God cares. Do you?

Sermon for June 24, 2018 based on Mark 4:35-41 and 2 Corinthians 6:1-13

qrmh6fouqnihdekkaj0ug.jpgLast Thursday I went to Los Angeles to participate in an interfaith religious leader protest. There were probably 250 people of many faiths, with the majority being Christians and Jews. I think there were 9 of us Lutherans. Why would various religious leaders protest? Because not only is justice at the heart of our faith, proclaiming justice to the world is part of our calls.

Right now, we are experiencing a big storm in our land. As we try and navigate I can easily imagine Jesus asleep in the boat. There’s much noise. The waves are huge. And with the wind it’s difficult to do anything. Like the disciples we can’t control the boat. And maybe it seems to some that Jesus is sleeping.

In today’s gospel, the disciples are terrified, so they wake Jesus, saying,

“Teacher! Don’t you care that we are about to die?”

Don’t you care?
That’s been quite the question this week. (And I wrote this sermon before the first lady’s visit to Texas) Don’t you care? How often do we ask this of one another? And of God?

I think the last time that I preached about this story of the disciples frantically calling Jesus “to care,” was at the funeral for Harris. At his service I shared that when I arrive here, he sent me an email. In it he shared a lot of hurt and anger towards our church. In his letter he’d asked me, “don’t you care that I was hurt?” (He had been hurt by the then controversary about same gendered marriage. Thankfully our congregation is now explicit in our welcome of our LGBTQ sisters and brothers.)

I responded to Harris, “yes, I care.” It took a while but we were able to have reconciliation here, with Harris and his church. I am grateful that he was able to worship here shortly before his death. It was All Saints Sunday and I remember the hugs amongst those present. I was beautiful. I was also grateful to be able to preside over his funeral. All because I cared. But it’s not really me…as I live out my call as pastor, I am always reminded that it is Jesus who cared then and who continues to care today.

I am thinking about this this week because we too may have the question in the midst of the storm. Maybe we think that after navigating the call to love our LGBTQ neighbors, we were expecting calm seas. But life does not work that way and we are faced with turmoil in our nation. In the midst of the storm we wonder: Does Jesus care? Does God care? Should we care?

Those at the demonstration Thursday care. All of the pastors I know care. Many people in and out of the church care. But sadly, not all Christians care about children being torn from their parent’s arms. Some actually support this. An acquaintance on mine on Facebook shared a video of a pastor literally yelling about how Romans 13 permits the actions now being taken at the border. The reality is that Romans 13 has been historically misused to justify slavery and the holocaust. I wish that all Christians would care.

Especially because the way we treat others is at the root of the call that we have from God. Each day we need to remember that God loves us and that God’s command is that we love God and we love others, especially our neighbors. But it’s not always easy to love our neighbors…in every situation. Especially when we are divided into political teams. Then we might lose the common good because we only see the team.

But those commands to love are not only for those time it’s easy. No, God’s command to love is for all time…when it’s easy and when it’s hard. I’m pretty sure that most of us had difficulty with loving someone in the last week. I certainly did.

Some of us have problems loving immigrants, especially undocumented immigrants. And others of us had problem loving those who don’t love immigrants…. This is a big division in our country and in the church. Last Monday I shared on a clergy page that I was feeling crappy about the horrible news. I wasn’t prepared for the responses of fellow clergy who described the difficulty they are facing in their calls, when love of neighbor is now controversial and “political.”

For all of us these difficult feelings are like that big storm and we are all being pushed this way and that way as we wonder what to think and what to care about.

Here are the two, no three things I know…

  1. God loves us…and in that love God cares for us
  2. We are to love others…especially those who are oppressed and poor…as Jesus says, the least of these.
  3. Number two isn’t easy…so the life of faith is not easy.

But that doesn’t mean it’s all bad either. I think that is what Paul is describing in his letter. His list of what they go through is both good and bad. That is the reality of life.

He wrote:

3We are putting no obstacle in anyone’s way, so that no fault may be found with our ministry, 4but as servants of God we have commended ourselves in every way: through great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, 5beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger;

None of us wants this. The list continues:

6by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love, 7truthful speech, and the power of God; with the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and for the left; 8in honor and dishonor, in ill repute and good repute. We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; 9as unknown, and yet are well known; as dying, and see—we are alive; as punished, and yet not killed; 10as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything.

