Jesus is Divisive

Inspired by Matthew 10:24-39

My goodness, we have some tough passages before us today! Violence and destruction from Jeremiah. Being crucified and buried by Paul. Sinking in the mire and swallowed in the Pit according to the Psalmist. Surely Jesus will save us from all these depressing Bible passages! Well, not entirely, does he? Jesus reminds us that God can destroy body and soul in hell, has family members turning on each other, and ends by telling us to pick up our own crosses. If last week we learned that Jesus should not be put in charge of hiring new employees as he is the worst help wanted ad writer, this week we learn that Jesus would not have made a very good motivational speaker, at least not the way we think of a motivational speaker.

So, there’s way too much here for any one sermon to address it all. Which is unfortunate since there are a lot of troubling verses throughout these readings, if taken at face value. Undoubtedly, you will leave this sermon wishing I would have addressed a particular verse but didn’t. I have two pieces of advice for you. One, ask me about it. I love questions! And two, and more importantly, never read a scripture verse in a vacuum. Meaning, no one scripture verse or passage was meant to stand on its own two feet. But rather, needs to be read in light of all of scripture, the brightest of those lights being in the Gospels, being Jesus. Or as Martin Luther put it, “The Bible is the manger that Christ was laid in.” In other words, Jesus is the real gift of the Bible, not the Bible itself.

That being said, let’s turn our attention to our Gospel reading we have before us. There’s a lot here and not all of it follows a very linear path. And that’s simply because the Gospel writers often put a collection of Jesus’ sayings and teachings all together, even if they didn’t happen all at once. So, some passages can seem a bit choppy and this is a good example of one of those passages. Another reason why it’s nearly impossible to address this passage as a whole. So, I’d like to focus on the last third of this passage from Matthew. The part where Jesus says, I haven’t come to bring peace to the earth, but a sword. And then he goes right into some striking family imagery which we will get into in a minute. But first, the sword.

We, of course, usually associate Jesus with peace. And no, we didn’t just make that up, we find that idea throughout scripture—which is why we this passage really sticks out like a sore thumb, and kinda leaves us scratching our head a bit. What do you mean you didn’t come to bring peace Jesus? For many of us, our faith is counting on the fact that peace will come, and it’ll come though Jesus, if it hasn’t already! So what is Jesus really talking about here? And is there a way to find any hope at all in these tough words of Jesus? Let’s try and find out. Swords, may have a lot of different meanings, but I think for most western minds, particularly in America, we see a sword and think, in the words of Jeremiah, violence and destruction.

However, that is not the case for all times and places and cultures. Here’s an example. Sara and I were having lunch with a Sikh family from India a few weeks ago. I, not knowing a whole lot about Sikhism, was pleased to find them very willing to answer any questions we had. It didn’t take me long to notice this symbol throughout their house. And so, as soon as I was comfortable, I finally asked, what does it mean?

The husband went on to explain that the symbol is the symbol of their religion, called the Khanda, and was actually three symbols in one: a vertical large double edged sword in the middle, two single edged smaller swords on each side, and a circle in the middle. And I think he thought that answer was sufficient but now my curiosity was really peaked! Why three swords and circle? I needed to know more!

But before I share his answer, I have to share what was already going on in my mind, other than my unquenchable curiosity. In my mind, I was thinking, “Wow, how violent! What kind of a religious symbol is that?” And let me give you a little context to that. Sikhs endure a lot of racism and outright xenophobia. As a people whose men wear turbans and grow our their beards, they are often called “Islamic terrorists” or other slurs such as “towel heads.” And so they are constantly having to defend their religion and differentiate themselves. So, with that in mind, my next thought, after “Wow, that’s a violent symbol” was, and I’m being very vulnerable here, “For a religion who really wants to differentiate themselves from violent terrorists, they really should think about marketing themselves differently!”

Thankfully, I was able to snap myself out of that and my next thought was, “Holy cow, where did that colonial elitist thought come from? Shame on me!” So, he goes on to explain the three symbols. The large double edged sword symbolizes the cleaving of truth from falsehood. The two smaller swords symbolize the dichotomy between the spiritual and the secular, and every Sikh’s responsibility to live in both worlds, and the circle symbolizes the eternal God—nothing about violence or war or killing. Like all religions, Sikhs value peace and love and justice in the world. Not usually the things we associate with swords—which leads us to believe that Jesus had something different in mind when he talked about a sword too.

