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Sermon: Possession Possession. October 10, 2021

This is the sermon I preached at Grace Lutheran Church, River Forest, IL, on Sunday, October 10, the Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost. You can watch the service and view the bulletin. The image is Christus und der reiche Jüngling, Heinrich Hofmann, 1889 (public domain).

Sisters and brothers in Christ, grace be unto you and peace in the name God the Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

  1. Well done, everyone. You’re here! You made it. Whether you’re sitting in Grace’s beautiful sanctuary today or joining us from the comfort of your own home via livestream, you’re here. Really, this is good. So much better than not being here. We gather today to come into the presence of Jesus, and there’s nothing about that that isn’t good. Because Jesus is good, and because we come with the best of intentions. Surprisingly, that’s exactly where we get tripped up; it is precisely the bringing of our best intentions into Jesus’ presence that messes us up. Jesus, however, is having none of it. Jesus has a word for us today, wielded as a warrior handles a double-edged sword. So, I’m glad you’re here, good intentions and all. But it may not be as comfortable as we might like; not for you, and not for me.
  2. The man comes into the presence of Jesus with the best of intentions. He’s earnest, likeable. He’s not a Pharisee looking to trap Jesus or a Sadducee looking to undermine him. There are no tricks or traps in his question, just honest inquiry: “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” This is not an unreasonable question. It’s the same question we ask about so many things in our lives: What do I have to do? In our jobs, our homes, our relationships, we are constantly – and often appropriately – asking what we need to do. Most of my days begin with the crafting of a to-do list; the crossing off of items is a dependable bringer of joy. Look what I’ve done! The problem, of course, is that this isn’t what Jesus is looking for from us and, if it were, we would fail miserably.
  3. I can imagine Jesus chuckling to himself when this man says that he’s kept the commandments since his youth. I’m sure Jesus is aware of a few transgressions, but he likes this guy, so he lets him get away with it. But only, perhaps, because Jesus knows how best to come after him. “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” The man is cut to the core. In the middle of the interchange, we read that Jesus loves him and looks at him, but the Greek points us in a slightly different direction. Jesus, who does love this man, does not so much look at him as he looks into Jesus isn’t interested in how the man appears. Sure, he looks like an upstanding, law-abiding citizen. But Jesus can see his heart, and his heart is possessed by his possessions. So many of Jesus’ signs and miracles, particularly in Mark’s narrative, are exorcisms. The casting out of demons. Jesus, looking into this man’s heart, sees a demon of the man’s own making. He suffers from possession possession. He cannot let go of his things because his things will not let go of him. Unable to let go of his wealth, he lets go of Jesus and walks away in grief. He came with the best of intentions but with a sickness in his heart that was nothing less than idolatry. Given the choice – the choice – between Jesus and his stuff, he chooses his stuff. He does so in spite of the fact that eternal life comes only with Christ. All his stuff has to offer is an eternally crowded basement that his kids will have to clean out when he’s dead. Who would choose such a thing? One who is possessed; one who has fallen into idolatry. His intentions can’t save him. This man can’t save himself. He is undone.
  4. The disciples are left reeling. To be sure, they don’t have the bank account or the real estate portfolio of the other guy, but they understand what Jesus is saying. Jesus drives home the point: “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” For two thousand years, commentators and interpreters have heard these words in much the same way that Lloyd responds to Mary in the 1994 cinematic masterpiece, Dumb and Dumber, when she tells him that there’s a one-in-a-million chance of the two of them ending up in a romantic relationship. To this hyperbolic comment, the literalist Lloyd responds, “So you’re telling me there’s a chance!” Spoiler alert: Lloyd and Mary don’t end up together. In the same way, Jesus is not saying that there’s