Life is a mixture of easy and hard. Ugly and beautiful.

All this brings me back to the constant reminder that it is about how we treat one another. When we have hate or when we don’t have empathy we are living against the commandments of Jesus. When we do this as Christians, we are also blocking access to faith because people see us as representing God…or as Paul says, “ambassadors for Christ.”

So, when we are confused in the midst of the storm, we remember that Jesus is indeed present in the world and he is not sleeping. He cares about us. He cares about everyone, especially those who have no power. He calls us to care also because to love is to care. The simple question is then, are we loving our neighbor as God would have us love?

Paul wrote about opening hearts. That is another way to say love. Yes, loving the neighbor might be hard, but it is also the way we are able to experience God’s love in our midst and to share that love with the world.

Protective Love

With permission to use this personal sermon, I’ve changed names to protect privacy.

I don’t remember exactly when this occurred, but my best guess is six years ago. It was definitely in June (or maybe in May). I know the time of year this because it was a graduation party. Another church member, Juanita, and I went as guests of the graduate, Mark, who’d just received his Master’s in Public Policy,

Except for Juanita and Mark, I didn’t know any of those gathered for the celebration (not always the easiest thing for this introvert!). We met Mark’s grandparents and chatted with then over dinner. Boy were they proud of their grandson that day!

Eventually Mark wanted us to meet his mother. She was in the living groom, seated in the middle of the sofa. I don’t remember who or how many people were around her. All I remember is that she looked serene or even regal as she sat there. AND she wasn’t interested in meeting me. Maybe Juanita , but certainly not me! This was my first encounter with Mary.

Why? Why would the mother of someone who’d become a friend have such a negative reaction to me?

Well, we need to back up a bit. Juanita and I were board members at the local nonprofit where Mark worked. That’s how we knew him.

Mark had also been talking to me about matters of faith. He told me once that as a child he’d felt the Call to become a priest. But as a young man, he instead spent some time in a futile effort to prove to himself that God does not exist.

Why? Why would someone who felt that Call to ministry turn his back, or at least attempt to turn his back, on God?

The answer to this question is, also ironically enough, the answer to the question as to why Mark’s mother rejected me at our first meeting. You see, the church had hurt Mark deeply. Just as the church, through the years, even centuries, has hurt countless people deeply. How? By rejecting him because he is gay. By telling him and others that they are condemned solely because of who they are.

Tragically, many Christian churches continue to do this. Mary knew of this rejection. She also knew that I was a pastor. Thus, I posed danger to her son. I represented those who could reject him…those who could harm him. This by the way is something I’ve experienced with others as well. I remember being a new neighbor at a neighborhood gathering. I was introduced to other neighbors as, “This is Nancy, she’s a pastor, but she’s nice.” There’s a lot of history in that “but.” As pastor, I represent what, for some, has been a place of deep hurt and rejection. Mary had no desire that day to know me.

From today’s epistle:

“So we do not lose heart. Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day.” (2 Cor. 4:16).

Here the apostle Paul is writing about the resiliency of what is within…not because of, or through, our own efforts but through the love of God. It is a beautiful and comforting idea. But sometimes that inner nature is undergoing a battle that cannot be seen from the outside. We see that this week in the tragic suicides that are in the news.

Sometimes, what is within and given to us by God is distorted and destroyed by others. If you hear the words that condemn you in the name of God, words like, “God hates f—,” then it becomes difficult to hear anything else.

Mary, as the loving and caring mother that she was, feared for her son. She feared his responding to God’s call on his life, not because she feared God, but because she feared people who claimed to speak for God.

Eventually though, she began coming to Our Redeemer. She was very helpful when we were trying to get a Spanish language worship service going. We used to have lunch after the service. She would tell stories. She would tease. She would laugh. I loved her sense of humor and her laugh.

