One Simple Rule



Inspired by Matthew 5:38-48

Love your enemies. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Oh, you want more? What more is there to say? I mean, if we could get this one command of Jesus—and make no mistake, this is not a request from Jesus, but a command—but if we could get this one command of Jesus down, we could probably close all our churches, pastors could find a new career, we could all sleep in on Sundays, our work would be done! Following one command, one rule, what could be so hard? There’s a story about a pastor who preached the same sermon four weeks in a row and when someone finally confronted her about it she simply said, when y’all start doing what I’m preaching I’ll write a new one! Well, I’m not that bold, but if there’s one command of Jesus’ that I would do that with it would probably be this one.

So, why is this so hard? I think the answer to that is simpler than you realize. I think we get hung up on the word love. Jesus did not define that word the way we do. In fact, no one did. The ancient Greek language actually had four different words that we all define as love today. Apparently is too important of a concept to leave up to just one word. In English, we use context in order to figure out what kind of love we are talking about. For instance, we know when someone says “I love this new coffee!” it means something entirely different than when someone says to their spouse, “I love you.” We do not need to stop them and ask, “Well, what kind of love are you talking about?” We just know.

Now I won’t go into the differences between the four Greek words for love but I will say that the one Jesus is using here, doesn’t make this any easier for us because it means charitable, unconditional, Godly love. The same kind of love that God gives us. Yikes, I know, Jesus really raises the bar, once again. But still, I think we get too hung up on the word love. Let me explain. At its heart, the word love is a verb. And this was true for the ancients as well. As an interesting side note, a noun form of the word love came much later than its verb form. It is an action, it is something you do. Not something you feel or think. But because English just has this one word, we use it interchangeably for actions, feelings, thoughts, and more—which can make Jesus’ words confusing and open to misinterpretation.

Jesus is not asking you to feel love for your enemies. He’s not asking you to have loving thoughts about them either. What good are feelings and thoughts anyway if they don’t lead to loving actions, which is what Jesus is really interested in. What is our faith in Jesus causing us to do—and specifically, to our enemies? Because I don’t know about you but if I acted on how I felt towards my enemies, I’d probably end up in jail and you’d be searching for a new pastor. If I acted on my thoughts toward my enemies, I’d probably end up in the hospital or morgue. And don’t sit there and pretend you can’t relate, I know better because I’m human just like you!

So, let’s put a little meat on these bones we’ve constructed about love. What does this look like? How do we practice this? Well, Jesus starts us on this path by commanding us to pray for our enemies. And you might think, well, that’s easy to do pastor, and what good would that do anyway isn’t prayer just thoughts in my head. Well, yes, but I think those are thoughts that can influence our actions. I guarantee you, that if you start praying for your enemies, by name, regularly, the next time you see them and feel like saying something you know you shouldn’t or maybe even do something that you know you shouldn’t, you’re eventually going to remember that you’ve been praying for them and that might give you pause before you act. Try it! Prove me wrong, please!

But I think praying for our enemies is just the beginning, because that might not always lead to loving actions. So here’s some questions for you to help on this road to loving our enemies: Do you have to feel love for someone to respect them as a human being? Do you have to feel love for someone in order to want the best for them? Do you have to feel love for someone in order to feed them, clothe them, visit them, communicate humanely? And here’s one many of us are struggling with these days, do you have to agree with someone’s thoughts in order to demonstrate loving acts towards them? Do we even have to understand them, in order to love them?

And now turn the tables. What kind of prerequisites do you want others to have before they love you? Are you ok with them not respecting you as a human being, wanting the best for you, feeding you, clothing you, visiting you, communicating humanely with you, if they don’t feel love for you? Are you ok with them not loving you because they don’t understand you? Are you ok with them not loving you because they don’t agree with you? If so, I hope you know what you’re walking into! I have to watch my back enough as it is in this life. I don’t know about you, but more often than not, I need people to love me, in spite of me, not because of me.