a small chance we can earn our way into the kingdom. He’s not talking about an actual gate in Jerusalem that people called the Eye of the Needle that was difficult, but possible, to get a camel through. Spoiler alert: people made that up to soften Jesus’ words. No, Jesus’ point, understood perfectly by the disciples, is that it is impossible – for the man or for them, for you or for me – to do anything to get into the Kingdom. Perhaps because of our wealth, especially in this community. But whatever it is, we are all prone to letting something that isn’t God occupy the center of our heart, something that we have idolatrously turned into a false god, that we don’t what to give up. We all have, to turn to a film (and a book!) with more gravitas, something precious to us that we will chase after even as it eats us alive, just as Gollum seeks the One Ring to his final undoing in The Lord of the Rings. And, like the young man, even though it grieves us, we simply will not relinquish our death grip on that thing, whatever it is, even though Jesus stands in front of us with the Kingdom on offer.
  5. So, what do we do? No. Enough. That’s the wrong question. There is nothing we can do to inherit eternal life, and nothing we need to do. They say they can’t take it with you when you die. Well, I suppose the only thing to do then is drop dead. To be set free of our possessions and all that possesses us, we need to die. In walks Christ, looking into us, loving us, dying for us that we might be pierced with the two-edged sword that brings life through death. Perhaps this is why babies sometimes cry when they’re baptized. They know, deep down, that this is not some cute ritual. It is a matter of death and life – but always, thank God always, in that order. Out of death, paved with the best of intentions, we are drawn by Christ into newness of life. Alive, we are called now to live like it.
  6. 750 years, give or take, before the coming of Christ, Amos prophesied to the people of Israel. Speaking of good intentions, I had every intention of devoting a good portion of this sermon to our passage from Amos. But here we are, with things already winding down. So, I’ll keep it short. During the time of Amos, under the rule of Jeroboam II, things seemed to be going well. The well-to-do had it made. Their wealth was built, however, upon the backs of the poor. And not because they were hardworking folks who earned it while the poor were lazy ne’er-do-wells. No, the rich were rich because they were cheats who were willing to game the system – they were willing to create a system – to subvert the economy and corrupt the courts of law so that they could trample on the poor. And why were they willing to do this? Because they had abandoned worship of the one true God. It turns out that having something that’s not God at the center of their lives led them to treat other humans as disposable, mostly so they could get more junk for themselves. Amos’s message has not lost its relevance. I am no prophet, but God has not changed God’s mind about what is expected of us. Love God. Love neighbor. Everything else is a self-serving lie leading nowhere. Receiving the promises of God as gifts, we are free to do what God expects of us.
  7. Today is a wonderful reminder of the simple truth that there’s no way out. The world continues to whisper: Get all you can. Trample on others in the process. Hold something in your heart other than God. But none of it will get you anywhere. You are trapped. Undone. Buried under all the things to which you cling. Well, good news: Jesus does his best work with those who are dead and buried. There’s nothing you can do to inherit the Kingdom. You might as well drop dead. Seriously. Because then God can raise you. Your possessions lose possession of you. The Spirit reclaims God’s rightful spot in your heart. And you, alive for the first time, can live like you were meant to live. Not with selfish idolatry, but as a resurrected child of the Kingdom of God. You couldn’t do it on your own, and you never needed to anyway. Let it go. Cling to Christ. Hold loosely everything that is not Christ. Release it for the sake of your neighbor as we anticipate the great upside-downing that is the Kingdom of God. Check your best intentions at the door; stop asking what you need to do and look to Christ who has done everything for you. Come on in. You made it; you’re here! And you didn’t even have to do a thing. Enjoy being last as you live your life putting others before yourself. Just as Jesus does for you. Amen.

