The Wizard of Heaven?

Inspired by Luke 12:13-21

Well, this isn’t the most exciting of Jesus’ parables is it. It’s probably not one of the better known ones either. But it certainly has a few important things to teach us. It’s usually given the title of The Parable of the Rich Fool. And so, I imagine there are a lot of sermons being preached today, as I speak in fact, on money. But I just wasn’t feeling that this week, which really surprised me! To be perfectly honest with you, I’ve been chomping at the bit to preach about money! Cuz Lord knows, someone needs to be talking about money around here other than poor Jerry!

So, when I read this parable I thought here’s my chance, it’s finally here! And then I stared at a blank Word document for most of the week. That’s usually a good sign to me that what I think I should be preaching on is not what needs to be preached on. But don’t worry, I’ll be preaching about money soon enough. I’m not one of those pastors who thinks money has no place in the pulpit. Quite the opposite in fact.

But anyway, I went back to my first reaction as I read this passage. And that shouldn’t surprise me. I should know by now to just follow my instincts. So, before I even got to the actual parable about the rich fool, my first reaction to this passage was with Jesus’ initial reaction. So, some guy in the crowd, I like how random it starts out, some guy in the crowd asks Jesus to convince his brother to divide the inheritance with him.

And Jesus’ answer is so direct it borders on sounding callous. And I can certainly relate to that. I too, am a very direct person, and that has its value, but it also has it’s pitfalls too. But I mean, isn’t Jesus supposed to be fighting for the disenfranchised, like he normally does? We are now in the 12th chapter of Luke, as we continue through this gospel through the summer and Fall, so our instincts should lead us to believe that Jesus should stand up for this poor guy.

But he doesn’t. In what could sound very cold he says, “Man, who appointed me as judge or referee between you and your brother?” As a direct and blunt person myself, I of course love hearing Jesus this way. But that’s not the only reason I love this reaction from Jesus. It’s more than that. What I love about it is that it communicates something about our relationship with Jesus, and more specifically, how we should, or shouldn’t, use Jesus—how we should treat Jesus.

It helps to answer some fundamental questions in our faith, “Who is Jesus to us?” or “What is Jesus?” How many times, when going through a rough patch in life, have you heard someone ask, “Have you prayed about it yet?” Or maybe even, “Have you prayed hard enough?” or some variation of that, as if, your prayer is what’s missing to magically get you out of the mess you’re in?

Is that who Jesus is to us? A genie in a bottle? A magician? A problem solver? A life coach? Or, is Jesus the son of the living God, so much more than any of these roles that we like to give him, and therefore none of them? Let’s come back to that. How many fans of the Wizard of Oz out there? Yeah, it’s always been one of my favorites. It scared the hell out of me as a kid but I still loved it. It’s amazing how well it still holds up.

So, as you know, the whole amazing story all builds to the ending when the Tin Man, who longs for a heart, the Scarecrow, who longs for a brain, and the Lion, who longs for courage, make a pilgrimage to the great and mighty Wizard of Oz to get these things that they have yearned for their whole life, only to find out they had them all along. Sometimes I wonder if we are like the Tin Man, Lion, and Scarecrow, spending our lives searching for things that we long for, treating Jesus like a magical wizard who can provide them, when all the while we either had them, or had the means to find them ourselves.

Sometimes I wonder, if God hears our prayers and thinks, I’ve already given you all the things you need to fulfill that desire, to fulfill that need. Why aren’t you using them? I’ve given you a brain, and a heart, and the collective courage, as a community, to handle almost anything that comes at you! And whether you can or can’t fulfill your heart’s desires, or your every need, I will be here with you—every step of the way—no matter what, says the Lord.

So, when Jesus tells that random guy, to go solve his own problems with his brother, maybe he’s not just being flippant, or rude, or cold, or sassy. Maybe, in his very Jesus way, he’s saying, “Dude, God has given you everything you need to figure out this thing with your brother, on your own. How much effort have you even put into this? I’m not a genie in a bottle. I’m not your personal wizard. I’m the Son of the living God. And I’m here for you, every step of the way, no matter what, right by your side.