And again, I can’t stress this enough, I’m not talking about feeling love for me. I’m talking about loving actions: like respect, like healthy communication, like interpreting what I do or say in the best possible light rather than the worst, like giving me the benefit of the doubt, like caring for me when I’m in need. And this comes in its most complete form when we don’t feel love toward someone, and yet those loving actions remain. That’s unconditional love—love that doesn’t require certain feelings, or thoughts, or beliefs, or anything else. That is the kind of love that God demonstrates to us. That is the kind of love that God commands us to do, not feel, not think, to do. Thanks be to God. Amen.

The Spirit of the Law



Inspired by Matthew 5:21-37

We are quickly coming to the end of the Epiphany season. The season in which we celebrate the coming of Christ, both then and now, as the light of the world, and in this lectionary year of Matthew, as Emmanuel, God with us. We get this short green season to process what that means and how we are to live that out. The last Sunday of the Epiphany season is Transfiguration Sunday which this year is the last Sunday of February. Which is right around the corner, and then we will be in Lent already. One theologian said about Epiphany, it’s the time of year when we celebrate not just the beginning of Jesus ministry on earth, but also his continuing ministry on earth. I think that’s a good summary of this season but I would add that Jesus ministry continues through us.

Today’s Gospel reading really hones in on what that should look like by giving us some very specific behaviors that Jesus addresses here. And some of these can be quite challenging for us, but they don’t have to be. Unfortunately, these verses have been misinterpreted and worse yet, misused by many pastors and theologians within the church for centuries. If taken at face value, which by the way you should never do with scripture, then all angry people are going to hell, if you’ve committed adultery you might as well not even come to church, divorce, you’re outta here, heck you can’t even make an oath or a solemn pledge, as this translation puts it!

What angers me about this is that pastors and churches have used these verses to shame people and control people for far too long. That was not Jesus intention here. In fact, he was constantly getting on the Pharisees case for using the Bible that way! So why would he do what he scolded them for doing? What has helped me as I interpret this portion of the Sermon on the Mount, and next week’s Gospel reading as well, is to remember the difference between the letter of the law, and the spirit of the law. The Pharisees were more interested in the letter of the law, and Jesus was more interested in the spirit of the law. And here’s why, many times, following the letter of the law, is easier. Let’s see exactly how by taking a look at how Jesus interprets some of these laws.

Murder, the law says, do not do it. Well, if we follow the letter of the law, that’s easy! Well, unless you’re my wife having to live with me, in that case murder may be a very tempting option. But I think murder is something that most people have under control. But Jesus says, uh uh uh, don’t stop there, because the spirit of the law is bigger than that. There are other ways to murder people than just physically killing them. And Jesus gets very specific here and points out name calling in anger. “You idiot!...You fool!” Now, if I asked everyone in the room to raise their hand if they’ve ever murdered someone, I’m guessing no one would, but just to be on the safe side I won’t ask that. However, let me ask this, if you’ve ever called someone a name out of anger, raise your hand.

Yeah, that’s not as easy to refrain from as murder is it? Especially in this political storm we are currently in! Now, for these next two, I think it’s important to remember who Jesus audience is—males. Now, were their female disciples, of course there were. I’d go so far as to say that the church wouldn’t exist today if there weren’t. However, we can’t ignore the fact that Jesus lived in a patriarchal misogynistic society, a society ruled by men who used that privilege to take advantage of and control women. This is the society that Jesus is speaking to. Why is that important? Because that made what Jesus had to say about these two laws regarding adultery and divorce, very controversial, very radical, and a direct attack at the establishment, the men of that patriarchal misogynistic society.

