance and rejoicing in the face of injustice. As they say in the Black church, God may be slow – but God ain’t never late.

I think that might preach.

References and Resources

Boring, M. Eugene. Revelation. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1989/2011.

Curkpatrick, Stephen. “Dissonance in Luke 18:1-8.” Journal of Biblical Literature 121, no. 1 (2002): 107–21.

Dinkler, Michal Beth. ““The Thoughts of Many Hearts Shall Be Revealed”: Listening in on Lukan Interior Monologues.” Journal of Biblical Literature 134, no. 2 (2015): 373-399.

Levine, Amy-Jill. Short Stories by Jesus. HarperOne. Kindle Edition.

Levine, Amy-Jill, and Witherington, Ben III. The Gospel of Luke. Cambridge University Press, 2018.

Rogland, Max. “Μακϱοθυμεῖν in Ben Sira 35:19 and Luke 18:7. A Lexicographical Note.” Novum Testamentum 51, no. 3 (2009): 296–301.

Swanson, Richard. Provoking the Gospel of Luke: A Storyteller’s Commentary, Year C. Cleveland, OH.: Pilgrim Press, 2006.

Wallace, Daniel. Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics. Grand Rapids, MI.: Zondervan, 1996.

Message for Luke 15:1-10

14 Pentecost C

September 11, 2022

I wish I could have a tranquil faith. I wish I could never stray from the safe path. I wish I could always jump in the right direction. Alas, that’s not me – never has been. When it comes to following Jesus, I’m a lot like the lamb in this video.

Some of that travail is years in the past. But it’s no less painful or powerful. So, when God reached out in Jesus to find me and bring me back, I thought it was a joke. When I heard the voice of God telling me to go to seminary, I was sure God had the wrong number. When the Holy Spirit blessed me with a call into ministry, I was positive that someone would figure out pretty quickly just how much of an imposter I was in this God and grace business.

Yet, the joke was on me.

That’s why I connect so personally to our gospel reading. Jesus will eat with anyone. Prior to Luke 15, Jesus has eaten with Pharisees at least three times. These meals erupt in controversy, but that doesn’t mean the meals were failures. That’s just what happens when you get some teachers together to debate the finer points of the Torah.

Jesus will eat with anyone, regardless of theological, social, or political inclination. That’s worth noting in a time when we tend to gather more and more only with people who look, think, talk, and behave like us. Then, as now, eating with anyone and everyone is a countercultural activity.

Jesus also accepts dinner invitations from the “wrong” kinds of people. He parties with the poor and the rich, the reviled and the respectable. It’s not bad enough that he sits down at the table with the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. He’s having a good old time with traitors and collaborators, with those who play fast and loose with their religion and probably fast and loose with a lot of other rules as well.

Why does Jesus welcome sinners and eat with them? Maybe it’s because, as Billy Joel noted, “the sinners are much more fun.” But I think it’s also because when there’s a chance to throw someone a lifeline, Jesus is going to do it. If Jesus finds someone who’s lost, Jesus is going to move heaven and earth to find them.

That message saves lives. I was privileged to be part of a congregational prison ministry called the FEAST. Part of that ministry was and is a Sunday meal together including inmates from the community corrections center, members of the congregation, and other volunteers, family, and friends.

I remember a FEAST partner (we call our inmate friends “partners” in that ministry) who was sure there was a catch to all of this. Nobody in their right mind would do this for free, he thought. “What do you people really want from me?” he asked. “We’d like to know how you want your burger cooked,” one of the volunteers replied.

We hoped our time together might change all of us for the better. But that wasn’t a condition for being together. Over time, my friend began to soften a bit. He was less defensive and paranoid. His shoulders relaxed. He even smiled a few times. After a few months, he came to me with a broad grin. “I’ve figured it out,” he told me. “I know what you people want.”

“Well, tell me,” I said, “what is it that ‘we people’ want?” He laughed as he spoke. “You don’t want anything. You just give yourselves and your time and your love for free. It’s the craziest thing I’ve ever seen. I didn’t think such a thing was possible. But do you know what really gets me?” he asked. “No,” I said, “I have no idea. Tell me.”

“All of a sudden, for the first time in my life, I don’t want anything either. Because,” he took a deep breath, “I know that God wants to give me everything.”

If I hadn’t been there myself, I wouldn’t have believed it. Yet, nearly twenty years later, that conversation rings in my mind as clearly as the Sunday we had it. It didn’t work that way every time. Some never got over their suspicion. Some took what they could get and left. But many more had precisely the same experience. After a lifetime of judgment and punishment, grace changed their hearts and their lives.