When she contemplated joining Our Redeemer, she shared her concerns with me. Would the Lutheran Church truly be a place that would love and care for her son? Would he be hurt? Rejected? We talked about these things. She decided to join, just in time to vote! So, she was one of the members who voted that day in August a few years ago to make us a Reconciling in Christ congregation. This in Lutheran speak means that we are fully and explicitly welcoming and affirming to our LGBTQ sisters and brothers. The vote was nearly unanimous.

A little over a week ago, Mary departed this world. She had been hospitalized for 14 days. I am so thankful that I was able to see her the day before she left us.

More from today’s epistle:

“For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure, because we look not at what can be seen but a what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal.

For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.” (2 Cor 4:17-5:1)

These earthly tents that we have, our bodies, don’t last forever. They fail us. We fail them. We get frustrated with them. We sometimes abuse them. Some of these earthly tents last longer than others. Sometimes we wonder about life. About why some people leave us so early. And why some don’t. The one thing that we can all know is that we too will depart this world. The death of a loved one is always painful. And death is also a reminder that each day we have is a gift.

Living each day as that gift means living with the hope that is within us. Living each day as that gift means living in such a way that we are fierce protectors of those we love. Mary taught this by the way she lived with love for all her sons. For this I am thankful. I am also hopeful, because living as fierce protectors of those we love is our Call from Jesus. May we respond to that Call from Jesus to love and protect our neighbor as fiercely.

 

 

Where’s Jesus? Part of My Sermon for John Chapter 3:1-17

Where’s Jesus? I’m reminded of a dumb joke, or what I’ve always thought was a dumb joke. The thing is, I keep remembering it. Here it is.

A mom was having problems with her two young sons. They were misbehaving, probably in the same manner that all children misbehave. But the mom was frustrated. So she asked the pastor to help. This (male) pastor agreed to go and visit and talk to the kids.

Once at the home, he decides to first talk to the youngest boy, leaving the older sibling to wait in the bedroom. In the living room with the young boy the pastor asks, “where’s Jesus?” The boy doesn’t know how to respond so he says nothing. The pastor repeats the question, raising his voice a bit, “where’s Jesus?” Confused and becoming nervous the boy continues in his silence. The pastor then, in his most loud and authoritarian voice, repeats the question, “where’s Jesus?”

At once the boy flees, running to the bedroom shared with his brother and diving under the bed. The older brother asks, “what happened?” To which the younger brother replies, “someone stole Jesus and the pastor thinks we did it!”

The part I don’t like about this joke is that it is so disconnected from the idea of child discipline. What, I ask my logical self, would the pastor have been trying to accomplish? But, in thinking about the question, “where’s Jesus?” this particular joke always comes to mind.

Where’s Jesus? Somebody stole him…

We laugh at the idea that someone would have the power to control Jesus’ coming and going. Or do we? These days it doesn’t seem to be so funny. At least the idea of Jesus seems to have been stolen. Stolen and replaced with a fake, plastic, moldable Jesus. This Jesus says whatever those who seek power in his name want him to say. This Jesus doesn’t really care about moral behavior if it gets in the way of the quest for earthly power. It’s interesting, this quest for power though. Because some who use it also try to make God into someone completely powerless.

644188_526552814037754_1413004826_nHow else to understand that meme that goes around after every school shooting…and every other atrocity that happens? This week I saw it as a photo of a t-shirt. It’s supposed to be a letter to God, along with God’s response. Here it is:

There is so much that is wrong and harmful in this.

First, the “God is not allowed in school” argument is referring to prayer. Compulsory prayer, led by a person in authority is not allowed in school. But any person can pray. Why not compulsory prayer? Because everyone is not of the same religion and even people of the same faith might have different interpretations of that faith. On this Memorial Day weekend we remember those who died fighting to defend freedom…freedom of religion is part of this freedom.

Second, the God of this meme is vindictive. The implication is, “I would help you but…” How else can you describe a God who would have the power to stop the violence but chooses not to.

Third, it blames people for supporting freedom of religion but then absolves those responsible of committing crimes with the misplaced logic that “if only we had organized prayer every day there would be no violence.”

Fourth, if the problem is that God is not allowed to be in school – through prayer – then we don’t really have any responsibility in the matter.

Last, and most importantly, it assumes a great arrogance in the human ability to dictate to God, where God can and cannot go. The God I know is more powerful than that.