Who else can give you that promise? There are a lot of self-help gurus out there. There’s a lot of crystal balls out there. There’s a lot of magicians. But there is no one that can give you a promise like that. No one. And isn’t it funny how that’s not enough for us many times. Isn’t it funny how we hear that promise, we know that promise, but we still go to Jesus and say, “Yes, yes, I know, Jesus, I know, but just this one time, and I won’t bug you, but can you just bail me out this one time, this last time?” Can God magically bail us out each and every time we need God? Sure, God can do whatever God wants to do, and maybe God does every once in a while.

All I know is this, I don’t need God to be my personal divine enabler. I need God to hold me accountable. I need God to tell me when it’s time to get off my butt and figure it out. I need God to slap me upside the back of my head at times and say the answer is right in front of you, and you know how I know, cuz I put it there for you! Do we enjoy it when God has to serve up a little tough love like this? Well, of course not, so why are we OK with it? Because God has taken care of the big things for us already, unconditional love, salvation, and promising to be present with us to the very end. Things that no one else can deliver on. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Come as Mary, Leave as Martha

Inspired by Luke 10:38-42

I was so relieved when I found out this was our gospel reading for today! The last few have been pretty rough. To be fair, it was a combination of tough lessons and tough things happening in the world. Today’s gospel reading his it’s challenges of its own to be sure, but I can’t help but feeling a sense of relief today—especially after last week’s sermon. If you were here or listened to it online, you know what I’m talking about.

I don’t think a sermon has ever caused that much anxiety beforehand. To be honest, I almost chickened out. But I didn’t and I don’t think that is can be credited to me as much as a credit to you. To you, for being the open, welcoming kind of people that you have been to me—the credit goes to you for allowing me to take risks in this pulpit, and more importantly, for giving me the courage proclaim the gospel, even when it is as gut-wrenching as last week’s. Thank you for that gift.

But now on to this week’s. Today we have this short story about Martha and Mary, followers of Jesus, as we continue reading through the gospel of Luke. This story comes right after last week’s story. When we began this trek through the Gospel of Luke at the end of May, I had told you that it was from a large section of Luke called the Road to Jerusalem. And I told you that because it’s the foundation of all these readings in Luke this summer, as we follow Jesus to Jerusalem, to his death.

And our author Luke reminds us as well throughout, as he did today. Our passage began with, “While Jesus and his disciples were traveling…” This isn’t just filler for Luke, he wants us to remember where we are headed, and also that time is of the essence. The characters in these stories may not know, but we know, that Jesus’ time on earth is rapidly coming to an end.

This will important for another reason in a bit but I just wanted to give you that reminder now before we go any further. Also, before we go any further, I wanted to point out how this passage has been a bit controversial over the years. For a feminist, like myself, stories like this can make me a little nervous—especially as a father of three daughters. The picture that this story paints of women isn’t exactly the way we should believe today.

Clearly this story comes from a patriarchal society, where women are the ones who cook and clean and make everything ready for guests—things that we know that men can and should be doing as well. Also, the way that Jesus talks to Martha is usually read with a tone that can seem a bit condescending. Just remember that Jesus was a product of his environment as well, as was our author Luke. So, I just wanted to point this out, not just for women in the room, but especially for the young women in the room, so that you know, that even though this is scripture, we don’t condone this kind of image of women that this story creates.

But back to our story, Martha welcomes Jesus into their home, cooks and cleans for him, while Mary sits on her butt and listens to Jesus. Martha is doing all the things that Jesus has been teaching about, welcoming the stranger, feeding the homeless, and Mary is the one who is praised! Not only that but Jesus come right and throws poor Martha under the bus and says that Mary is the one in the right! I don’t know about you but if I was Martha I would be angry! All this work I’m doing for you, Jesus, and you’re going to take her side? But here’s the thing, I don’t this had to do with the work. Jesus never says that it’s what she is doing that is the problem. Jesus points out that she is distracted and worried, about a lot of things. She’s got a lot on her mind, so much, that it’s taking her away from Jesus rather than closer to Jesus.

And like Jesus and our author Luke, Martha too is a product of her society. She is fulfilling her role as a woman in that society the way she was raised. She has a prophet/rabbi/savior in her living room and doesn’t want to disappoint him! For all she knows, if she doesn’t cook the food, clean the house, set the table, Jesus is going to be insulted and leave! But, in his very Jesus way, he says I’m not that kind of prophet. I’m not that kind of rabbi. I’m not that kind of savior. What she doesn’t know, is that if all those things don’t get done, he’s not going to reprimand her, or feel disrespected, or leave. And she also doesn’t know that he’s on the road to his death, and that time, time to listen to him, is getting shorter and shorter. He may have known this, but she certainly did not.