The story may sound like a cheesy exercise in self-congratulation. I apologize if that’s what you get. What I know is that those of us who appeared to be on the “giving” end of the deal were (and are) the ones who benefitted the most. I’m not sure I’ve ever had a greater privilege than to watch week in and week out as living, breathing human beings were transformed by the power of God’s grace in Christ. That grace was embodied in meals, friendship, acceptance, and love.

I still get chills when I remember this experience.

Why does Jesus welcome sinners and eat with them? The sinners are more fun. I suspect there really is more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over the ninety-nine righteous who need no repentance. The challenge to the ninety-nine is to accept the joy when such a transformation happens.

This works out different ways in different settings. But the challenge of the Good News is there for all of us. In the last few weeks, Jesus has made it clear that he offers real freedom to those who fully follow him. When we receive and accept that invitation, can we take joy in offering that freedom to others?

If we reflect the image and likeness of God in our lives and conduct, we Jesus followers won’t be satisfied while any sheep and coins are still lost. Part of our calling is to understand that we are incomplete, that we are lost as long as we settle for flocks made up only of people like us.

God won’t settle for a partial victory. God is not content with finding most of the family, but not all. If we are thinking practically, we know that the sheep-owner should have settled for the ninety-nine lambs who stayed home. If we are thinking practically, we know that the woman should not have turned her house upside down for a coin that either would turn up on its own or could be replaced.

But today we meet the impractical God. Today we meet the God who will not stop looking until all have been found, reclaimed, returned, and restored. When God finds us in Jesus, will we join the search for the others? God wants all of us, and God wants us all. Let’s pray…

Text Study for Luke 10:38-42 (Part Four)

Part Four: Text Matters

I find that one of the most challenging parts of our gospel reading this week is simply understanding the text as we have received it. English translations, including the NRSV, tend to obscure significant – if seemingly small – details that might either help with my understanding or provoke further questions and confusion. Either way, a closer inspection might be useful.

The NRSV uses the connective “Now” to move on from the story of the Man Who Fellow Among the Robbers. That may be fine, but it’s worth noting that the Greek connection is a mild adversative, “de.” Jesus tells the lawyer, in 10:37, “Go, and you do likewise.” The root of the verb for “go” here is poreuomai. The same verb is used eight words later in Luke 10:38. That should cause close readers to sit up and pay attention.

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There’s nothing remarkable about the verb itself. However, this close juxtaposition in a narrative as carefully worded and constructed as the Lukan account should not be ignored. In addition, the two instances of the verb are separated by the mild adversative. There may well be some contrast between the first “going” and the second “going.” The positioning of the two stories may indicate that there is an important difference between them.

Therefore, what we have is something like this. “But Jesus said to him, ‘Go and you do likewise.’ But as they were going, he himself entered a certain village; but a certain woman, Martha by name, welcomed him [into her house]. And this one was sister to one called Mary, [who] also, as she sat at the feet of Lord, listened to his word.” (Luke 10 37-39, my translation). The small details make some notable differences in how the text sounds and works, when compared with standard English translations.

As I’ve noted in an earlier post, it seems clear that Mary was not the only one who sat at the feet of the Lord and listened to his word. Mary “also” did it – presumably along with Martha. “But Martha [while she was sitting at the Lord’s feet and listening to his word] was distracted by much ministering; but since she was in charge [of the household], she said, ‘Lord, is it not a matter of concern to you that my sister left me to minister alone? Therefore, speak to her in order that she might come to help me” (Luke 10:40, my translation).

When I read the text closely, I get a somewhat different scene in mind than I have often imagined. Martha, as the head of the household (with no adult man in the immediate family, in the Lukan telling) welcomes Jesus appropriately as host. Both Martha and Mary sit at Jesus’ feet and hear his word. Martha, however, is in charge of the festivities and needs to attend to the arrangements. The word the NRSV translates as “she came to him” in verse 40 also has the sense of acting as overseer or being in charge. I’m surprised that this sense doesn’t show up in translations.

Martha wants to be in two places at once, but that can’t be. Making the final arrangements would go more quickly if Mary got up as well. But Mary doesn’t budge. I’d be put out as well if I were in Martha’s shoes. She asks Jesus to excuse them somewhat forcefully for their duties. After all, there will be more time for teaching during and after the meal. Instead, Jesus gently urges Martha to calm down and sit back down. The meal will be there when they’re ready for it.

