Haunted by Matthew 25

For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.       Matthew 25:42-43

                These verses have been ever on my mind the past few months as the reality of my surroundings set in. Everett, WA, as I may have mentioned before, is a community that struggles with rampant poverty. This is not surprising as it is a burn out paper mill town whose mills have long since shut down and have been bulldozed. Despite this the cost of living is still relatively high here as it is throughout the Pacific Northwest. As a result, homelessness, drugs and domestic abuse are common in this place where many people have lost hope along with their livelihood.

                I won’t be telling you anything new by suggesting that the mission of the church as a whole is to minister to these people. Indeed, the story from Matthew 25 suggests just such a thing and even goes so far as to claim that when we serve those in need we encounter no other than our risen Lord. That being said, all too often when people come through my office door asking for assistance and my tired reply is all too often “we don’t do that here, you’ll have to try somewhere else”.

                I don’t want to throw Central under the bus. It is a lovely congregation with an aging although warm and welcoming demographic. They offer a meal twice a month for 90-120 people and collect food for Trinity Lutheran’s Emergency food shelf. They also have a mission of the month in which a portion of the month’s offerings go to a particular cause, many of them local. They know there is a need out there and are trying to fill it. Yet, it is a small comfort to me when I have to look into a person’s empty tired eyes and say “sorry, I can’t help you.”

                I am not suggesting Central create a giant slush fund to meet the need of every person that comes in. It is not practical and is probably not efficient. Yet, more must be done, more must be accomplished. I think it starts with the attitude about the people that we serve. There is a latent distrust of those who come to our door, that they are trying to get money out of us to feed an addiction to drugs or alcohol or that they in some way won’t use the resources properly. Perhaps more heart breaking is that this develops into a sense of fear of being taken advantage of but also of elitism and of paternal/maternalism, that  we will only fill the needs these people “ought” to be concerned about.

                These are not unfounded concerns as anyone who is close to a person struggling with an addiction well knows. We will and probably do “get played” or “used” to fuel their addiction or self destructive behavior at times. However, I think this concern boils over into an attitude of superiority and dismissal. We, although perhaps not consciously, begin to think of them as less human or less worthy. We are even encouraged by American Protestantism to think this way. That God helps those who help themselves. To be fair there is some truth in that, if you play by the rules, God’s law, things will probably tend to go better for you in society. However, what about a job loss, or mental illness, or raging medical bills or any number of personal catastrophes? I think most people would be hard pressed to blame all of these outcomes on a lapse in “following the rules”.

                Now, I am not sure where to go from here or what being more “helpful” looks like. I don’t claim any particularly keen insight nor do I offer a clear solution. However, I think it has to start with how we regard the people whom we serve. Will we see them as lazy sub-human scum or are they a suffering and afflicted child of God, through whom we can see the face of our redeemer? I think the conversation must start there. These people are also created in God’s image and are loved by Jesus our redeemer. Furthermore, we too were lost and all too often still are and it is not by our actions but by God’s actions that we gain the title of worthy, precious and holy.

                I imagine I will have to say “no” many more times to people who walk through my door. The church has limited resources and limited time. We simply can’t serve them all. However, my hope and prayer is that I will not forget their humanity and whose image they are created in.   

Sermon from October 20th Jacob wrestles the angel

Hello everyone,

Sorry for the lack of material lately, business is picking up so to speak and with a visit from both sides of the family and an intern retreat these past couple weeks have been a bit hectic. As a result, the blog has been on the back burner. Here is a transcript of my sermon from this past sunday. I will have a more substantive post up soon though sorry for the delay!

The Sermon:

Grace and Peace from God our Father and our Savior Jesus the Christ, Amen.

“What is your name?” Jacob can still feel the question ringing in his ears. It may seem like a simple question, what’s a name after all? But you get the sense that the angel isn’t asking which letters he should write down on an adhesive sticker. No, the question runs deeper, it cuts Jacob to the core. The angel is really asking, “Who are you?”

 Indeed, in the ancient near East your name was your identity. It defined who you were and told people about your character. In the book of Genesis we see this in the names of the Patriarchs. For instance, Abraham means “father of many”, an apt description of a man who will be a blessing to the nations; or his son, Isaac, which means “she laughs” because Sarah laughed at the thought of God blessing her with a child at the ripe old age of 90. So we come then to Jacob’s name, what does his name mean, what is He all about?

His name means “he usurps” it means “he cheats”.

You see when the angel asks Jacob for his name he must face his sordid past, a past riddled with greed and deceit in which he stole the family blessing from his older brother Esau and cheated his Father-in-law Laban out of a large portion of his flock. In today’s reading we find Jacob, having parted ways with Laban, is making his way back home. However, we get the sense that this homecoming may not be a happy one. Jacob is on the eve of meeting his brother Esau whom we can only assume is full of bitterness and wrath over his lost blessing. But the conniving Jacob has one more trick up his sleeve. He sends half then all of his great wealth on ahead of him as tribute to Esau, hoping to assuage his brother’s anger.