And now may that peace that passes all understanding keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus, this day and forever. Amen.

Sermon: Are We There Yet? September 26, 2021

This is the sermon I preached at Grace Lutheran Church, River Forest, IL, on September 26, the Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost. You can view the service here and the bulletin here. The photo is of a road trip, before anyone asked if we were there yet.

Sisters and brothers in Christ, grace be unto you and peace in the name God the Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

  1. Anyone who has ever spent time in a car with children knows the refrain: Are we there yet? It’s a simple enough question; just four little words. But while it may begin as honest curiosity, it quickly morphs into something else: Complaint. And honestly, if you’re travelling by car from, say, South Carolina to Minnesota, there’s no good reason to ask when you only pulled out of the driveway five minutes ago. Are we there yet? Are you crazy? No, we’re not there yet! Yet the question will persist from the backseat, as both children and parents begin to wonder why they’re even making the journey at all. No matter how excited children or parents are about the particular there to which they’re travelling, complaining on the way is seemingly unavoidable. We want to be there now. We want to get there on our terms.
  2. In the epic road trip that is the Exodus from Egypt to the Promised Land, the pattern of complaint holds true. Having been graciously rescued and redeemed from bondage and slavery, the Israelites spent nearly a year at Mount Sinai. Close to God’s presence, they received the gift of the Law that would guide their living in their new home. The time comes to depart, and the people get back on the road. Within five minutes of pulling out of Sinai’s driveway, however, the complaining begins. Apparently, journeying another 200 miles without meat was just too much to bear. The rabble begin to complain, wishing that they could turn around and go back whence they came. Slavery wasn’t that bad, after all, right? Remember? We had all the free melons and cucumbers we could eat. And the garlic! The fish! Mmm, we should totally go back. Slavery wasn’t that The Lord is literally giving the people a new land, replete with freedom and blessed by covenant and Law, and these ingrates want to go back to Egypt! Up in the front seat, Moses and the Lord become frustrated. Well, God is just plain mad, and I can’t say I can blame God. Really, the Lord must be thinking? I give you freedom and you complain about the menu? Moses, however, has a bit of a “Whose kids are these, anyway?” moment. He turns to the Lord, exasperated: “Did I conceive all this people? Did I give birth to them?” Moses is, for all intents and purposes, telling God that he, Moses, is not their mother but that God is. God gave birth to this great people, working new life in spite of the age and barrenness of Abraham and Sarah. God birthed them. Will God no longer care for them? The Lord remembers the promise and, instead of turning this car around right now, provides for Moses and the people by raising up seventy elders, plus Eldad and Medad to boot. Left to their own devices, mired in their pointless complaints, the people would have ended up nowhere good. But God won’t let things turn out that way; God relents from punishing and instead provides for the needs of the people, however ungrateful they are. God doesn’t let the people go where they want. God insists on getting them where they need to go. The Lord will not let their complaining derail the journey to the Promised Land.
  3. 1,300 years down the road, things haven’t really improved. The people, despite Jesus’ presence with them, continue to complain. Just last week we heard of how the disciples were arguing amongst themselves about who was the greatest. Today, John gets a bee in his bonnet because someone he doesn’t know is doing works of power and mercy in the name of Jesus. He’s not one of us, John protests! He and the other disciples just cannot accept that the journey is unfolding according to Jesus’ plan, not theirs. Just as Moses told Joshua to welcome the spiritual ministry of Eldad and Medad, so does Jesus tell John that this other man’s ministry is welcome. Is it not better to have more people working for the sake of the Kingdom?