I believe Jesus is right to tell her that Mary is the one who has chosen the right path…in that context. However, where we err is when we try to apply this to each and every context today. In other words, in a different context, Martha would be the one that Jesus is praising. Because as I said, it’s not what she was doing that was the problem, but it was allowing what she was doing to distract her away from Jesus, rather than closer to Jesus. Let me give you an example.

We recently had a funeral for Etta Bonilla. At the conclusion of that funeral, I was able to say that there was a wonderful reception waiting for them across the hall. I hadn’t been back there, I had no idea what was being served, but what I did know was this, there were a handful of Marthas back there, Randi, Susan, Phyllis and others, and so I knew, all would be well. Would Jesus tell them they were in the wrong, absolutely not.

Here’s another example, whenever there is a something that needs done around here, whether it’s a broken thermostat, sound equipment, or the paper towels need restocked, you won’t see me worried. Why? Because I know there will be a Martha to take care of it! Ron, Eric, Frank, or someone, will take care of it. Is Jesus going to scold them? Absolutely not! The only thing I worry about is our Marthas getting burned out, because like many organizations, we always seem to have more Marys than Marthas! But that’s for another sermon! My point is, it’s ok to be a Martha, and it’s ok to be a Mary, there’s a time and place for both, in fact, I believe that our baptismal call is to be both a Martha and a Mary.

Our weekly routine of worship and everyday life speaks to that. Here, in this place, each Sunday, we come to sit at Jesus’ feet, like Mary, listening to Jesus, gazing at Jesus lovingly, hanging on every word, with Jesus playing the part of Martha, welcoming us to the table, to be nourished, to be transformed, for the work that lay ahead of us in the coming week. And then we leave here as a group of Marthas, ready to tackle whatever may come, welcoming all, making disciples, serving neighbors—sometimes together, as a church, but often times as individuals, in our everyday lives—remembering not to let our work distract us away from Christ, but to allow it to bring us closer to Christ. So, come to the table all you Marys, so that you can leave as Marthas. Thanks be to God. Amen.


Passing By

Inspired by Luke 10:25-37

This story from Luke, known as the Good Samaritan, is one of the better known stories from the Bible. Even those outside the church have heard of the phrase “being a good Samaritan”, even if they don’t know where that comes from. We even have laws on the books named after the good Samaritan. I can’t say it’s one of my favorite stories though. It certainly doesn’t leave you with warm fuzzies but that’s not why it’s not my favorite. I think it just makes me uncomfortable. It’s violent. It’s awkward. It angers me. And maybe most of all, it’s relatable—and not in a good way.

I wasn’t sure quite where to take you with this story, and I think it’s because the story seems so extreme. I mean, would we actually be the first two people who passed the dying man up on the road? How realistic is this story? Would we just walk on by, a person in need, just because of where they are from, or what they look like, or how they act, or behave, etc.? But the more I thought about it, and talked with my staff about this at our staff meeting, the more I realized that we do this, and we do it often, just in different forms. I’d like to share a video with you now, that has been circulating on social media recently.

That was a difficult video for me to watch the first time. It was difficult because my heart went out to that little child actor who, even though she knew she was just playing a part, still had her little heart broken. But it was mostly difficult because I could relate, not to the little girl but to those who chose to turn a blind eye, when she was made to look homeless and dirty. I moved here from Fresno, and the homeless population there is outrageous. At almost every street corner you can meet a homeless person. On garbage pick-up day you can bet that they will be rummaging through your bins. Some people complain, but for most, it’s just part of living in the south central valley.

The sheer numbers of homeless there cause many of the rest of us to become numb to their presence—except for people like my wife and daughters who try and help all of them. My point is, isn’t this one way that we become like the first two people in our Gospel story, the priest and the Levite, who pass the dying man by on the side of the road? And I don’t just mean on an individual level, but also as a society, as a government both local and national and international.

How do we, systemically, pass people in need by, on the side of the road? And because of reasons like where they are from, what they look like, how they act or behave. The reason why this story was so disturbing in Jesus day was because the good guy in this story, was a Samaritan, a group of people who Jews, Jesus own people, thought were less than, inferior, on a lower rung of society, they’d even go so far as to consider them unclean. These were people, if you were a Jew, like Jesus was, that you would avoid at all costs, even if that meant taking the long way around their entire region. It would be like us going to LA but having to avoid the entire central valley.