Can we control where God goes? Is it then like the story of the children…Jesus is missing and they think we took him?

Where’s Jesus?

Right here in this world. Sent by the father because of love for the world. In fact, he was sent by love for the world, not to condemn it, “but in order that the world might be saved through him.” (3:17). This is not because of anything we did, or could do. Jesus is here because of God’s love for the world.

This is what Jesus told Nicodemus during his late-night visit. It was a late-night visit because Nicodemus was afraid of what the other leaders would think of his associating with someone who’d just violently thrown people out of the temple…people who’d been abusing religion. Who’d made it a method of gaining wealth and power. Nicodemus didn’t understand.

I wonder how often we too are silent because we desire the approval of others…or fear their reactions. As I wonder this, I am increasingly convinced that now is the time to speak up. To counter the dangerous, hateful, and harmful depictions of God. I understand the fear. But I also see a need to speak up, especially for our neighbors.

Nicodemus visited in the night out of fear but later, after Jesus had been abandoned to a lonely death on the cross, Nicodemus was one of those who cared for his body. He had experienced the love of God through Jesus and it changed him. How might that love change us? Will we share the love that we’ve received to a world that is need of experiencing it? I hope so.

 

The Power of Love – A Sermon for Pentecost

Yesterday morning I got up at 4:30am. Yikes! Unfortunately this happens pretty often. I wake up early, do some meditative breathing to try and coax my body\ back to sleep and if I’m successful I “sleep-in” until 6:30 or 7:00. If I’m not successful I get up, make coffee and sit down in the den to read the morning news in my iPad, while also listening to it on television.

Yesterday, coffee in hand, I turned on the tv and found the coverage of the royal wedding. Not my thing… So I changed the channel and then discovered that the wedding was on every news channel. Really?!?! I turned off the television and commenced reading my iPad. Which, on Twitter, was guess what? All about the wedding.

But then I saw that Episcopalian Bishop Michael Curry was preaching. I’ve had the privilege of experiencing his sermons at preaching conferences. He is a wonderful preacher! So I turned the tv on again and watched, at least the sermon part, of the wedding.

I think we could say that the fact Bishop Curry was preaching was a Pentecost moment. This man, a descendant of slaves is preaching to the royal family in Great Britain. The same can also be said for the bride, the daughter of an African American mother. The members of the groom’s family are descendants of those who participated in the slave trade.

In a world where generational animosity is so often the norm, the fact of this wedding and this preacher is truly a work of the Holy Spirit. And then there was his sermon…all about love…actually about the power of love. As I listened I kept saying to myself, “that’s what I’ve been preaching!” Just not as eloquently as Bishop Curry.

Love…the gift from God to each of us

Love… the command from Jesus that we share this gift with one another and the world.

Love…that is the fruit of our life in Christ.

Love…where the power is.

One illustration that Bishop Curry shared was one I’ve before and it get s right to the Pentecost spirit. He was talking about this fire:

Fire, to a great extent, made human civilization possible. Fire, made it possible to cook food and to provide sanitary ways of eating, which reduced the spread of disease in its time. Fire made it possible to heat warm environments and thereby made human migration around the world a possibility, even into colder climates. Fire made it possible—there is no—there was no Bronze Age without fire. No Iron Age without fire. No Industrial Revolution without fire. The advances of science and technology are greatly dependent on the human ability and capacity to take fire and use it for human good.

Anybody get here in a car today? An automobile? Nod your heads if you did. I’m guessing—I know there were some carriages. But those of us who came in cars, fire, the controlled harnessed fire, made that possible. Now that the Bible says and I believe that Jesus walked on the water, but I have to tell you, I didn’t walk across the Atlantic Ocean to get here. Controlled fire in that plane got me here. Fire makes it possible for us to text and tweet and e-mail and Instagram and Facebook and socially be dysfunctional with each other. Fire makes all of that possible.

And he said, fire was one of the greatest discoveries in all of human history. He then went on to say, if humanity ever harnesses the energy of fire again, if humanity ever captures the energy of love, it will be the second time in history that we have discovered fire.

 

Ahhh…Fire. Power. Pentecost. Holy Spirit.