And he did. Like a Sikh’s double edged sword that symbolizes the cleaving of truth from falsehood, Jesus’ sword was more about division than violence—division between people, and not just any people, but the closest of people, family. “…man against his father, a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. People’s enemies are members of their own households.”

That’s how divisive Jesus saw himself to be. And no one was safe from it, not even family. And I think we know all too well, he was right. For many of us, religion is a topic we know we can’t bring up at Thanksgiving dinner, right? Like politics, it’s a topic better left alone. Why? Because it’s divisive. Because Jesus is divisive. Do we still go to Thanksgiving dinner? Of course! Our faith in Jesus compels us to. So, in a weird way, Jesus is also a unifier.

Hardly any of my friends before seminary are Christians. So, out of respect, I don’t talk about religion when I am around them. Why? Because Jesus is divisive. Do we still make the friendship work? Of course. My faith in Jesus compels me to. So in a weird way, Jesus is also a unifier.

A few weeks ago Sara, Grace, and I attended an anti-anti-Islam rally. Word got out that there was an anti-Islam rally being planned in Roseville and so Placer People of Faith Together made plans to be there as well, to show support for our neighbor Muslims. I have never been flipped off that many times in one day, or had that many obscenities yelled at me, especially in my collar! Will we still stand up for our Muslim neighbors again in spite of that? Of course! Our faith in Jesus compels us to. So, in a weird way, Jesus is also a unifier.

Bethlehem is no stranger to conflict. Like most congregations, you have had your share of division over the years. My congregation in Pennsylvania, First Lutheran Church, had two big church splits over their 250 plus year history. The first came when they switched from German to English worship services. Half the church left and formed, you guessed it, Second Lutheran Church, just two blocks down the road!

The next big split came when the church decided to bury a suicide victim in their cemetery. Half the church left and formed, no, not Third Lutheran Church, that’d be silly, they formed Trinity Lutheran Church! Did these experiences make the people at First Lutheran never make another change in worship ever again? Or treat the families of suicide victims with any less grace? Of course not! Their faith in Jesus compels them to be merciful. So, in a weird way, Jesus is also a unifier.

In the same way, the divisions that Bethlehem and other churches have experienced are largely due to being compelled to proclaim Jesus’ grace, even stronger than you had in the past, to bring the church, and therefore Christ closer to the surrounding community. And when people aren’t on board with that, for theological or other reasons, they often leave. Because Jesus is divisive. Does that make us withdraw from proclaiming Jesus radical grace to our surrounding community? I surely hope not! Otherwise I wouldn’t have taken this call!

We don’t withdraw because our faith Jesus compels us proclaim grace to a world that really needs it. And so, Jesus, in spite of his divisiveness, is also a unifier. That’s the hope I want you to hear in this passage. The divisions that we experience, because of Jesus, is a cross we are called to bear, that’s just a reality we have to accept. But, it is not the end of the story. God uses them to open doors elsewhere. Does that make our divisions sting less? Maybe, maybe not. Division is painful, no matter how you slice it. But that pain, is not where God stops working. Thanks be to God. Amen.


Help Wanted

Inspired by Matthew 9:35-10:23

Ok, so we’re back in Matthew! And thankfully, this is where we get stay for the rest of the summer! We are basically going to read straight on through the rest of Matthew’s gospel from now until Advent, with very few skipped passages. We start in chapter nine and the reason we do is rather simple. Not only have we already celebrated the birth of Christ and so don’t need to read those chapters again, but also because of the season of the church year we are in.

The season after Pentecost goes by many names: the long green season, ordinary time is another name it goes by, but my favorite is the time of the church. During this long green season, our focus on Jesus turns into a focus on Jesus’ work in the world through the church, through us. And so, we start this journey with Jesus sending out his disciples for the first time, and by extension, sends us out.