Jesus was saying you can’t just say you’ve never cheated on your wife because you’ve never had sex with another woman, he adds lust to the equation. Well, thanks Jesus, the men of the world collectively reply! And no, men don’t have a monopoly on lust and unfaithfulness, but again, that’s not all that’s going on here. Jesus is challenging the establishment, because the establishment was taking advantage of certain people, in this case women. Same with divorce, Jesus was saying that you can’t just get a divorce for any reason, like your tired of your wife, or you want a younger one, or even for bareness! These are just some of the reasons that men were allowed to get a divorce! And I’m not sure how much things have improved in two thousand years but that’s for another sermon.

And again, men do not have a monopoly on questionable reasons for divorce or lack of commitment, but there is more going on here in Jesus words. Jesus is challenging the establishment, because the establishment was taking advantage of certain people, in this case women. But let’s not forget, Jesus too was a product of the same patriarchal misogynistic society. I would have loved Jesus to have taken this further. I would have loved Jesus to have said directly to women, and you know what, the same goes for you too. Why? Because women couldn’t get a divorce in Jesus day, only a man could make that decision. But Jesus didn’t take it that far, maybe because of his upbringing, maybe because he knew his audience. We can only guess.

Here’s the bottom line. In this part of the Sermon on the Mount, as well as next week’s portion, Jesus is stressing the spirit of the law rather than the letter of the law. Because when you only focus on the letter of the law you can easily find loop holes, as well as use it to shame and control people. But when you focus on the spirit of the law it open up possibilities and new life that wasn’t there before. Sure, it can make the journey a little more challenging as we have seen today, but think of the amazing fruit that we enjoy from taking Jesus’ lead in this way. We ordain women today because our church followed the lead of Christ and focused on the spirit of the law and not the letter of the law.

We ordain people from the LGBTQ community because our church followed the lead of Christ and focused on the spirit of the law and not the letter of it. Pastors can give communion to children of any age rather than waiting until they reach a certain age or have taken a class because our church followed the lead of Christ and focused on the spirit of the law and not the letter of it. The church is now more interested in working with people of other faiths like Jews and Muslims to make this world a better place, rather than telling them they’re going to hell and trying to convert them, because our church followed the lead of Christ and focused on the spirit of the law and not the letter of it.

I could go on but I will stop there. The ironic thing is, many have turned this passage, into law. They have turned Jesus’ spirit of the law into the letter of the law, to shame people and control people. And that really needs to stop. And that’s where we come in. We have the blessed opportunity to share with people a kind of grace that they may have never heard from a church or from a Christian before. We have the blessed opportunity to share with people that we know a place where they won’t be shamed, where they won’t be controlled—a place where they may be challenged but where they will be valued and loved by a God who is slow to anger, and abounding in faithful love. Imagine if we shared that simple truth whenever the opportunity arose? Imagine if that was what the Christian church was known for, and not shame or control or judgement. Just imagine.

Blindingly Salty?



Inspired by Matthew 5:13-20

So, we continue in the Sermon on the Mount, as we will for two more Sundays after today. Last week we explored the Beatitudes, the sayings of Christ that help us see the world from Christ’s perspective that then urged us to respond in some very particular ways. Today’s reading come right after the Beatitudes, we skip no verses between last week’s Gospel reading and today’s, so the same thought process continues into today. This is the state of the world in Jesus’ eyes, these are the promises that he’s made, and this is how Jesus wants us to respond if we are going to call ourselves his followers. And then over the next three chapters that include the Sermon on the Mount Jesus gives example after example, image after image, analogy after analogy of what that looks like.

But before we get into that vivid imagery from today’s passage, let us deal with the elephant in the room that Jesus provided us at the end of the Gospel reading when he said, “I say to you that unless your righteousness is greater than the righteousness of the legal experts and the Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” Yeah, that little gem. Now there are a variety of ways that we could tackle this seemingly problematic verse. And maybe this isn’t a problem for you. But this verse, on the surface, implies that a whole hell of a lot of people are not going to go to heaven, and I have a problem with that. That idea does not fit well with my Lutheran theology.