I love the story of everyone being able to communicate with one another, despite not knowing one another’s language. Everyone from the known world was there. Can you imagine the diversity? The different skin colors, cultures, ways of dressing, and of course languages. It could be like walking through downtown Los Angeles on any given day.

All these different people. It’s beautiful. And more beautiful was that everyone was able to share God’s deeds of power. Now we might be thinking yeah, but I can’t speak any other languages, so I can’t do this. I admit that I wish I could harness the power of the Holy Spirit to better speak Spanish with my neighbors…even more I wish I could harness that power to understand what my neighbor is saying to me. You see, in my experience it is sometimes easier to learn to speak a language than to hear and understand it.

So do we give up and say that this story of God’s gracious gift of the Holy Spirit and power were for another time? I don’t think so. Instead we must remember that the greatest power is love. The greatest language is love. So the great examples of God’s power that were shared that day were found in love…specifically a love of inclusion, a love that says you all have a place here. That’s pretty awesome.

Now we might still be thinking to ourselves, but we’re too small. We don’t see how we can make a difference. We’re tired…and so on. I know. I also know that anything is possible with God. Just look at the new life described in that wonderful Ezekiel story of the dead and dry bones being reinfused with life. I love that story. Especially as the purpose of that renewed life is so that the people could return to their calling, which was to be a light for the world. To be about loving God and loving neighbor.

Our world is hurting today. This Sunday we mourn the loss of life from yet more mass shootings. We see strife and oppression and exclusion all around us. We see all kinds of reasons for hopelessness. But we all have one bigger, overriding reason for hope and that is in the love that is so abundantly given to us. Love!

I think Bishop Curry’s message was not one for a wedding (although it was) but rather it was a message for a world. For a world that needs to be reminded of love.

Love. That my friends is where the power is.

Amen

A Big Distraction

This is a sermon based on John 17:6-19

I confess that I struggle reading this prayer from Jesus. Whenever I read it, it seems as if the words go in circle after circle. After about the third circle my mind is dizzy and I’m ready to jump off. Maybe this is why I don’t seem to have preached on this text.

But this week, finally, I understood something.

This something is connected to the text (and thus message) for the past two Sundays. Which, duh, of course it is…it is all the same discourse. Except that today, Jesus is no longer instructing his disciples, he is instead praying for them.

Two weeks ago (Discarded Vines? A sermon on John 15:1-8), we contemplated the vine and the branches. We were reminded that no matter how things may look, we have Jesus. While the vine is pruned, and in a church (or anywhere) this is a might painful process, we have the assurance that we are not pruned away. We have that promise that Jesus abides in us. We are then invited to abide in him. The good news was that his abiding or living in us is not conditional. It just is!

Then in last week’s text (The Greatest Fruit – John 15:9-17), Jesus took us a bit deeper. We were reminded that the fruit of the vine metaphor is love. I shared some delicious fruit with everyone and we talked about those things that distract us the way the abundance of sugar masks the natural sweetness of fresh fruit. The good news, again, is that Jesus loves each of us and he loves us collectively, as a church. His commandment is that we love one another…in the same way.

Sometimes this is hard to do…all those distractions that get in the way of our loving others. Today we are introduced to a mighty big distraction…hate. To get to this we need to weave our way through all that circular language…

About Jesus recognizing the disciples as belonging to God the Father, and yet given to him…

About being in the world but not of the world…

About truth and unity and a plea that the disciples are protected.

About his joy being made complete…as in love being present.

But the world will hate them.

Why? If what they are about is love…love of God and loving one another, why would the world hate them?

What do you think? (discussion ensued of those who advocate for others, like Colin Kaepernick who protests against racial injustice…by the way he was confirmed in a Lutheran church. We also talked about Martin Luther King Jr who’s unfavorable rating at the time of his death was more than 75% and is now over 90% approval.)

Here’s what I think. The world, as it is referred to here, doesn’t much like love. In the world, it is far better that people are divided and distracted. In the world, there is always a winner and a loser. In the world, there is the in group and the out group. In the world, things like racism, sexism, nationalism and other ismsare the currency of the day.

But to love one another means:

Thatwe love beyond the label, whatever it may be.