And since this is chapter nine, Jesus has already done quite a bit. Aside from being born and facing persecution from day one, and then being tempted in the desert, he has been teaching and preaching and healing everywhere he goes, not to mention, calming storms and casting out demons! Jesus has been a busy guy, so busy in fact, that it seems that he comes to the realization that he can’t do this work alone. He needs help! There is too much to be done, too many needs in the world, for just one man to handle. Jesus says, “The size of the harvest is bigger than you can imagine, but there are few workers. Therefore, plead with the Lord of the harvest to send out workers for his harvest.” Now, I was stuck by that word harvest. What is this harvest that Jesus is referring to?

Many have interpreted that the harvest is people, or souls to be frank. They hear in this passage Jesus saying that there are a lot of unbelievers in the world, lost souls, that need to be harvested. To be fair there is something biblical about that, especially from the Hebrew scriptures. But that interpretation doesn’t exactly match up very well with our own theology, so I’m not convinced that this is what Jesus was saying here. Not to mention the fact that harvesting people’s souls sounds a bit creepy!

So if it’s not souls that Jesus needs our help harvesting, what is it? Compassion, acts of compassion. Throughout the Gospel of Matthew we are constantly reminded of Jesus acts of compassion: healing, teaching and proclaiming good news, liberating people from their demons and from societal stigmas, feeding, visiting, clothing.

All these and more can be simply categorized as acts of compassion. And then we are sent out to go and do likewise. This is the harvest that we are called to, acts of compassion, for a world that is in desperate need of some. And how do we know this? Not just from the headlines that we read but from our own needs too. How often do we need acts of compassion from others? Quite often! How often do we need to hear a word of comfort from others? How often do we need to be encouraged by others?

How often do we need help getting up when life’s got us down? Often! Jesus knew this as well as anyone, and he knew that we experience these needs too. Which leads me to what follows this passage that we read from Matthew’s Gospel. These were optional verses to read for today so I didn’t read them earlier, partly because I didn’t want to make you stand that long. But I’d like to read it to you now because this is just how much Jesus knows of our own needs of compassion from others.

Jesus continues, “Workers deserve to be fed, so don’t gather gold or silver or copper coins for your money belts to take on your trips. Don’t take a backpack for the road or two shirts or sandals or a walking stick. Whatever city or village you go into, find somebody in it who is worthy and stay there until you go on your way. When you go into a house, say, ‘Peace!’ If the house is worthy, give it your blessing of peace. But if the house isn’t worthy, take back your blessing. If anyone refuses to welcome you or listen to your words, shake the dust off your feet as you leave that house or city. I assure you that it will be more bearable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah on Judgment Day than it will be for that city.

“Look, I’m sending you as sheep among wolves. Therefore, be wise as snakes and innocent as doves. Watch out for people—because they will hand you over to councils and they will beat you in their synagogues. They will haul you in front of governors and even kings because of me so that you may give your testimony to them and to the Gentiles. Whenever they hand you over, don’t worry about how to speak or what you will say, because what you can say will be given to you at that moment. You aren’t doing the talking, but the Spirit of my Father is doing the talking through you. Brothers and sisters will hand each other over to be executed. A father will turn his child in. Children will defy their parents and have them executed. Everyone will hate you on account of my name. But whoever stands firm until the end will be saved. Whenever they harass you in one city, escape to the next, because I assure that you will not go through all the cities of Israel before the Human One comes.”

If this is Jesus idea of a help wanted ad, he’s got a lot to learn! Imagine opening up the newspaper to the want ads while you’re looking for a job and see, “Help wanted: looking for hard workers to do hard manual, spiritual, and emotional labor; pay is low; cost is high with no reimbursements; harassment likely; work may be deemed illegal by some; imprisonment and execution possible, must be ok around wolves.”

Who’s gonna apply for a job like that? What was Jesus doing here? Well, he was being honest. As I mentioned on Pentecost Sunday, this is hard work we are called to do as baptized children of God. And, in a land where we are expected to look out for number one, to accumulate as much stuff as you possibly can, earn as much money as you possibly can, what we are called to do as the body of Christ in the world probably seems foolish and idiotic and a threat to what many deem an acceptable way of life.