His wealth and pretensions having left him, Jacob stands alone in the dark, by the river, deeply regretting the past, and looking anxiously toward the future. Jacob is still unsure how Esau will receive him.  It is then that the angel descends upon him and the two of them struggle into the night and on through the morning.  Even though the angel succeeds in injuring Jacob, Jacob will not let him go and insists on a blessing… his OWN blessing not the one he stole so many years ago. Indeed, Jacob is not simply struggling for a material blessing like food or land but is struggling for his identity, the meaning of his existence. His persistence pays off, he is blessed by the angel and he is no longer Jacob the cheat but Israel; the one who has struggled with God and prevailed. It is a trait that is to become a hallmark of his descendents, the nation of Israel, who will struggle with God through the Wilderness, in the Promised Land, into Exile and back again. It is a rocky relationship in which Israel is constantly grappling with the God who blessed them.

Now, as we take a step back from this story, an important detail stands out. God’s blessing did not come to Jacob until Jacob admitted to God and himself just the kind of person he had been, a cheater and deceiver. Jacob knew he had wronged Esau and as a result found himself on the run. He realized that when he tried to go his own way, taking another’s blessing, that it brought nothing but strife in his relationships and emptiness in his soul. Jacob found himself alone by that river, isolated by his own scheming designs. He was a shell of a person, with no identity. Indeed, He was not himself but only remnants of what he had taken from Esau and Laban. It is when Jacob put these things aside, sending them on ahead of him to Esau, that he could truly grapple with God and discover the blessing that was in store for him. He is no longer a cheat but a descendent of Abraham and heir to the promise of the great nation of Israel that is to come through his twelve sons.

Well that’s great for Jacob, but what about us? What does God have to say to us in this story? I think it’s that same thorny question the angel posed to Jacob, “What is your name?” “Who are you?”. You probably would respond as Jacob did with our given name but like Jacob would also realize the question runs deeper. It might be more like: “What else are you known by?” “What is your reputation?” “What do others call you or do you call yourself?” Perhaps you are called “powerful”, “attractive”, or “successful” and you pretend that you have it all together. Or you may dwell on different names… ugly, unworthy, or disappointing. In either case when we are asked the question “What is your name?” We come to our own Penuel, standing face to face with God, examining our lives. We become acutely aware that we are not who we claim to be.  We try so hard to be someone or something that we are not. Or we let our failure and brokenness define us. In the end we have to give both of these up. In our wrestling and struggling with God we come to our true identity. Indeed, God will not let our false pretensions or our self loathing go unchecked.No, God will give us our identity. God and God alone will define who we are.

So as we stand before God we realize that we are not in control, that God is not to be mastered or contained. He will be what he will be. Yet, It is in this moment of complete humility, we remember who it is that God is on account of Christ; A God of abundant grace and compassion. By his gracious will, You are given a blessing, You are given a new name. Indeed because of Christ you are no longer called ugly, rejected, or shameful and instead you are made beautiful, accepted and honored. You are a new creation in Christ. THIS is your new name. THIS is your blessing. You are claimed as God’s child.

And as Martin Luther reminds us in his explanation to the Lord’s Prayer, as beloved children of God we can come to Him with our plea, like the plea of the widow in today’s gospel. We are allowed and indeed encouraged to struggle with God the judge, petitioning him ceaselessly. Demanding justice, mercy, and compassion; for his kingdom come, his will be done. Indeed, we read today that the Son of Man will come again, and so we pray to God with confidence, in faith, knowing that one day all things will work for the good and all creation will be made new. We pray with persistence not to annoy an indifferent judge but rather because we find hope in the loving arms of God our creator.

Moreover, it is in our persistence that we find ourselves exactly where we were intended to be. Not looking out at what we can grab but looking up, to where our help comes from. Amen.

 