“But replying, the Lord said to her, ‘Martha, Martha, you are worried and troubled about many things. But one thing is necessary. For Mary has chosen for herself the best portion which will not be carved away from her’” (Luke 1041-42, my translation). I first notice the verbal similarity between the Greek word for “worry” here, merimnas, and the Greek word for “portion,” merida. You may know that I’m a fan of alliteration in my own writing and reading. So, this verbal similarity captures my attention. This oral/aural feature of the story may well be a clue to the contrast between Martha’s choice for herself to keep worrying and Mary’s choice for herself to keep listening.

In addition, it seems to me that the text contains a delightful play on words at this point. A “portion” can refer, obviously, to some food served at a meal. Could it be that Jesus is offering a pun to get Martha’s attention? “Yes, Martha, I’m all about the servings, here,” Jesus may be saying. “But the most important item on the menu is not the lamb in the oven. The best portion right now is a serving of my word. So, sit back down and take a second helping!”

In Luke 10:42, Jesus declares that Mary “chose the good portion.” Wallace (page 298) refers to this verse under the heading of a “positive for a superlative.” He notes that occasionally, for example, that which is “good” actually refers to that which is “best.” When the word for “good” comes in the attributive position (immediately following the Greek article), and the article is of the par excellence class (a grammatical category that, I think, may well be in the eye of the beholder), then the positive form (“good”) should be translated as the superlative form (“best”).

The Greek verb for “choose” in verse forty-two can be translated in the active voice as a middle deponent. The result is “Mary chose.” Or, it can be translated in the middle voice, the translation that Wallace regards as the more reliable. Therefore, the result is “Mary chose for herself.” Even though the verb is an aorist and is therefore a simple past tense, the context, at least in English, suggests more of a continuing past tense. The result, then, is “Mary has chosen for herself…”

My interest in the littlest words was piqued by John Kilgallen’s note on the use of gar (for) in Luke 10:42. The word doesn’t make it into the NRSV translation, and that troubles Kilgallen (and me). When it is used in a similar context in Acts 8:31, the word can indicate “an unexpressed denial or refusal,” to use Kilgallen’s words. What might that unexpressed denial or refusal be in our text?

Lord,” Martha asks, “is it not a matter of concern to you that my sister left me to minister alone?” The implication is that it certainly should matter to Jesus. And he ought to do something about the situation forthwith. When Jesus includes the gar in his reply in verse forty-two, he does not explicitly deny or refuse Martha’s request, Kilgallen notes. But he does give “the reason…why refusal should be understood as an element of his reply” (page 258). “I’m not going to do it, Martha,” Jesus says, “because Mary has chosen for herself the best selection on the menu.”

There are moments in the life of the faith community when the call is, “Don’t just sit there, do something!” But there are also moments in the life of the faith community when the calls is, “Don’t just do something, sit there!” As we’ve observed before, the key is to know what to do when. When is the right time to speak and the right time to listen? When is the right time to step forward and the right time to sit back? The Samaritan knew the right time. Mary knew the right time. That’s what they have in common, even though their responses were different.

I think about the ongoing conversations we have in our antiracism book study group. This is a very important part of my week and has been for most of the last two years. Often when the group reads and discusses a passage that is especially challenging for White people, we may say to one another, “But what shall we do about it?” I have found that to be a natural question but not the most helpful one. If we don’t yet know what we personally need to do, perhaps we’ve not yet spent enough time sitting and listening.

And the move to doing assumes that we White people are the ones who could know what to do and when to do it. I wonder if one of the struggles for Martha was the leadership role reversal that Jesus affirmed. Mary was, presumably, the younger sister. At the least, she was not the one in charge of the household and the hospitality. Yet, Jesus allowed Mary to set the pace and to choose the portion. Perhaps it was Martha’s task to listen not only to Jesus but to Mary as well.

I can tell you, as an oldest, that’s a hard pill to swallow. I can transfer that experience to all the ways I’m accustomed to being in charge – White, male, pastor, older, credentialed, financially resourced, able-bodied, etc. My shoulders tighten and my jaw clenches, involuntarily most of the time, when others are in charge. I don’t really want to listen. I don’t really want to follow. I want to lead – as I am in the habit of doing.

But that’s not the best portion for me in many cases and situations. The best portion for me as a White, male, cisgender, heterosexual, able-bodied, college-educated, English speaker is to listen to the words of those unlike me and to follow their leads. That’s the best portion. And it is the hardest helping to swallow for many of us in the once-dominant cultural positions that we feel slipping away from us.

Thus, we worry and are distracted by many things. Those worries can make us difficult and even violent. Perhaps one of the opportunities for witness in and through the Church is to model what it looks like to stop doing (if we’ve been in charge) and just sit there. After all, Martha, Mary can do things too.