Maybe it does for you, but it doesn’t for me, and you called me as your pastor so here we are. So, as I mentioned, there are a variety of ways to tackle this. We could focus on the Greek word for righteousness, δικαιοσύνη and what that means. Or we could focus on the legal experts and Pharisees and how they relate to all of this. Or we could focus on the Greek word for kingdom, βασιλείαν. But let’s keep it simple, and possibly a little less boring, and remember that almost every time Jesus uses the phrase, kingdom of heaven, he is talking about the here and now—not some other world, in the future, after we die.

Two weeks ago we heard Jesus quoting John the Baptist saying “Change your hearts and lives, here comes the kingdom of heaven!” And last week, we heard Jesus tell those who are harassed for their righteousness that the kingdom of heaven is theirs, not will be theirs, is theirs. For Jesus, salvation was a matter of bringing new life and healing to this world, bringing the kingdom of heaven, the power of heaven, the ways of heaven, here, and now.

So when Jesus says, “I say to you that unless your righteousness is greater than the righteousness of the legal experts and the Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” what he is saying is, unless your willing to get on board, and see the world as I see it, and are willing to work with me to bring about the kingdom of heaven here, than you won’t get to experience it here. How will we be able to experience the kingdom of heaven here if we are not willing to bring it here? It’s really that simple. I’m not dumbing it down for you, I’m not oversimplifying it, that’s really all there is to it. Could we make it more complicated, sure. Would that add a little more depth and nuance. Sure. But there’s just no need. And we need to move on.

Today’s portion of the Sermon on the Mount gives us this beautiful imagery of salt and light. This is one of my favorite passages to read to a congregation because I get to look you in the eyes and say you are the salt of the earth, you are the light of the world—especially the title light of the world, that we usually reserve for Christ, but here he calls you the light of the world, and the salt of the earth. Now I know that many of you have heard lots of sermons on this passage, but just as a quick reminder, salt was highly valued in the ancient world—it was difficult to mine, difficult to process, difficult to transport, but was used as a preservative, for healing purposes, for dietary needs, not to mention the fact that it makes food taste better!

And as far as light goes, I don’t think I need to remind you of all the beautiful and life giving uses of light in our lives. Jesus uses these images to help us understand our role as baptized children of God, and the way in which we are to live that out and bring the kingdom of heaven, the power of heaven, the ways of heaven, here on earth, as coworkers with Christ. However, another motto that I live by is from Ralph Waldo Emerson, a 19th century American essayist, lecturer, and poet who urged “moderation in all things.” Moderation in all things—which got me asking, can we take our role as the salt and light of the world too far? Can we be too salty? Pun intended. Can our light become blinding to others or ourselves?

Now, you may be wondering why pastor is asking such strange questions. Well, I think a lot of it comes from the current political climate. Ha! The word climate doesn’t even begin to describe it. It’s more like political storm! And if this wasn’t a sermon I’d use more colorful language to describe the kind of storm this feels like! But don’t worry this sermon is not going to be about politics, at least not in the way you may be fearing right now. It’s more about the polarization that the nation is facing today.

I’m seeing and hearing people say such hurtful things to each other, or about each other. Sometimes it’s online, sometimes it’s in person. Sometimes it direct, and sometimes it’s generalized comments about a certain group of people. I see and hear it between people on opposite sides of the aisle but also between people on the same side of the political spectrum! Conservatives telling fellow conservatives that their not conservative enough and liberals telling fellow liberals that their not liberal enough! It’s madness! Some are saying that this is the most polarized that we’ve ever been as a nation. I’m not sure if that’s true, we’ve had some pretty polarizing events in our history, the civil rights movement and the civil war come to mind, but it’s probably pretty close.

Worse yet, the effects of this are being felt in the church. And I don’t mean between denominations, and I don’t mean just within the ELCA either. I mean that the effects of such polarization are being felt right here at Bethlehem Lutheran Church! I have the honor, responsibility, and challenge, of being the pastor at a church that is filled with people of all walks of life, and that means people on both sides of the political spectrum. And that’s an honor and a responsibility that I take very seriously, and am very grateful for.