So, not only we are called to difficult work, into a world that has many needs, not only is that work going to be largely thankless, but also viewed as a threat to much of the world. This is the call of the baptized. This is the call of the church. This is the harvest that needs workers—acts of compassion that the world is in desperate need of, and will often reject. Yet the call remains. But the call remains with Jesus knowing that we too are in need of acts of compassion. Though we are called to serve the world, we are also part of that world. Jesus has not forgotten that, and so, has not forgotten us. I think we can be so caught up in our service to the world that we can forget our own needs, and before we know it we are so worn thin that there’s not much left. That is not our call.

So, when you leave this place, and go out into the world that is both wonderful and chaotic, to harvest acts of compassion for a needy world, go trusting that you have not been forgotten, your needs are acknowledged, your happiness is taken into account—that Jesus pleads to the Lord of the harvest on your behalf, for workers to harvest act of compassion for you too. And though they may not seem like they come enough, when they do, cherish them, allow them to grow in you, for a harvest of your own. Thanks be to God. Amen.


The Gospel According to Billy Joel

Inspired by Acts 2:1-21

A reoccurring “game” that I play with my girls, and I put game in quotes because it’s usually only fun for me, is Name that Song. Wherever we happen to be, if a song is playing, I’ll “ask” them to if they know that song, and I put ask in quotes because I won’t leave them alone until they at least give a guess. It’s more of a test really, than a game. And when they don’t know the song there is always a healthy dose of ridicule and public shaming. Like I said, it’s usually only fun for me.

But when they get one right, like when Grace knew a Police song the other day, there’s cause for celebration…not for them but for me, because that’s how I know I’m doing parenthood right! So, I thought, why not play this game with my congregation! I’m going to start reading some song lyrics to you and I want you to call out the name of the song as soon as you know it! Now remember, if you don’t know this, not only will you get to see my face of utter disappointment, but there will be public shaming because my sermons go on the internet! Ok, here we go, are you ready?

Don't go changing, to try and please me
You never let me down before
Don't imagine you're too familiar
And I don't see you anymore

I wouldn't leave you in times of trouble
We never could have come this far
I took the good times, I'll take the bad times
I'll take you just the way you are

Don't go trying some new fashion
Don't change the color of your hair
You always have my unspoken passion
Although I might not seem to care

I don't want clever conversation
I never want to work that hard
I just want someone that I can talk to
I want you just the way you are.

I need to know that you will always be
The same old someone that I knew
What will it take till you believe in me
The way that I believe in you.

I said I love you and that's forever
And this I promise from the heart
I could not love you any better
I love you just the way you are.

This is the song that I had in my head the whole time I was preparing this sermon. And we’ll get to the reason why in a minute. Let’s change gears for now. Today is the Day of Pentecost, the day of the church year when we awkwardly celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit. Awkward because the church has historically struggled with its language surrounding the Holy Spirit. Of the three persons in the trinity, the Spirit is the most mysterious, of whom we have the least amount of information, the least number of stories. Though present in many forms throughout scripture, the Holy Spirit doesn’t really get the spotlight until the tail-end of the Bible, relatively speaking. So, in our defense, it’s no wonder why we stumble and trip over our tongues when trying to speak of the Holy Spirit.

What might help, is instead of speaking of what or who the Holy Spirit is, let’s focus on how the Spirit relates to us. What kind of relationship does she want with us? And yes, you heard that right, I said she, not he. In Hebrew, Spirit is a feminine noun, and in Greek it’s a neuter noun, but never is it masculine. But moving on, we get a wonderful picture of this relationship in our reading from Acts today. It was Pentecost Day, a Jewish holiday, and Jesus had already left them, again, seemingly alone, when all of a sudden the Holy Spirit shows up on the scene, in dramatic fashion, and the apostles begin speaking in other languages. This causes a scene and a crowd gathers, people from all over the known world.

Let me pause the story there and share with you a meeting I attended the other day. It was a clergy meeting that Placer People of Faith Together had called, for the purpose of discussing how the Church can respond to immigration needs throughout our county. One of the leaders, Amanda Sheldon, who will be preaching here at Bethlehem this summer while I’m on vacation, began our meeting with a devotion using the Acts passage that we just heard. And she mentioned something that I thought was very profound, and not just in the context of immigration. She highlighted how the Holy Spirit, when she came on that first Christian Pentecost, spoke to people in their own languages, and didn’t ask them to conform to some common language.