Thatwe see our neighbor, not as an opponent but as a precious child of God.

Thatwe defend our neighbor.

Thatwe leave our own comfort zones so that we can learn about and build community with our neighbor.

None of this should be controversial. But it is. And so, we might stay silent and inactive because we don’t want to be on the receiving end of criticism… of hate.

But Jesus is praying for us for expressly this reason.

This week I asked on my Facebook feed if anyone has received pushback for doing what was the right thing to do. Here are a couple examples of what I received:

  • We put a sign in front of our church offering a “Blessed Ramadan” for our Muslim neighbors. We were surprised at the negative response.
  • I am an immigrant from Mexico (and an American citizen). I tell the stories of, and advocate for my fellow immigrants. For this I am sometimes told to “go back where I came from.”
  • I once join with other kids in school and became a bully…attacking a fellow student who was Jewish. “Afterwards I felt really bad and went over to his house to tell him I was sorry.” Our relationship was never the same, but we are, thankfully, friends on Facebook today.

We all have the opportunity before us to love or reject our neighbor. How will we respond? Sometimes it’s hard to know…unless we’ve thought about, and even prayed about it in advance.

And that takes us back to today’s gospel, and to prayer. Jesus prayed for his disciples and today that includes us. It is prayer that helps us to see our neighbor. It is prayer that gives us strength in the face of opposition. It is a prayer that gives us hope in the midst of turmoil. It is prayer that gives us the power to love.

Let’s follow Jesus’ example and pray for one another…and then let’s harness the power of prayer so that we can better love God, one another, and our neighbor.

The Greatest Fruit – John 15:9-17

What is this fruit that Jesus talks of? It is love and it is wonderful.

This is similar to my sermon for May 6, 2018. 

What does good fruit taste like? I can remember enjoying fruit when I was a kid. But somehow, along the way, I lost my desire to eat fresh fruit. I didn’t avoid it, it just wasn’t something that tasted especially good. It was easy to choose something else.

What tasted better than nice, fresh fruit? Other sweet things. Candy…well, chocolate candy to be exact. Cakes. Cookies. Muffins. Ice Cream. And an ice-cold Diet Coke to wash it down. I was eating a lot of sugar (and fat). I was even eating sugar that I didn’t recognize…in my cereal, pasta sauce (when I was too busy or lazy to make my own), canned soups, breads, just about anything that was processed.

Is it any surprise that I was obese? Like many I’d tried diet after diet. I’d lost weight and gained weight and continued the lose gain lose gain cycle for years…most of my adult life actually. At the same time, I knew that adult onset diabetes ran in my family (both sides) and that I was at high risk for contracting this lifestyle disease. But knowing something and doing something about it are two completely different things.

In 2012 I decided to try once again to do something. This time I added running to the mix! I did lose weight…about 30 pounds…then 40 pounds…then it started to creep back up…then I lost a bit more and with great struggles maintained a 30-pound loss for a few years. Meanwhile I had gotten the running/racing bug and knew that I would improve if I lost more weight. Heck, I was still over 200 pounds. I needed to lose more weight!

I also recognized that the way I was doing things wasn’t working. It was a major struggle to live on a restricted calorie diet and run at the same time. I decided to embark on an experiment. I knew that sugar was a potential problem for my health. So, I decided that I would quit eating sugar…refined sugar…sugar that was added into almost every processed for you could buy. Sugar. Sugar. Sugar. It is everywhere.

Shopping is interesting when you’ve given up sugar. You see a container, think “that looks interesting,” read the label, and put it back. I had to start buying (and eating) unprocessed…real food. It didn’t take long for the pounds to start coming off…up to a loss of 80 pounds. It didn’t happen overnight but over a couple years. Eventually (April, 2015) I had my last Diet Coke and thus my last taste of artificial sweetener.

My unexpected discovery was that once again fruit tasted wonderful. Without the masking effects of processed or fake sugar, the real sweetness of real fruit emerged. It’s like God’s wonderful gift of the best candy.