Now I mentioned that it’s a challenge too and yes it can be. I have to constantly remind myself that not everyone thinks and believes the way I do. I have to write sermons that can speak to as wide an audience as possible—knowing of course that no sermon is going to speak to everyone, that’s impossible and would make me go crazy if I tried. But it’s a challenge that I gladly accept, and I wouldn’t have taken this call had I thought I was not up to the challenge. And for those of you who think I go to far, and for those of you who think I don’t go far enough, please remember that I am not just speaking to you, but to everyone, and that the good news of the gospel is not just for you, but for everyone here.

The saddest thing for me as a pastor, is seeing people, both here at Bethlehem and elsewhere, who have a history of working together, of loving each other, of supporting each other, of empowering each other, of picking each other up when one has fallen, now not only being unable to do these holy things because of the political polarization, but outright hurting each other. And I have to wonder, not as a pastor, but as a fellow baptized child of God, if that’s really what we are called to do? Can we be too salty? Can our light be blinding?

Salt is great, in moderation. But as many of you personally know, it can be deadly. Or, to use a less dramatic example, have you ever added to much salt to your food? Add too much and you can’t even taste your food anymore can you? Now imagine that food being the very life-giving, salvific, healing, good news of God that we are called to serve the world, being over-salted by our egos, by our self-righteousness, by our hypocrisy, or just plain carelessness. Can our saltiness get in the way of the work that we are called to do? Can we be too salty? That was a rhetorical question, I wouldn’t ask you if I didn’t think so.

Jesus also calls us the light of the world. Can we be too bright? Can our lights become blinding to those around us and maybe even to ourselves? Can we be so focused on our interpretation of scripture, or on our own view of God and the world, that we then turn into the legal experts and Pharisees that Jesus refers to, causing our light to be so bright that it’s blinding to others who may think differently, who may believe differently? Can our lights be so bright that we are actually causing people to turn away?

And again, maybe some of you are ok with that. Maybe some of you are ok with people turning away from us because they don’t think and believe the way you do. Maybe some of you are ok with people spitting out our food because it is too salty and going elsewhere to be fed. I am not. I am not ok with that. And you called me as your pastor so here we are. I know many of you want to grow the church, and by that you mean membership numbers. And I’m all for that but let’s make doubly sure that there isn’t some growth that needs to occur from within before we do that—because I want to invite people here and be able to say all are welcome and mean it.

What I don’t want is to have to say all are welcome but let me warn you, if you don’t believe or think the way the majority does here you may not feel welcome—because if I thought for a second that that’s what I would have to say to people I would have never taken this call because that wouldn’t be Christ’s church, that would be someone else’s. You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world. But can we be too salty? Can our light be blinding? Ponder these questions please. Not for my sake, not for Christ’s sake, but for the sake of the world that we are called to serve. Amen.

Christ's State of the Universe Address



Inspired by Matthew 5:1-12

Our Bible story for today comes from the beginning of what has come to be known as the Sermon on the Mount. It’s three chapters long and over the next three Sundays we will read the first of those three chapters, saving portions of the rest for later in the year. This comes very early in the Gospel of Matthew and it’s actually the first public act of Jesus in this Gospel, which tells us something about the kind of role that Matthew saw Jesus playing in the lives of his disciples. The passage begins with, Jesus “went up a mountain…sat down” and “he taught them.” So, one of the major roles that Matthew saw Jesus playing in the life of his disciples was that of teacher.

I really like that. As someone who loves to learn, in spite of how scary that can be at times, I really like seeing Jesus as our teacher. Especially because I have had some wonderful people in my life who have taken on that role for me—whether they be actual teachers from grade school, college or grad school, or the many people in my life like my parents, wife, children, and even our dog, who have taught me valuable lessons and have made me into the person I am today. No matter how you slice it, the role of teacher in someone’s life is a holy endeavor, whether you’re teaching math or how to wake up and face tomorrow, in spite of how today turned out.