  4. While John is busy trying to keep the Kingdom small enough for him to comprehend, Jesus insists on bringing the disciples back to the point at hand. Throughout this section of Mark, Jesus keeps returning to the theme of welcome; he is particularly passionate about welcoming little ones, children and the like. In a bid to get his friends to finally listen, Jesus offers a scandalous teaching: Anyone who keeps a little one from Jesus or in any other way stumbles or causes offense would be better off tying a millstone around their neck and jumping in a lake; such people should start cutting off their hands and feet, plucking out their eyes when they sin, for such a fate is better than ending up in the worm-ridden, ever-burning fires of hell. The language is so salty it must be hyperbolic. Jesus, I’m sure, does not desire a world filled with half-blind, self-maimed people. But just because he’s being hyperbolic doesn’t mean he’s not serious, and deadly so. Jesus needs to grab their attention. As Flannery O’Conner wrote, “To the hard of hearing, you shout and, for the almost blind, you draw large and startling figures.” Jesus is not so much suggesting that we should become half-blind; he is offering the stark diagnosis that we already are. So focused are we on who’s in and who’s out, on where we rank, that we ignore the basic call of Jesus: to follow him and welcome others in his name, not on our terms.
  5. In our failure, we create the hell which Jesus describes. The word in the Scriptures is not hell but Gehenna, and it was an actual place outside the city walls of Jerusalem. In past centuries it was where the worst of the kings of Judah had practiced child sacrifice by fire. In their idolatry, their turning away from the Lord, they had embraced the worst of humanity; perhaps they had lost their humanity altogether. Jesus wants his followers to understand that failing to welcome children, and all others who are lost, least, or littlest, is to become worthy of the fate deserved by those who once practiced infanticide. Blind to others, with hands of sin, we have stumbled and caused others to do likewise. We give ourselves back into bondage in so many ways. Whatever hell may exist on the other side of death, it exists also in this world. Not because God wills it, but because we have created it.
  6. Jesus’ diagnosis of our problem is stark, startling. But even more surprising is the cure. Instead of demanding that we reap the consequences of sin, Jesus goes to the cross for us. Rather than asking us to cut off our hands, Jesus allows himself to be cut off from the land of the living. Rather than allowing us to limit who is inside, Jesus goes outside the city gates and dies with arms open, embracing all. Rather than leaving us in or sending us to hell, Jesus descends into both the hells we create and the devil’s own domain to save and redeem us from such places that we need not live in fear of them. Rather than subjecting us to fires that consume, Jesus pours out upon us the fire that refines, the very Holy Spirit whose coming sets us alight with God’s power and salts us for mission in the world. And Jesus does all of this, all of this, to create a Kingdom in which the last are first, the littlest are loved, and no one needs to worry about being left out because everyone begins to think of others instead of themselves. Are we there yet? Finally, here is a there to yearn for, to pray for, to work on reaching as soon as possible. Hyperbole aside, Jesus is in earnest when he speaks to us, calling us to remove all obstacles that would hinder even the littlest from coming to him. Prepare the way of the Lord, as the prophets proclaimed.
  7. You, friends, have been saved from yourselves. We have been rescued from the power of sin and set on a journey that moves in the direction Jesus would have us go. Set aside your complaints, your pettiness, your need to say who does or doesn’t belong, your desire to take a position of pride. Set it all aside. Cut off these things and cast them into the fire, for you have been redeemed. Find joy in the journey, and the grace to know that Jesus has done all that is needed to get us there. And while we have a way to go in many regards, the next time a little one wonders, “Are we there yet?” just tell them yes. We’re already there, safely arrived in the life-giving promise of our crucified and risen Lord. Amen.