There are other ways that we walk on by people in need. An example of this comes in the form of another problem that our nation faces, that has been in the news recently. This past week we have heard of two more black men, Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, killed by police officers, the first in Louisiana and the other in Minnesota. And because of the technological age that we live in, there are cell phone videos of both that have been circulating—videos that are chilling and not for the faint of heart. I will not be showing you those videos but I warn you that they are difficult to watch if you feel the need to search for them later, and honestly I hope you do. But I would like to show you this video clip of a news conference of the family of the first victim in Louisiana.

This one was even harder than the first to watch. However, even more important than watching the actual incident, this video shows us how this problem is affecting our country, who this problem is affecting. This video is a stark reminder that, even though the two men, now dead, have already been passed by on the side of the road, they leave behind families, who are now in danger of being passed by on the side of the road. Also, who will be next? Who else is in danger of being passed by on the side of the road? And if you’re having thoughts about these men’s criminal backgrounds, or if in talking to others about this and your tempted to start a sentence with “Well, he should have just…” Stop. Please don’t finish that sentence. This is a racism issue, period.

You may be wondering why I have to preach about such things. Because I don’t want to look back on my life some day and ask myself, “Why didn’t I do something?” “Why didn’t I say something?” “Why didn’t I speak up?” And I don’t want that for you either. Our country is at a crucial point in her life. I know you can feel it. There are whole groups of people who need allies, who need our voices because they don’t have a voice, who need our presence, who need us to speak up, to do something, anything! The black community. The LGBTQ community. The Hispanic community. The homeless community. Children. Women. Muslims.

People, whole communities, who are being passed by, dying, on the side of the road. Who will we be? The first two people who keep on walking? Or the good Samaritan, the unlikely helper, who was able to look past differences, and see people in need, human beings, and do something about it? If we’re honest, sometimes we will be the first two, because we are imperfect human beings ourselves. The good news is that God will forgive us. But that doesn’t stop God from continuing to lift up the example of the Good Samaritan as our model, and that doesn't stop God from continuing to say to us, “Go and do likewise.” “Go and do likewise.” Thanks be to God. Amen.



Inspired by Luke 10:1-11, 16-20

Our Gospel reading for today really had me stumped. I had no idea what to do with it. It just wasn’t speaking to me at all. I looked at the Greek, nothing. I read it in multiple English translations, nothing. Took a look at a few study Bible notes, nothing. And just before I was about to give up on it and preach on one of the other texts, which I do from time to time, more often than most pastors anyway, but before it got to that, a professor from Luther Seminary in St. Paul MN, threw out an idea that had been staring me in the face the whole time. Thank God for people who are much smarter than I who are willing to share their wisdom!

At first glance this Gospel story is about being sent. The section heading of this story usually reads something like “The Sending of the Seventy-Two” in most Bibles. And I think that’s where I was getting hung up. I was trying to figure out what this story was trying to tell us about being sent, being sent out into the world by God, and what that means for us, what that looks like. And certainly there is much here to be said about being sent but not for today. For today, what really struck me was what Jesus was trying to teach them about hospitality, and the vital role that it plays out in our ministry.

So, continuing from where we left off last week, on his way to Jerusalem, on the road to his death, Jesus tells seventy-two of his followers to go ahead of him, into the cities and villages, ok, easy enough. He then tells them that the harvest, is bigger than we imagined. I could probably write a sermon on just that phrase alone but let’s just say that this harvest is about the restoration of God’s people, the bringing back into the fold, of all of God’ creation. And this harvest is so big, that more workers are needed, ok, simple enough. He then gives them a warning, remember, Jesus is all about laying all the cards on the table. He holds nothing back—maybe because he doesn’t want them to have any excuses when the going gets tough.

So, he gives them this warning, “Go! But be warned, I’m sending you out as lambs among wolves.” Now, how many of us, at that point in the story, would have bailed? Come on, don’t let me be the only one raising my hand! Imagine seeing an ad in the paper, “Volunteers wanted. Disclaimer: death highly likely. Please call 1-800-be a lamb.” Who’s gonna call that number? I’m not! Well, I might just out of curiosity but who’s gonna seriously call that number? Yet, this is what Jesus as asking in the story, of these seventy-two, of you and me. And if you’ve been in the church long enough, like more than a week, you know, the wolves are plentiful, and they’re not just outside the church but let’s keep moving through our story.