So keep this role in mind as we explore the Gospel of Matthew this year, and especially over these four weeks as we dive into the sermon on the mount. Those of you who know this passage well will have certainly noticed a major change that this translation provides us. Usually each of these phrases of Jesus in this passage, which have come to be known as the Beatitudes, begin with the word blessed. “Blessed are the poor…blessed are the meek” etc. But this translation uses the word happy. Well, as much as we may not like it, happy is a better translation of the Greek word makarios. In fact, that’s why they’re known as the Beatitudes. The word beatitude comes from the Latin word meaning happiness.

So, why is that important? Well, because in biblical usage, to be blessed implied that you earned it. In other words, you were blessed by God because of your good behavior, because you made good decisions, because you followed God’s laws. And that is not the idea that Jesus is trying to get across here in the beatitudes, these are not nine ways to earn God’s blessings. In fact, I’m going to argue that the Beatitudes may not even be for us! I know, scandalous right? But you know as well as I do that we are human and tend to make everything about us. But take a look at the simple grammar in this passage and you soon realize that Jesus is not talking about disciples in most of these, he’s not talking about us.

Matthew writes, “He sat down and his disciples came to him. He taught them saying, ‘Happy are people who are hopeless, humble, hungry’” etc. He doesn’t say to his disciples, “happy are you” until the very end. He says “happy are people.” What if Jesus, with these Beatitudes, is not only describing his own ministry, but also the ministry that his followers are called to as well. So if that’s the case, what if we heard them this way, “Happy are people who are hopeless, because the kingdom of heaven is theirs” and we are going to bring them that kingdom! “Happy are people who grieve, because they will be made glad” and we are going to make them glad! “Happy are people who are humble, because they will inherit the earth” and we will deliver it!

“Happy are people who are hungry and thirsty for righteousness, because they will be fed until they are full” and we are going to feed them! “Happy are people who show mercy, because they will receive mercy” and we will be merciful to them! “Happy are people who have pure hearts, because they will see God” and we will show them God! “Happy are people who make peace, because they will be called God’s children” and we will be the ones calling them God’s children! “Happy are people whose lives are harassed because they are righteous, because the kingdom of heaven is theirs” and we will show them that kingdom!

Maybe this is less what the Church is going to get out of this deal, or the benefits of discipleship, and more about the work that we are called to do with Christ if we are going to call ourselves his disciples, his followers. Maybe this was more like Christ’s State of the Universe address—Christ’s way of saying this is how I see the world, and this is how I want you to see the world, and this is what we are going to promise people. And unlike a president giving a state of the union address or a governor giving a state of the state address, when Christ gives a state of the universe address and makes promises to the world, Christ can deliver on those promises! Can I get an amen?

And we have the honor and privilege and responsibility to be coworkers with Christ in these holy promises that Christ has made:
As we seek out the hopeless and bring them the kingdom!
As we seek out the grieving and bring them gladness!
As we seek out the humble and deliver their inheritance!
As we seek out those hungry and thirsty for righteousness and feed them til their bellies are full!
As we seek out the merciful and give them a much needed dose of mercy.  
As we seek out those with pure hearts and show them what God looks like!
As we seek out the peacemakers and give them the holy title Children of God!
As we seek out the harassed and show them the kingdom!
Can I get an amen?

Sometimes my friends, the good news of the gospel is not for us, but for us to deliver. In my annual report, which I know you all poured over every word, I shared with you a few guiding scripture passages. I could have just as easily shared this one. This is the vision that Christ had for this holy work we call ministry, that each and every one of us are called to. It is the vision that we have been called to make clear to the world.

So that when the world hears the name Jesus, hears the word church, hears the name Bethlehem Lutheran Church, this is what we are known for. As we plan for this coming year, as we pray over our budget, as we dream of the possibilities, think about how we can answer this call to bring these beatitudes to life. And my advice would be to identify who in our world is hopeless, grieving, humble, hungry, thirsty; who in our world is merciful, pure in heart, making peace, or is harassed, and after saying thank you, tell them that we have some good news for them directly from heaven!