The Holy Spirit came to that group of people, met them where they were at, and began to relate to them, began to form a relationship with them. The Holy Spirit did not ask them to change anything about themselves in order to have a relationship with her, did not ask them to give up their language, or their culture, or anything else that made them who they were. For the Holy Spirit, beginning that relationship, opening the line of communication with her people, was more important than anything else. Or in the words of Billy Joel, “Don't go changing, to try and please me… I took the good times, I'll take the bad times, I'll take you just the way you are.”

Now, I want to take that a step further. Because so what right? The Holy Spirit takes me just the way I am, great. Other than making us feel better, what good does that do? The work that we are called to do as Christians is hard work. It’s not only tough work but it can be very frustrating work. Frustrating for a number of reasons, it’s more often than not thankless work that we do. And more than that, we don’t always get to see the fruits of our labor.

We rarely get to see how our work is affecting the lives of others. And when we do, it takes forever! Requiring an almost inhuman amount of patience. And that’s just as individuals. As a congregation, this work can often leave us feeling like we are not doing enough. Partly because this work is hard to gauge, hard to measure, but also because as humans, and maybe as Americans, we need something big, a big service project, a big fundraiser, a big mission trip, a big something!

And all those big things are great! But they can’t sustain us. If our hope and motivation lies only in the big things, then we will often be left feeling deflated, useless, and stagnant—when that couldn’t be further from the truth. In our story from Acts, the Holy Spirit speaks to the gathered people, opens the lines of communication with them, begins the relationship with them, in spite of their different languages, different cultures, any differences at all, the Holy Spirit meets them where they are. And I truly believe that she not only continues to do that today, but that she is able to use our work, no matter how small, no matter how simple, no matter how elementary we may think it is, just the way it is, and use it to build relationships with others, through us, just the way we are.

I truly believe that. I have to, otherwise I wouldn’t last long as a baptized child of God. The big work that we do together is great, but more often than not, the rubber meets the road in the small things. In those little decisions we make to treat others with kindness, especially those different than us who are being treated unfairly. In those little decisions to return hatred with love. In those little decisions to make someone smile who looks like they could use one.

In a simple hug, a thank you card, or a text. It’s in the small things, things I know you all are doing all the time! The Holy Spirit uses us, just the way we are; uses our work, just the way it is. And not for our sakes, or to somehow love us more, but for the sake of the world. Or in the words of Billy Joel, “What will it take till you believe in me, the way that I believe in you. I said I love you and that's forever, and this I promise from the heart, I could not love you any better, I love you just the way you are.” Thanks be to God. Amen.


Knowing God

Inspired by John 17:1-11

So, not only are we still in the Gospel of John, but we are still in Jesus’ long goodbye! Three chapters later and Jesus is still sitting with his closest friends and having his last meal with them. And I imagine for Jesus, this is not only his last meal with them, but also his death bed conversation with them. I know many of you have experienced such a conversation.

In someone’s final days on earth, maybe a parent, a child, spouse, or friend, when death is creeping slowly closer, close enough for everyone in the room to feel its presence, though no one wants to say it out loud. And then someone, usually the one dying, names the elephant in the room, and begins that death bed conversation—saying the things that need to be said, sharing the stories that need to be remembered, teaching those last minute life lessons.

This is where Jesus is. And though his long goodbye is very long, this is Jesus at his finest, at his most challenging, and at his most compassionate moment with them. A final goodbye is not something that you want to rush. If it even happens at all. So many of the deaths that we encounter come unexpectedly, without any warning, without any opportunity to say goodbye, much less anything else.

This is a bit of a tangent but allow me to give you some advice here. Don’t wait to say goodbye. None of us know when we will leave this world. Don’t wait. Say the things that need to be said. Share the stories that need to be remembered. Teach the life lessons that you have had learn the hard way. Don’t wait. I’m always telling my girls to be very careful with their words. You never know which words will be the last you say to someone.