References and Resources

CARTER, WARREN. “Getting Martha out of the Kitchen: Luke 10:38-42 Again.” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 58, no. 2 (1996): 264–80.

D’Angelo, Mary Rose. “Women in Luke-Acts: A Redactional View.” Journal of Biblical Literature 109, no. 3 (1990): 441–61.

Gonzalez, Justo L. Luke (Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.

González, Justo L. The Story Luke Tells. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. Kindle Edition.

Kilgallen, John J. “A Suggestion Regarding Gar in Luke 10,42.” Biblica 73, no. 2 (1992): 255–58.

Kilgallen, John J. “Martha and Mary: Why at Luke 10,38-42?” Biblica 84, no. 4 (2003): 554–61.

Levine, Amy-Jill, and Witherington III, Ben. The Gospel of Luke (New Cambridge Bible Commentary). Cambridge University Press, 2018.

Wallace, Daniel B. Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics. Grand Rapids, MI.: Zondervan, 1996.

Text Study for John 20:19-31 (Part Three)

We come, at last, to “Doubting Thomas.” That title is a misnomer. Jesus does not mention the “doubt” of Thomas. He commands Thomas to stop being “unbelieving.” To move from unbelieving to believing in John is not about intellectual assent. It is rather to accept and embrace a whole new way of seeing. It is being born from above, as we read in John 3.

Thomas is one of a number of witnesses who demonstrate that Jesus’ resurrection appearances are not merely wish-fulfillment. Thomas does not expect Jesus to be alive again. Instead, he had earlier committed himself to go with Jesus to “die with him.” The argument that the stories of resurrection appearances are reports of wishful delusions ignores the content of those reports. Wright notes, “and actually none of Jesus’s followers believed, after his death, that he really was the Messiah, let alone that he was in any sense divine” (Surprised by Hope, page 61).

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“The call to resurrection faith occurs for people of later generations,” Craig Koester writes, “when the message about the risen Jesus is made effective by the risen Jesus. This,” he suggests, “is the dimension of Johannine theology that informs the story of Thomas” (page 70). The resurrection good news becomes credible and life-changing in the midst of genuine encounters with the risen Lord Jesus.

Thomas represents the readers of John’s Gospel in several ways, Koester suggests. We did not see the risen Christ on that first Easter. Instead, we have received the testimony of witnesses to those first appearances, and that testimony is found in John’s gospel. In that testimony we may discover that we too have encountered the risen Christ and may respond with Thomas, “My Lord and my God!”

Seeing by itself does not guarantee believing, Koester notes. We are readers of John’s gospel “can be assured that those who have not seen Jesus are not disadvantaged but are as blessed as the first group of disciples” (page 72). Seeing always happens in a context and within a framework of belief in what is possible. In a very real sense, it’s not that we believe something when we see it. Rather, we often see something when we believe it.

Thomas “is one of those who will know the resurrection not through an Easter experience,” Sandra Schneiders writes, “but through the testimony of the church, ‘We have seen the Lord’” (2005, page 27). But Thomas insists, according to Schneiders, on clinging to a pre-Easter perspective, where he must be able to handle Jesus with his mortal senses. It is not the case that Thomas “doubts” anything. That word is not used in the text, regardless of traditional labelling. Thomas refuses to believe. That’s what he says. “I will not believe unless…

John’s gospel spends some time and rhetorical effort on the demands Thomas makes. The other disciples share their testimony with him, but Thomas is recalcitrant. He uses, according to Daniel Wallace, an emphatic, negative subjunctive construction (can also accompany a future tense, as is the case in John 20:25). Wallace notes that this “is the strongest way to negate something in Greek.” The construction is especially used to negate something that could happen in the future (Wallace, pp. 468f.).

Thomas is quite certain – not doubting at all. He is quite certain that unless his standards of evidence are met fully and without exception, he will definitely not believe. Thomas insists on experience rather than witness as the reason for his believing. He wants to impose pre-Easter categories on the post-Easter reality.

But there’s no going back after Easter. In the post-Easter cosmos, it is witness that makes the experience of Jesus possible. “What he misunderstands,” Schneiders writes, “is that it is not their experience [that of the other disciples] which he must accept in place of his own, but their witness upon which his own experience must be grounded” (page 32). This is the situation of every believer since.

There is a tone of brutality in Thomas’ demands here. “Unless I can thrust my finger into the place of the nail and thrust my hand into his side,” he declares, “I will certainly not believe” (my translation). Thomas represents the invasive, penetrative, conquering approach to knowledge as objective facts which must meet my specifications and must be under my control. Of course, any God worth having would not submit to any such external and objective standards of validity. God is God, and I am not. And that’s the good news.