But know this. There will be opposition. At the end of the beatitudes Jesus looks the disciples dead in the eye and speaks about them saying, “Happy are you when people insult you and harass you and speak all kinds of bad and false things about you, all because of me. Be full of joy and be glad. In the same way, people harassed the prophets who came before you.” Yes, Jesus compared you to prophets in this world. The ones called to speak for God in this world; to bring justice and hope into the world; to proclaim, in words and deeds, the kingdom of heaven to a world that is watching and listening, and already making these beatitudes a reality. God bless you in this holy work, and God bless the universe. Amen.

Baggage



Inspired by Matthew 4:12-23

I’ve always loved this story from the Gospel of Matthew. It’s a favorite for many. I’ve always been struck by the response from Simon, Andrew, James, and John. I’ve always looked up to them as models for anyone answering a call from God, and I still do. I look at them in awe, knowing that my own response to God was not as dramatic and certainly not as faithful as theirs. Here we have four guys, who were just minding their own business, going about their daily work, in this case they were fishermen, and then Jesus shows up and simply says, “Come, follow me, and I’ll show you how to fish for people.” According to Matthew, that’s all he said! And bam, he’s got his first four disciples, his first four followers.

How does that even work? Wouldn’t it be awesome if ministry was that easy? We’d have members spilling out our windows every Sunday! And what makes this story all the more amazing is that they left their entire lives behind to do this, symbolized by them leaving their nets. This wasn’t a commitment to coming to synagogue once a week. This wasn’t a commitment to regularly reading the Torah, their Bible. This wasn’t a commitment to pray more, or to pledge a financial commitment! This was a commitment to drop everything, everything they’d known up until that moment, and follow Jesus, wherever he was going!

They didn’t ask Jesus for his credentials, they didn’t ask for his theology, they didn’t even ask where he was going! They dropped their nets and left with him. James and John leave their nets in their dad’s hands, and follow Jesus. Who does that? How does this make any sense? I mean, the Bible is chock full of illogical stories but this is so illogical it boggles the mind. If you had a friend or family member leave their life behind after meeting some stranger who came to their place of business, tell me wouldn’t try to get them to change their mind! Wait! Hold on! Let’s think this through! Might be a few of the things you would say.

Now, most people attribute this drastic life course change to Jesus. And that’s fair, after all, Christ is God incarnate, the Word made flesh, the light of the world, the ruler of the cosmos. So over the years, people have assumed that there must have just been something about Jesus that made these four guys make this decision to drop everything and follow Jesus. Maybe it was his appearance, maybe it was the way he spoke, maybe there was something about his face, an expression maybe. Maybe there was a glow about him! Seriously, artists have had fun with that one over the centuries. Maybe they were able tap into a sixth sense and they could just feel that there was something special, trustworthy, divine, about Jesus.

Or, maybe it was none of these things, or all of these things, I don’t know! But also something else—maybe it wasn’t all about Jesus. Maybe it was also about these four guys and the journey they had been on, and the baggage they brought to this story as well. Like most stories, there is probably more to the story than what we have before us. There was certainly something about their lives that caused them to react the way they did. And I would argue that it is unfair to both Jesus, but also to Simon, Andrew, James, and John’s journey that they had traveled up to that point, to give all the credit to Jesus here.

What had they gone through? What state of mind, body, or spirit were they in and why? Were they disillusioned about something? Were they unhappy with part, or all, of their lives? What was it about these two sets of brothers, that made them so willing, so desperate, to follow Jesus? Hold that thought for a moment, and let’s shift our focus a bit. How many of you have seen the movie Patriots Day? For those of you who haven’t, I highly recommend it. Just remember to bring some tissues! It is about an event that we all lived through, even if merely through our TV’s, the Boston Marathon bombings of 2013.