Fruit. Last week I spoke about fruitfulness and fruitlessness and being pruned and the uncomfortableness of it all. We took solace in the promise that we are not discarded…cut off branches. We know this because we have the promise from Jesus that he lives in us. He invites us to live in him and in our living in him we become fruitful. Discarded Vines? A sermon on John 15:1-8

As last week’s lesson continues, Jesus clearly identifies the fruit as love.

“As the Father has loved me, so I have love you; abide in my love” (15:7). Live in my love and I promise that you will experience great joy. This love is so important to our well-being that Jesus commands us is to love one another.

Be fruitful.

Live in my love.

Love one another.

You will experience great joy in this.

Wonderful promises.
But why then is it so incredibly hard to love? Why is it so much easier to find fault with others? To find fault with ourselves? To focus on all that is wrong? Why is it so difficult to know that God loves us, not so that we can someday experience joy in the future, but so that we can experience God’s loving presence today?

Distractions.
Distractions are like the added sugar. They seem important, they seem helpful, they lead us to what seems to be satisfying. They mask the essence of the real fruit which is God’s love for us. They make the love we are invited to share in the world taste bland…incomplete…boring even.

So what distractions keep us from fully experiencing God’s love and thus not fully loving our neighbor in return?

  • A specific way to follow Jesus?
  • Worry…last week talked about the decline of our congregation. How is this a distraction?
  • Fear…maybe the same as worry…but a bit more pronounced. It can stop us in our tracks…it can cause us to make poor choices
  • Anger…we have an over abundance of this today…often because of the exploitation of fear and worry…making others the recipients of our collective wrath.
  • Frustration…little things and big things. Being impatient with ourselves and with others.
  • Hunger…a need to fill an emptiness is way more than food. Many hunger for real community. The church is supposed to be the place to find and experience this community. Sadly we (the church) are not connecting with those who yearn for this. So that the church is dying while others are dying because they don’t have what we are supposed to offer. I wish I knew how to fix this. But I do know the answer is found in loving one another.

We are easily distracted. Sadly these distractions cause us to lose two things:

First, our understanding that God loves us and has chosen us.

Second, our ability to truly love one another…

And without these things our joy can never be complete. That fruit almost never tastes as rich and sweet and awesome as it really is. Almost never…because we always get glimpses. Just think of that last time you experienced great joy. What was happening? Who was there? Sometimes it’s an experience of someone else’s joy that moves us…like joy is contagious.

These distractions don’t have to have the final say. That’s what Jesus is telling his disciples, what he is telling us. To live in him is to live intentionally. To cultivate practices that help us to get past those things that distract us.

Practices like prayer…maybe disconnecting from the noise will help us to see one another as worthy of love.

Practices like caring for others. It’s amazing how we can see our own situations differently when we quit thinking solely about ourselves.

And above all loving one another…loving one another in our community and outside of it, is where we get to taste that wonderfully sweet fruit…and experience the joy of Jesus in and among us. It’s not always easy, heck it’s almost never easy, but it is oh so worth the effort. That fruit of love is the greatest.

The Landowner’s Response – A Sermon on Matthew 21:33-46

October 1, 2017 ended up being a horrible day. It’s just that most of us didn’t know this until Monday morning because the massacre of 58 people and the injuring of about 500 more occurred after most of us had gone to bed.

Do you remember getting the news? I was up early on Monday because I go to a strength training class at 6am. So, at approximately 5am, I sat down with my coffee to watch the news and couldn’t believe what I was seeing. Did any of you have this initial reaction of disbelief?

Megan texted me just before 7am to say that Ethan had gone to Vegas and to the show and that he wasn’t responding to texts. I told her to call his mom. About 10 minutes later she said he was ok…he hadn’t been at the concert when it happened.

Later in the day Matt, texted to say that Andrew, one of “the kids” from our old Simi Valley neighborhood was shot in the back. He survived. A friend’s niece was shot in the arm. Her dad prevented her bleeding to death with a correctly applied tourniquet as she had a severed artery.

This was very close to home for us. So close, that five of people who lost their lives Sunday night were from Ventura County. I don’t know how many from our county were injured. Pastor Bill Hurst at First Lutheran in Torrance wrote of the death of one of their former students. He also stated what has made this so personal, “everyone knows someone who knows someone.”

Do you?