When Jesus stands again in their midst (please see the description above), Thomas faces the glorified and resurrected post-Easter Jesus. He is challenged to evaluate the wounds of Jesus in a new way. “The wounds of Jesus are not a proof of physical reality,” Schneiders writes, “but the source of a true understanding of the meaning of Jesus’ revelatory death” (page 27). Jesus invites Thomas to “bring” his fingers into Jesus’ hands and thrust his hand into Jesus’ side.

Jesus imitates Thomas’ demand for rough handling. He magnifies that demand with a clear command. “Do not become unbelieving but rather continue believing!” (my translation). Thomas doesn’t touch Jesus. Rather, he is touched by Jesus. This isn’t about being convinced. It’s about being converted. Easter isn’t about new information. Easter is about New Creation. Thomas receives the gift of new eyes. He sees the wounds of the Risen Jesus in a new way.

Alan Lewis helps us to understand that Thomas is not a skeptical foil to our heroic faithfulness. “He is not so much the slowest, and most doubtful of the contemporary disciples,” Lewis writes in Between Cross and Resurrection, “as the final and definitive eyewitness of the church’s good news for every generation: that Jesus, born in flesh, crucified with finality, and buried in godforsakenness and godlessness, has been raised by God the Father” (page 104). The conversion of Thomas represents the culmination of the journey from a pre-Easter world to a post-Easter world.

Wright describes this as the “epistemology of love.” This is the only way of knowing which can grasp the resurrection of Jesus. “What we are called to, and what in the resurrection we are equipped for, is a knowing in which we are involved as subjects but as self-giving, not as self-seeking, subjects,” Wright suggests, “in other words, a knowing that is a form of love. The story of Thomas,” he observes, “encapsulates this transformation of knowing.” (Surprised by Hope, page 239).

Now, does this mean that there can be no connection between knowing on the basis of evidence and knowing on the basis of faith? Wright pursues this question in the latter pages of The Resurrection of the Son of God. On the one hand is the skepticism of “objective” history which remains unconvinced in the absence of compelling evidence. On the other hand there is a certain Christian piety which regards any desire for evidence as suspect and as a demonstration that faith is lacking. Will the twain never meet?

Wright points to the Thomas story. In fact, Jesus encourages Thomas to access the physical evidence he desires. And Jesus mildly critiques Thomas for having such a rigid need for physical proof. Evidence can lead to exploration. Openness to new possibilities can lead to new insights. Both ways of knowing can be true and in fact supplement one another. That seems to be part of the encouragement we receive in the Thomas story.

In the end, however, this is not about investigation but rather about Reality itself. And it is about how I will engage with the Reality, if at all. “Saying that ‘Jesus of Nazareth was bodily raised from the dead’ is not only a self-involving statement; it is a self-committing statement,” Wright suggests, “going beyond a reordering of one’s private world into various levels of commitment to work out the implications. We cannot leave a flag stuck on a hill somewhere,” he writes, “and sail back home to safety” (The Resurrection of the Son of God, page 717).

Instead, we too meet the risen Lord Jesus, wounds and all. Those wounds are not embarrassing remnants from a former existence. “The living one is Lord and God,” Alan Lewis writes, “just because he is manifestly none other than the frail and fleshly creature whose final agonies and injuries had emptied him of life and reduced him to a corpse” (page 105). John tells us a story about the Word made Flesh – flesh that can be wounded, flesh that can die, and the Word which lives among us full of grace and truth.

Lewis deserves a lengthy quote to finish here. “From first to last, then, the identity of Jesus is that of one in whom God’s presence and splendor are coexistent with their very opposite – with the finitude of creaturehood, the shame of suffering, the finality of termination, the nothingness of sepulture, the relationless nonpresence of extinction. In him,” Lewis concludes, “the eternal, creating, and resurrecting God of heaven and the perishable and finally perished man of Nazareth are one” (page 105).

References and Resources

Koester, Craig. “Hearing, seeing, and believing in the Gospel of John.

Lewis, Alan E. Between Cross and Resurrection: A Theology of Holy Saturday.

Schneiders, Sandra Marie “The Lamb of God and the Forgiveness of Sin(s) in the Fourth Gospel.” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 73/1 (January 2011): 1-29.

Schneiders, Sandra M. “Touching the Risen Jesus: Mary Magdalene and Thomas the Twin in John 20.” CTSA Proceedings 60 (2005), 13-25.

Wallace, Daniel. Greek Grammar: Beyond the Basics.


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