So, Jesus issues his disclaimer, and then gives them some very peculiar instructions. “Carry no wallet, no bag, and no sandals. Don’t even greet anyone along the way. Whenever you enter a house, first say, ‘May peace be on this house.’ Remain in this house, eating and drinking whatever they set before you. Don’t move from house to house. Whenever you enter a city and its people welcome you, eat what they set before you.” I said they were peculiar instructions. Maybe not the peace be on this house part. Jews and Muslims have been using that as a greeting in their everyday conversations for thousands of years. Unfortunately, Christians lost it somewhere along the way.

But the rest of the instructions, carry no wallet, no bag, no sandals, don’t greet anyone, eat and drink whatever they give you. Why such strange instructions? Well, I told you that Jesus is trying to teach them something about hospitality. And you may have guessed that I meant that we are sent out into the world to show hospitality. But no, it’s just the reverse here. Jesus sent out those seventy-two to receive hospitality. In fact, he sent them in such a way that they would need the hospitality of others in order to survive. Weird right? I thought we were supposed to be all about feeding and sheltering and clothing and caring for the world?

Yet, here we have Jesus sending us out to be good guests, not good hosts, good guests, to receive others hospitality. Why? Isn’t this backwards? Well, leave it to Jesus to flip the script on us right! I was talking to a good friend of mine, a retired pastor who at times is more of a mentor than a friend, and we were talking about confirmation. I asked him for his advice on leading confirmation and the first thing he said was, “Go to each of your students houses and have dinner with them, even if you have to invite yourself.” I was expecting him to recommend a curriculum, or give me a list of things they should know or do. So, his advice shocked me and I asked him to explain.

He simply said, how are you going to really know them, and be their pastor, if you don’t see them in their own environment, with their family. Spend quality time with them, he said. As I said before, thank God for smarter people than I, who are willing to share their wisdom. I think what my friend was trying to teach me was the same thing Jesus was trying to teach those seventy-two. Go spend quality time with people. Ministry isn’t always about what we can do for you. Sometimes it’s about knowing others, as intimately as we want to be known. I think deep down that’s a yearning that all of us have-to be known, by our community.

When we have good news we want to share it right, to have someone to celebrate with us? When we have bad news it’s nice to have someone to mourn with, to journey with. But I’m not just talking about our community inside these four walls. Jesus wasn’t urging those seventy-two to get to know each other. He was pushing them to get to know others, outside their safe little group. And don’t get me wrong, I’m all about serving our neighbors, after all, it’s part of our mission statement here at Bethlehem. But what about knowing our neighbors? How can we serve people we don’t know? And how are we going to get to know people unless we spend quality time with them?

Look, I can stand in this pulpit all day and preach until I’m blue in the face but these are just words. From the feedback I have been getting it seems like most of you agree with most of what you have been hearing from me. And that’s great but don’t let it end there. If you agree with what I’m saying about getting to know our neighbors, getting to know our community outside these four walls, then go and talk to the leaders of Bethlehem, Karen Stein our president, Loren Clark our vice-president, Jerry DelAgostino our treasurer, or any of our other council members, and tell them that you’re interested in helping with the mission of this church.

Why? Because you want Bethlehem to still be around in five, ten, twenty years from now. Because you want a place for your children and grandchildren to get to know Jesus and their community. Because you believe that Christ still has something for us to do here. Because in spite of the hard work, in spite of the wolves we will encounter along the way, Christ is not done here. But only say it if you really believe it. I am not an alarmist, I’m not trying to scare you. But I truly believe, with all my heart, that Bethlehem is at a critical junction in her life, that the decisions and paths we choose in the next year will be critical and they are going to take each and every one of you.

And I know that many of you are tired, and battling fatigue, and burn out. And I wish that I had words to ease that fatigue for you but I don’t. All I can say is that we don’t walk this path alone, but that we walk with the author of life, who walked a road that led to his death—but that wasn’t the end of the story! The end of the story was resurrection and new life! But it was a rough road to get there and so it will be for us too. Are we willing to take that road? Jesus has laid all his cards on the table, and says Go! Into the little corners of your world, and spend quality time with people, and tell them, how much God has done for you. Amen.