Ok, enough of that! Speaking of words, as Jesus is wrapping up his long goodbye, he gives a definition. And I’m always surprised when I come across this because it’s so unlike something you would find in John’s Gospel. John is such a lofty writer, so philosophical, so deep. And then to hear such a clear cut definition like the one Jesus gives, well, it’s quite refreshing. So, the definition I’m referring to is when, Jesus praying to God says, “This is eternal life: to know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you sent.” It always makes me chuckle inside when Jesus speaks of himself in the third person. Like, who does he think he is Muhammad Ali?

Anyway, the definition for eternal life that Jesus gives is knowing God. That’s it! That simple! Man how we’ve complicated that! In the centuries since Jesus first uttered that definition, we have turned what was a very simple, straight forward, definition, into a labyrinthine gauntlet of hoops and hurdles to jump through in order to get to eternal life! When all it is, is knowing God. That’s it.  Jesus doesn’t say that eternal life is a creed, or saying a certain prayer, or confession, or a doctrine, or church attendance, or financial giving. Jesus doesn’t say that it’s certain place up in the clouds. Jesus doesn’t say it’s a certain time after we die. It’s knowing God. Period. Very different than what we’ve been taught isn’t it?

Now I’m going to use a word that the evangelical world uses very differently than how I’m about to use it, in the Gospel of John, eternal life was about relationship. That’s a recurring theme in the Gospel of John and so this uncharacteristic simple definition still falls within the framework of John’s Gospel. Now often times in the Christian world you’ll hear the word relationship and what you’ll often hear is, in order to be saved you have to have a personal relationship with Jesus.

And it has to be said that this is a very Americanized version of Christianity. And this shouldn’t surprise us. One of the marks that America has left on our religion is this very self-centered perspective on our faith, a me and my friend Jesus kind of faith. Now, aside from the fact that that is completely unbiblical, what does it even mean to have a personal relationship with Jesus? What does that even look like?

Is it reading your bible often? Is it praying more? Is it leading a holy life with good behavior? Is it coming to church regularly? Is it how much you are willing to sacrifice, particularly from your bank account? We laugh but there are many churches out there that would have you believe such garbage. And that’s important to know because there are many people leaving those churches because of that kind of garbage theology who unfortunately think all churches are the same so why try another! My prayer is that they cross paths with one of you and in some way you are able to share with them another way to follow Christ, a different way to eternal life, knowing God. But to be fair, that’s still a little vague. That definition is almost too simple!

What does it look like to know God? A wise theologian once said, if you want to meet God, go help out at a soup kitchen. If you want to spend time with God, go visit the sick. If you want God to come in, go welcome the stranger. Or, as the character Jean Valjean says at the end of Les Miserables, “To love another person is to see the face of God.” I love it when great theology is found in the unlikeliest of places. And it’s great theology because it is very biblical.

Last week I reminded you of a passage from Matthew that we read back on Christ the King Sunday about a king who was asked, “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you a drink? When did we see you as a stranger and welcome you, or naked and give you clothes to wear? When did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?” And he replied, “I assure you that when you have done it for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you have done it for me.”

Or, to love others is to know God. That is the way that God wants to get to know you, through the lives of others—through relationship. Jesus says something else in this passage that can help us out with this. He says, “I have revealed your name to the people you gave me from this world.” “The people you gave me.” How easier might it be to love others if we recognized that the people that cross our paths in this world were given to us by God? Think of the people that have intersected with your life?

Do we consider them all given to us by God? Now I consider my wife and children God given, that’s easy. Well, most days. And friends, church family, those are pretty easy too. But what about others? The co-worker who just gets on your last nerve day in and day out? The teacher at school who just does not want to give you a break? The grocery check-out guy who clearly is having a bad day and doesn’t care if he takes everyone down with him?

Could those be people that God sends as well? Is it possible to see the face of God in these people too? Can we know God through anyone who crosses our path? Yes, but only if we claim them, claim them as God given people in our lives. It’s not enough to recognize where they may have come from, but we have to claim them as one of our own. So much so, that we no longer refer to them as them or those people, but instead, we refer to them as us. It is then that we will become one, as Jesus prays for us to be. It is then that we will know God. It is then that we will begin to experience eternal life: here, now, together. Amen.