Sermon from 10/6/2013 Luke 17:5-10 Habakkuk 1:1-4, 2:1-4

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from our Lord Jesus the Christ Amen.
Ouch! In today’s gospel we encounter a Jesus who is irritated, snarky and downright mean. The disciples simply ask for faith and Jesus brings down the hammer hard, mocking them as if to say: “You want more faith?” You only need faith the size of a small seed! Why are you asking for more faith?” As if this weren’t bad enough, Jesus continues to talk down to them, comparing them to simple house servants, slaves even, who are simply expected to do what they are told without special treatment or consideration. They are not even granted a bit of faith… What gives Jesus? Where is this kindly shepherd and relentless coin searcher we’ve been hearing about?
I mean it’s not as though the disciples’ request seems all that ridiculous. In the verses preceding the gospel text for today Jesus commands his followers to avoid causing people to stumble on His teachings. If this is too hard, Jesus says to them, why don’t you just tie some bricks around your neck and throw yourself into the sea. Furthermore, if you are sinned against, you are to forgive the offender each time they repent, no asterisk, no qualifying clause, no excuses, simply forgive every time. So in the very next verse, the first verse of our text, we can’t fault the disciples for asking for a little help. We might say along with them as they do in chapter 18: “This teaching is hard! Who then can be saved?!”
Habakkuk is having his own crisis of faith in today’s first reading. The prophet is finding it hard to trust in a supposedly merciful and just God. A God who lets the wicked and evil doers prosper and allows justice to come forth perverted. Habakkuk is made sick by those in Judah who do evil and who go so far as to manipulate the law and render judgments in their favor at the expense of the people. Perverting the very law given by God to serve and sustain these people. Habakkuk hits home here. He gets at a deep and troubling question. God, why do you let bad things happen? Why do you let evil people do as they please? God, If you really love us, where do you go when the winds howl and the rain starts to pour? It’s a hard world we live in. Even more so when we must do what you require.
Indeed as we look to our own lives, we see a government that is shut down leaving many people without services or jobs while our well compensated leaders refuse to collaborate. We in record numbers are experiencing poverty and hunger in a nation that is also experiencing economic growth. We continue to struggle with disease and loss while health providers make large and unseemly profits. And so we ask God along with the prophet, why is it that you let the wicked prosper and let justice be manipulated for those who can afford it?! Furthermore, why is it so ridiculous to ask for a little help to go against the grain; to bring your hard teachings to a world who is unwilling to hear it, a world that is ready to pounce on those who show weakness and compassion? Why can we not ask for a little help to do your will? Why is it so unreasonable to ask for a little fortitude… a little faith?
We are left lingering on this question as we turn back to the parable. What is getting Jesus so riled up? Why the heavy hand and the angry and impatient parable? Why not just give the guys some faith…?
The thing is, I don’t think Jesus is opposed to nurturing faith. Rather, as we read about a couple weeks ago it is Jesus’ intention to bring in the lost sheep and the missing coins. Indeed earlier in Luke Jesus lays out his purpose plainly saying: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” All this is a glaring contradiction to the proposition that Jesus is opposed to creating faith. So why does he rebuke the disciples here?
You see in Jesus’ estimation the disciples had all they needed for faith, even if that faith was only the size of a small seed. Indeed, Jesus had been proclaiming loudly and decisively in front of them that God is for them and not against them. God binds up the injured and seeks out the lost and helps them to carry their heavy burdens. Up to this point he had preached the coming Kingdom, performed miracles and healed a multitude. So when they ask for faith, Jesus is irritated thinking, “How much more proof do these guys need?” After all, they had all the proof they needed standing right in front of them in the person of Jesus who IS God. The very same God they witnessed going to the cross to suffer, die and be raised defeating the powers of death and sin. Indeed how much more do the disciples need?
But what about us? We were not there to witness one of Jesus’ miraculous healings or to hear him preach powerfully about God’s coming Kingdom. We were not present with the disciples to see the empty tomb and we have not put our hand in Jesus’ side as Thomas did. What do we have? How are we to have our faith increased?
We still have signs, tangible proof of God’s loving faithfulness… It is the water in the font. Our proof comes to us in that common everyday compound with God’s word: “You are my son, You are my daughter in whom I am well pleased”. It is the bread and the wine on the altar. With these common things and God’s Word we hear once more from Jesus “this is my body broken for YOU…This is my blood, shed for YOU… Not just him or her or that guy over there but for YOU.
It is in these things we can take heart and grab a hold of the hope we have from God. Indeed, we gather together in community as the body of Christ to experience, Emmanuel, God with us, who is permeating our relationships with love. It is in these sacraments we know that God is for us and not against us and that he has not given up on this broken world.
Alright, we have faith… so now what? What about the rest of the parable? What is Jesus getting at with all this slave business…? How does faith have anything to do with it…? I think he is saying that with faith, which God provides, we are empowered to do great things, even if that faith is as small and seemingly inconsequential as mustard seed, and is founded in simple, every day things like water or bread and wine. Moreover, in these things we are reminded once more that we are loved by a God who created us in His own image and though we have strayed has recreated us in that image once more and for all time in Christ’s death and resurrection. Our faith, our hope is built on nothing less. This is how we can live as obedient servants because we know by faith that though we were once worthless slaves, slaves to sin, we have been set free; that though we were lost we are now found. You see we obey our Lord and Savior not to garner favor or to prove our faith but rather our faith in a loving God moves us to do great things. We live for God because God lived and died for us and set us free to truly live for Him and for one another. Our guilt is assuaged, our shame is lifted and our brokenness is made whole. You are free on account of the gospel, so go and live as you were called to be, servants of our living God. Amen.