And now may that peace that passes all understanding keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus, this day and forever. Amen.

Sermon: Sticks and Stones. September 12, 2021

This sermon was preached at Grace Lutheran Church on the Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost. You can view the service and the bulletin, too. The image is Christ Carrying the Cross, El Greco, 1590-1595 (public domain).

Sisters and brothers in Christ, grace be unto you and peace in the name God the Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

  1. It was all anyone could talk about, although it was hard to find the words at first. Like most of you, I remember where I was 20 years ago when four commercial flights were highjacked and transformed into weapons of hate. A classmate knocked on my dorm room door sometime between 7:46 and 8:03 Central, in between the first tower and the second being hit. I remember the time because I was still sleeping for the first but was awake to see the second happen in real time. I remember huddling with others around tv screens throughout the day; gathering in the seminary chapel to weep and pray and lament; talking with friends in quiet tones about what it all meant. My classmates and I were in our last year of seminary, filled with theological knowledge and insight, ready to go into parish ministry to preach the Word. But even though the attacks were all we could talk about, words failed us. Suddenly, the future seemed less secure. Would there be more attacks? In what sort of world were we now living? We found ourselves in a time of national disaster and calamity, and the future was a fearful place. What words could we speak in the face of such senseless suffering and loss, such rampant pain and death?
  2. It was all anyone could talk about, but no one seemed to have quite the right words to describe who he was or what was taking place. As he walked with his disciples on the way to Caesarea Philippi, he walked through a region that had been caught up in his story. It’s hard to ignore a sudden spate of healings and exorcisms, after all. The authorities were even getting a bit worried. Who was he? John the Baptist? Elijah? Jesus turns and asks the disciples what they think. Peter answers: You are the Messiah. The Messiah; God’s anointed. The One chosen and sent to redeem Israel from their ongoing national disaster. Peter says the right words in this moment but has no idea what they mean. So, Jesus tells him: The Son of Man, like the Suffering Servant of Isaiah’s prophecy, must suffer. He will be rejected. Killed. And after three days, raised. But Peter has stopped listening by this point, and likely doesn’t hear the final note about resurrection. Peter gets stuck on suffering and death. Why would Jesus go toward suffering and death? What kind of Messiah is he? This makes no sense. Peter’s future clouds with fear, and Peter takes it upon himself to rebuke his teacher.
  3. But Jesus rebukes Peter, and the words sting: “Get behind me, Satan.” Why the stern rejoinder? Well, simply put, words matter, and this is never truer than when it comes to Jesus, the Word of God. In an epistle written several decades later, James takes up the power of the tongue, this little rudder that can run a ship aground; this small flame that can burn down a forest. Children’s rhymes about sticks and stones notwithstanding, we know the negative power of words, especially spoken in gossip or slander, insult or hate. Sticks and stones are usually picked up because we have become inflamed by words, our own or someone else’s. Verbal violence begets physical violence. Our tongues, however, as James reminds us, were given to us that we would bless and praise God, not damage one another. In speaking of God, truth matters. And the truth of the matter is that Jesus has come not simply to save Israel but the whole creation, and that he does so not by fleeing from suffering and death, but by taking up his cross in the midst of their awful power. Peter may have had the best of intentions, but it is devilish to stand in Jesus’ way, for it is the way of salvation. It is the way of the cross, for only through the death of the Son of Man can life be restored in this broken world.