A theme in our texts for today is the vineyard. It was a metaphor for Israel… for God’s people. But being the fallible human beings they were and we all are, they had great trouble living as God’s chosen people. It is hard to be a people set apart…to be an example for the world… to model justice. They struggled mightily.

Our text from Isaiah tells the story…”My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill.” But unfortunately the fruit from this vineyard wasn’t good…so the story describes the destruction of this vineyard…because God “expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry!”

These are incredibly painful words for a people in exile. They are incredibly painful words for us today.

The psalm(80:7-15) that we read together is a prayer for restoration of the vineyard… for a restoration of a people. It is a prayer of hope.

Fast forward to Jesus and his disputes with the religious leaders in the temple and we get this parable about the vineyard. And maybe this is a parable for our day because, tragically, it is a story of fruitless violence.

It is a story of tenants having everything they need to prosper, yet not satisfied, and not willing to pay their share of the harvest, or rent. Instead they beat, kill and stone the first bill collectors. A second set of bill collectors received the same treatment as the first. I wonder, if the parable were told today… what weapons would be used?

Now in that culture the landowner would not have sent that second group of bill collectors. He would have sent an army and would have destroyed those tenants. But this landowner does something crazy and he sends more people. They meet the same fate. The he does something even more crazy and he sends his son. This would have been seen as foolish behavior. Sadly, this son is thrown out of the vineyard and killed as well.

What would you do if you were the father?

Today we have lots of fathers and mothers who are heartbroken over the deaths of their children. We have children lost and bewildered over the deaths of their parents. We have sisters and brothers and friends in great anguish this day. What would you do?

Jesus asks those religious leaders what the landowner would do. They respond as we might, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time.” Violence to repay violence… the human way.

But the father/land owner didn’t do this.

It’s interesting that Jesus doesn’t really respond to their assumption that violence will beget more violence. Instead, he criticizes their inability to recognize they were standing in the presence of, and arguing with God’s son. Contextually this whole encounter began with their wanting to know who gave Jesus authority to say and do the things he said and did.

Jesus then gives an ominous warning that the kingdom will be lost and given to others for one reason. Those in the kingdom were not producing fruit.

I wonder if this causes you as much discomfort as it causes me.

It certainly caused discomfort among the religious leaders. Their discomfort lead to intense anger. These men (it would only have been men in those days) were so angry that they wanted to arrest Jesus. The only reason they waited was their fear of the crowds.

But later, when the crowds had dispersed, they arrested him. And they conspired with the Roman occupiers to kill him. Jesus’ words and actions angered them that much.

But still, Jesus didn’t say what the landowner did after the death of his son. I think that his response came later… when the parable became reality and the son of God was up on a cross dying. And from there he gives his opinion… his verdict… his plea:

“Father forgive them for they do not know what they are doing.”

That was Jesus’ response. What about the father? How did he react when his son was murdered outside the walls of the city?

From Matthew’s gospel.

Darkness came over the whole land for the last 3 hours of Jesus life. Three hours in which he suffered on the cross. Can you imagine that darkness? I think many can today.

When Jesus died the “curtain in the temple tore in two, from top to bottom. The earth shook, and the rocks were split.” Can you imagine the intense feeling that would literally shake the earth? Maybe some can today.

But the father did not do what was expected. Nobody was killed in retaliation. Violence did not beget violence.

Instead, those who did not flee in fear cared for Jesus. They took his body off the cross and as best they could prepared it for a proper burial. They weren’t concerned for themselves but for what was right. Some of them, the women, were blessed to be the first witnesses of Jesus resurrection.

This care is the father’s response to horrendous violence.

We saw it this week when people ignored their own safety as they tried to help others. We saw it this week when strangers used their own vehicles (or borrowed what they could) to take the injured to the hospital. We saw it this week when so many people tried to donate blood the collection centers were overwhelmed. We saw it this week when people brought food to the hospital for waiting family members and to those who were waiting to give blood. We saw it this week when people donated funds to ease the financial burdens that accompany senseless violence. We saw all this in the past week, just as we always see people pull together in the midst of tragedy.

This is the response of the father…not vengeance but loving care among family, among friends, and among strangers. May this empower us to make needed change.

Amen