The movie follows a few different stories from different perspectives, from some of the victims, police officers, and also of the bombers themselves, another two brothers, Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev . And it was these two brothers that really caught my attention and maybe it’s because I knew I would be preaching on the brothers from our story for today. But I could not help but be fascinated by the comparison of these two brothers and the brothers from today’s Gospel reading. The differences are easy to see. But were there any similarities?

What was it that caused the Tsarnaev  brothers to react in such a way? What was the baggage that they carried with them on their faith journeys? What life experiences had they gone through that caused them to misinterpret their own religion the way they did? What was it about these two brothers, that made them so willing, so desperate, to follow such a drastic path, to make such a life-changing choice? Maybe the Tsarnaev  brothers had more in common with the brothers from our story than we think. However, the outcome, was starkly different.

Whereas the Tsarnaev  brothers brought darkness, death, and destruction—Simon, Andrew, James and John were followers of the one who brings light, life, and creation. All three sets of brothers were called by their faith, carrying their own life’s baggage, and answered the call. Ok, so where am I going with this. Well, it got me thinking about our own calls, calls that emerge with us up out of our baptismal waters. The call to bring Christ’s light into the world, Christ’s life into the world, Christ’s creative power into the world—a world that is at times very dark, full of death and destruction. A heavy responsibility I know.

And it also got me thinking about the baggage that we bring to that call and what we do with it. I think we can all agree that each of us brings baggage to our call as baptized children of God. Yes? And I think we do that corporately too don’t we? Our 75th anniversary has certainly conjured up a certain amount of baggage. Maybe even some that we thought we had gotten rid of. But whether we are talking about our individual baggage or our collective baggage, what do we do with it. My advice—don’t ignore it. That may be the most dangerous thing we can do with it. Our life’s baggage that we accumulate has a way of rearing its head whether we like it or not. Why not get ahead of it, acknowledge it, and exercise some power over it.

Especially because God can use it! Remember, Christ is God incarnate, the Word made flesh, the light of the world, the ruler of the cosmos! Is there anything Christ can’t do? And Jesus did not call Simon, Andrew, James, and John because they were perfect, because they had their life together and all their ducks in a row. Far from, as we will soon see as we read the rest of Matthew’s Gospel! These guys have a long road ahead of them before anyone will consider them worthy of the title disciple! Which brings me to one last thing. This also has me thinking about how we welcome newcomers into our midst.

Newcomers have an equal amount of baggage of their own right? How do we know that? Because we have our own baggage that we carry with us everywhere! And newcomers, as well as those that you encounter outside these four walls when you represent Christ and the Church to them, need to know that! They need to hear those stories of your baggage, of your imperfections, of your struggles, and even of your pain, when you are ready. This is not the time or the place for our egos to get in the way and keep us from being vulnerable to those who are seeking, whether they come through these doors or not.

This is not the time nor the place to put on a front and hide who we really are—imperfect beings, in need of a savior, just trying to make it through this world, together—and hopefully leaving it better than when we found it. That is who we are and we should not be ashamed of it. I cringe a little at the end of every funeral, when I stand at the remains of the deceased, and put my hand on them in blessing, and say these words, “Into your hands, O merciful Savior, we commend your servant. Acknowledge, we humbly beseech you, a sheep of your own fold, a lamb of your own flock, a sinner of your own redeeming. Receive your servant into the arms of your mercy, into the blessed rest of everlasting peace, and into the glorious company of the saints in light.”

It always seems unfair, a low blow, to call a person a sinner after they die. But that is the truth of our existence and that is what the world needs to hear us proclaim. That though we are all on this journey of faith, that does not mean that we have our lives together, that we have all the answers, that we’re perfect, or that we even know what in the world that we are doing half the time! But we do know, who we are doing this work with don’t we. With each other, and with Christ, God incarnate, the Word made flesh, the light of the world, the ruler of the cosmos. Thanks be to God. Amen.