  4. The way of the cross for Jesus becomes the way of discipleship for us. If we would follow, we are called to take up our cross and fall in behind him. Note, first, that we are called to take up our cross, not Jesus’. It is for him, and him alone, to suffer for sin and die to save and redeem. That work is now finished, as proclaimed by Christ himself with his dying breath. In his death and resurrection, we have been gifted with new life and the promise of the Father’s future glory with the angels. But in this world, in this life, we bear the cross, that same sign in which our baptism was sealed. One never quite knows, perhaps, how the call to cruciform living will manifest itself in our lives. Surely, James’s call to us to do the good work of clothing and feeding the needy, to eschew evil speech and use our words instead to praise and bless, helps us understand the task in front of us. But discipleship begins and ends simply with following Jesus. By getting out of his way and getting out of the business of trying to tell God what to do. By fixing our eyes on Christ and seeing where he leads us.
  5. You recall, perhaps, the story of Father Mychal Judge, the Franciscan friar and New York Fire Department chaplain. His ministry blessed those at the margins: the hungry and homeless; those suffering addiction or living with AIDS; the sick and the grieving. On a Tuesday morning 20 years ago, Father Judge learned of the horrific attack on the World Trade Center and rushed to Ground Zero. He took up a position in the emergency command center in the North Tower, offering assistance and prayer for the injured and his fellow first responders. When the South Tower collapsed, debris went flying through the North Tower lobby, killing Father Judge. He was one of 343 firefighters who died that day, faithful servants whose cruciform vocation took them directly into suffering and death in the hope that others would be saved. While he lived, Father Judge prayed this prayer daily: “Lord, take me where you want me to go; Let me meet who you want me to meet; Tell me what you want me to say; And keep me out of your way.” This is a prayer of cross-bearing discipleship; keep me out of your way, Lord, that you may lead and that I may follow. Father Judge was the first certified fatality of that horrible day, and so bears the designation of Victim 0001. At his funeral, Father Michael Duffy’s homily included these words: “We will bury Mychal Judge’s body, but not his spirit. We will bury his mind, but not his dreams. We will bury his voice, but not his message. We will bury his hands, but not his good works. We will bury his heart, but not his love. Never his love.” Indeed. When we follow the One whose path leads to death and resurrection, we can enter into the suffering of others without fear for the future, for the future belongs to the God who raised Jesus from the dead.
  6. What, then, shall we say? In this world where sin and suffering so often seem to have their way, let us keep our eyes on Jesus. In him, we are already forgiven. In him, we already live in the promise of eternal life. In him, though we lose everything, we receive all we need for this world and the next. In Christ, let us find our voice, speaking comfort and hope to those who grieve, and peace and goodwill to those who continue to believe that violence is the solution. Jesus gave himself up to violence and death, but God raised him from the dead, vindicating the way of a peace that surpasses, the way of a love that bears and believes, hopes and endures all things. Live in this love, church, and work for this peace. Let us follow. Let us take up the cross as our rudder, getting out of Jesus’ way as he leads how and where we need to go, knowing we have nothing to fear. Amen.

And now may that peace that passes all understanding keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus, this day and forever. Amen.

Sermon: Who Let the Dogs In? September 5, 2021

I preached this sermon at Grace Lutheran Church, River Forest, IL, on the Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost. Feel free to view the service and the bulletin. The image is Jesus and the Woman of Canaan, by Michael Angelo Immenraet, 1673-1678 (public domain).

Sisters and brothers in Christ, grace be unto you and peace in the name God the Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

  1. My old preaching professor, David Lose, once wrote that “the more challenging or difficult a passage, the more likely it is to lead to a great sermon.” Well, I make no promises, but if he’s right, you’re about to hear a home run, because today’s gospel reading is about as tough as they come. Why? Because we’re presented with a view of Jesus that is difficult to see, that challenges our preconceptions. Having just called out the hypocrisy of the Jewish religious leaders, so caught up on what can make you unclean from without that they forget to look within, he journeys now into Gentile territory. To the lands where uncleanliness was the norm. He meets a woman who, with the audacity born of a mother’s desperation, dares to approach him. She bows and begs before Jesus, imploring him to cast out the demon in possession of her daughter. And what does Jesus say? “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” Whatever else might be going on here, it’s his final word that trips us up. Did he just call this woman’s daughter a dog? It’s tempting to try to put a shine on his words; perhaps he’s joking, or perhaps in the ancient Near East calling someone a dog was cute or endearing. Perhaps you’ve read or been told such things before, but these are solutions that hold as much water as a sieve. Calling someone a dog was an insult and, in this particular moment, one that seems driven by racial and religious difference. Why, Jesus is asking, would I give a dog like you anything when my people, the chosen children of God, are hungry and in need?
  2. Jesus, this sinless but very human Jesus, is caught here by the same forces that confront us. On the borders, where people of difference interact with one another, they do so with threats and insults. When confronted with humans that are different, we tend to dehumanize, which is exactly what Jesus’ words seek to do. You are not person; you’re a dog. It is uncomfortable to hear these words, picture this interaction. Our Jesus, perfect Jesus, would never do such a thing. And yet here we are? What are we to do with such a Jesus?
  3. I’ve had a lot of conversations lately in which people have expressed a feeling of being closed in. The hope of the summer, when we talked about “coming out of COVID,” has given way to a feeling of “here we go again.” ICUs are filling up as travel restrictions are handed down. As climate change continues to rear its ugly head, we watch as the west burns and the east is inundated with water. And the withdrawal from Afghanistan has heightened a humanitarian crisis in which humans become refugees; at least, those lucky enough to get out. We are in closed-in times. These difficulties do not tend to bring out the best in people. Blame is cast and names are called, and people become ever more deeply entrenched in their own positions, however misguided or just plain wrong. We, whoever we are, are the good, the righteous, the holy. Those people? Nothing more than dogs.
  4. If we let go of our need to gloss over or apologize for Jesus’ words, we see just how good the good news of our God is. We do not see a Jesus who is entirely immune from this world’s problems, but we do see an amazing thing. In Jesus, we see the possibility of change. Debie Thomas writes, “The ‘Good News’ is not that we serve a shiny, inaccessible deity who floats five feet above the ground. It is that Jesus shows us – in real time, in the flesh – what it means to grow as a child of God. He embodies what it looks like to stretch into a deeper, truer, and fuller comprehension of God’s love.” And why does he do this? He is motivated by the faith of this foreigner, this woman, this person who had no standing before Jesus so bows before him instead: “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” Her words, her comprehension of just how abundant the Kingdom God is, seem to remind Jesus of his mission, the fulfillment of the promise made long before to Abraham and Sarah – that from them would come blessing not only for their many descendants, but for people of every nation.
  5. Moving on to the region of the Decapolis, Jesus is encountered by another person in need, another Gentile, this man who was deaf and had trouble speaking. Jesus no longer seeks to hold a foreigner at a distance. The scene is intimate, tactile. Jesus sticks is fingers in the man’s ears, spit on the ground, touches the man’s tongue. And then he looks up to heaven and sighs. If Mark had drawn a thought bubble in the margins of his manuscript, I can imagine Jesus thinking as he sighs, “I hear you, Father. Thanks for the reminder of the mission. Let’s do this.” Then, in Aramaic: Ephphatha. Be opened. Not only do the ears and mouth of this man open up, but we are given a sign of wide-open eschatological hope. Isaiah’s prophecy springs to life, with sight to the blind and hearing to the deaf and those who could not speak now bursting into songs of praise. This is what the future will look like, and this is what Jesus enacts in the present for these two Gentiles.
  6. Jesus came first for the people of the promise, yes, but not only for them. The woman in today’s passage caught that vision and knew that at the feast of the Lord even the crumbs are more than enough, more than we could ever anticipate or need. Jesus would keep journeying, from Tyre and the Decapolis all the way to Jerusalem, where he would die on the cross, both as victim of and atonement for this world’s sinful refusal to live out God’s expansive vision. His body would be laid to rest in a tomb, bereft of hearing, sight, or speech. Dead. Completely closed in. But God, if God speaks Aramaic, would say in that moment exactly what Jesus said to the man who was deaf: Ephphatha. Be opened! And out of dry, dusty death would suddenly flow streams of living water quenching the thirst of the ground and giving life to all creation. Out of death, resurrection. Today, we come to Jesus’ table. We find placed in our hands a little bread; we drink a little wine from a little cup. Crumbs, really, but crumbs that hold the fullness of the body and blood of Christ, this Jesus who gave his life to forgive our sins and fulfill God’s promises for people of every nation. Even you and me. We may be little more than stray dogs. But there are seats at the table for us next to the lost sheep, all gathered at the Lamb’s high feast, beggars no more. These crumbs of grace are enough.
  7. And if we live in the hope of the day when dogs and sheep eat together, when lions and lambs lie down together, what does that mean for our living now? Perhaps simply this. That if Jesus could admit a mistake, change his mind, chart a new direction, so, by his grace, can we. We can loosen the grip on our prejudices and undig our heels. We can step into the sunlight of a world ever opened up by God’s transformative grace. For we whose ears were once stoppered in sin have had that old wax removed. We whose tongues were tied with slander and insult have learned how much better it is to sing God’s praise. In the power of the risen Christ, we are made new. We who were dead are alive. Ephphatha, my friends. Be opened. Live in the open, with open hands and open hearts, with a faith that lives to work for the sake of others, wherever they come from, whatever they look like, whoever they are, for they are children of the blessing, too. Amen.

And now may that peace that passes all understanding keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus, this day and forever. Amen.

Sermon: Flesh and Blood. August 22, 2021

This is the sermon I preached on the 13th Sunday after Pentecost at Grace Lutheran Church, River Forest, IL. You can watch the worship service and view the bulletin, too. The picture is my family at Wrigley for the Saturday game. I was there on Sunday, too, to see the Royals complete the sweep.

Sisters and brothers in Christ, grace be unto you and peace in the name God the Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

  1. The divisions between human beings are often so obvious they hardly need to be noted, but that doesn’t stop people. A number of people good-naturedly pointed this out to us yesterday as we were walking to Wrigley Field. “Hey, a house divided!” they’d call out as they saw us coming, me decked out in Royals gear, the boys proudly sporting their Cubs regalia. Erika and Greta, perhaps choosing the better part of valor, declined to represent either team. Unlike the three of us, they were dressed as normal human beings. At any rate, the game was more fun for me, with the Royals beating whoever those guys are in the Cubs uniforms these days. We were a house divided, at least for a few hours, and it was fun to banter about this division with some of the people around us.
  2. Many divisions are not so benign, of course. With the onset of another COVID surge, the ever-present political differences among us are cast in even starker relief, with decisions that could be life-and-death being made as the new school year begins. And life-and-death divisions are all the news out of Afghanistan as people, both Afghan and otherwise, flee what will surely not be the inclusive reign the Taliban wants the world to believe is their intent. I could go on, but there’s no need. We humans excel at dividing into groups, declaring who’s in and who’s out, and it’s a good day when the worst that comes of it is a baseball game. We have a bad habit of doing far worse.
  3. Today, Jesus’ lengthy discourse on the Bread of Life concludes, and it does so with division. “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them,” Jesus proclaims. While he ties such eating and drinking to eternal life, his teaching nevertheless turns off a great many of those who had so far been his disciples. It’s not hard to understand an initial sense of revulsion. Is Jesus teaching cannibalism? He wants us to eat him, to drink his blood? This would have been even more difficult for his original audience. His own people, the Jews, did not eat food with blood in still in it. That’s what pagans did. But even pagans would balk at drinking blood. No doubt for this reason many Protestants have long believed that Jesus only sort of means what he’s saying, both here and in the Words of Institution. It’s just bread and wine, people, they assure us. Yes, Jesus’ teaching is offensive, divisive. But he also knows that he’s just getting started. “What will you think,” he asks, “when you see the Son of Man – crucified and raised, dead but now alive – ascend back into heaven?”
  4. Yes, it is difficult to understand Jesus, even more challenging to believe in him. The root cause, however, is not the content of his teaching but our need for it. Our need for Jesus offends us.. Those who eat and drink Jesus will live. Those who don’t, won’t. Jesus is declaring that apart from him, the Word of Life, there is no life. We do not have life on our own. We are not in control of our own destiny. And nothing attacks the old Adam or Eve more than this, the simple fact that we are not in charge; that we are not autonomous; that we are not free. There is nothing more seductive than the echoing voice of the serpent: Ye shall be as gods. We yearn for control, not a reminder that we are needy, empty. The preacher Amy Howe writes, “We like to think we are in control of our lives, our destiny.” She goes on, with words I can relate to: “When things are spinning out of control in my world – deadlines looming, neighbors needing, a chronically ill child – I stop and clean my house. I do not have control over the other, but I can bring order to the chaos of my kitchen!” Preach, preacher! Never is the Lyle home cleaner than when other elements of our lives are out of control, when other, more complex, tasks beckon. But control is an illusion, and freedom is not loudly insisting that we can do whatever we want. Freedom begins when we realize our utter, total dependance. And that is what this whole Bread of Life thing has been about the whole time. In the words of the inimitable Frederick Buechner, “We don’t live by bread alone, but we also don’t live long without it. To eat is to acknowledge our dependence – both on food and on each other. It also reminds us of other kinds of emptiness that not even the blue-plate special can touch.”
  5. We are dependent, needy, empty, even if we spend so much time pretending otherwise. Life has a way of sneaking up on us from time to time and reminding us just how needy we are, through a challenge at work, an unexpected diagnosis, a long-felt grief. Where shall we turn? Jesus has no self-help on the menu today. There’s nothing for us to do. He is the Bread of Life, but no one is coming to Jesus unless it is granted by his Father. Eight chapters later, on the night before his death, Jesus will tell these same disciples that no one can come to the Father except through Jesus. We can’t come to Jesus except through the Father; we can’t come to the Father except through Jesus. What are we to do? Where are we to go? We are trapped, but Jesus makes a way. Jesus, as we’ll hear in that later moment, is the way. Seeing our hunger, and our inability to do anything meaningful about it, Jesus simply feeds us. As he is Life, Jesus feeds us with himself. With his flesh, offered freely on Calvary’s cross; with his blood, poured out for the salvation of the world.
  6. Our divisions so often become matters of life and death. But Jesus names our unity, which begins in our need, our sinful brokenness, our dependance – things we all share. To feed the world, he gives himself. To create unity, he reverses our direction and undoes what we have done. With Jesus, it’s a matter of death and life. In his death, our death meets its end. In his rising, we live. In Jesus, we declare our dependence and find both joy and freedom therein. Freedom that does not mean we can do whatever we want, but that finds joy in putting both God and neighbor before ourselves. Christ divides us from our division, creating unity on the other side of death in the abundant feast of resurrection. Here, there is room enough for all of us, for each of us is only here by Jesus’ invitation. There is room enough for new members, who join us today and make better our fellowship. There is room enough for refugees, including the family of five we welcome this week. Where once there was room for no one, now there is room enough for all, for Jesus welcomes us in. Jesus dies to let us in, and the table of God’s abundance is set now for a feast.
  7. What are we to do? We could not come to Christ or to the Father, but the Father has sent Christ to us. We could not feed ourselves, but Christ is given as the Bread of Life that is more than enough. We could not do anything, but there was nothing we needed to do. Put on whatever footwear seems appropriate and go, preach the gospel of peace. With Jesus’ authorization, give ‘em Jesus. Set aside all other false hopes, all illusions of control and the myth of self-centered freedom. Join with Joshua and his whole household, serving the Lord alone. Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. Come, friends. Come, eat of his flesh; come, drink of his blood. These gifts are truly given and truly shed for you. Come, feast, and live. Amen.

And now may that peace that passes all understanding keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus, this day and forever. Amen.