Saturday, September 29, 2018

Mommy and Daddy's love, Year B, Pentecost 19, Mark 9.36-50

The Gospel according to St. Mark, the 9th chapter:
36 Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, 37 "Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me."
38 John said to him, "Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us." 39 But Jesus said, "Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. 40 Whoever is not against us is for us. 41 For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.
42 "If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea. 43 If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. 45 And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell., 47 And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell, 48 where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched.
49 "For everyone will be salted with fire. 50 Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another."
The Gospel of Our Lord

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus the Christ.  Amen
As you consider this reading, imagine Jesus, who took a child and put it before the disciples, holding that child in his arms the entire time as he spoke these words.
“If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me.  .  .”
And then he hugs the child a little tighter.
Jesus cares about the most vulnerable among us.
In some ways Jesus’ teaching is like our nation’s constitution.  It is there to protect the weak and most vulnerable.  The powerful among us need no protection.
Earlier in this Chapter we read:
When the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, "Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?" But when he heard this, he said, "Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick.”
Last week my sermon was titled “Unbounded Grace” and I talked about how there is no limit to the grace and forgiveness offered by Jesus.  In God’s Kingdom none of the prejudices and statuses that define our human perspective matter.  All are welcome.  All are loved.  Even the unlovable are embraced.
Pure Gospel.
This week there is a threat spoken. 
If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea.
If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off;
And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off;
And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out;
And Jesus hugs the child a little tighter.
You see the stakes are high.
At stake are the lives of our children and everyone who comes after us.
Stumbling blocks:  Those things that get in the way and cause them to fall away.
In 2006 authors Dave Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons published a book “unChristian”, which detailed their findings in a study of young adults who were not part of the Church.  They simply asked the question “why?” and then listened.  What they found was that these young adults viewed the Church as:
  • (1) Hypocritical
  • (2) Too focused on getting converts
  • (3) Antihomosexual
  • (4) Sheltered...old fashioned, boring, out of touch with reality
  • (5) Too political (but not about things that matter to them!)
  • (6) Judgmental" 
The irony here is that in suggesting that the Church is all of these things they are themselves making a judgment, one of the things they abhor.  And of course, in saying that I am making another judgment.
But if we listen further and hear these words not as a judgment, but simply as a witness to their experience and desires what we hear is this:
·         They long for genuineness and integrity where words and actions are in harmony.
·         They want to be accepted for who they are, not who you and I want them to be
·         They long for a spiritual experience that is relevant to their world, their lives.
·         They want to be part of a community that is open to all, and not defined by any one political perspective
·         And finally, acceptance and love of all people is important to them.
The bottom line is that our youth, like the generations before them, are seeking and longing for something—and in large measure they are not finding it in the Church.
I struggle with this because as a pastor I’ve helped to shape the Church over the last generation and to an extent, I feel like I’ve failed.  My own children have not embraced the Church like Karla and I did when we were young.
And so I wonder if I have put a stumbling block before them.
Stumbling blocks and children.  Protecting the powerless and vulnerable among us.
Jesus cares about that.
Another stumbling block isn’t specific to the church, but too often has also involved the church.
A staggering number of children are abused and neglected in our country, each and every year.  Millions of them.
The National Sexual Violence Resource Center reports that:
One in four girls and one in six boys will be sexually abused before they turn 18 years old.
One in five women and one in 71 men will be raped at some point in their lives.
One in 5 women and one in 16 men are sexually assaulted while in college.
Last week I shared with you that I am one of them.
The most difficult thing about that experience is how it has shaped my reality and sexuality ever since.
The reason it is so hard for me to forgive that man is because ever since, throughout the forty plus years of Karla and my marriage it is like there is a third person in the room.
The harm that is done to a child when they are abused and neglected,
The wounds that are inflicted by the sexual exploit and violence against children,
Last a lifetime.
Yes, with help, healing is possible, yet even with healing the experience shapes and colors the very fabric of their being.
I am who I am in part because I was abused.
I hate that “victim” is part of my identity.
And so when I hear this Gospel lesson, I imagine Jesus, clutching that child ever so tightly in his arms, and with a trembling voice saying:
If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea!!!

During the coffee hour in Sandpoint the children would often play outside on the big toy, which was visible from the fellowship hall.
I was standing there, still in my robes, looking out one Sunday, when one of the little boys fell off the swing set and came up crying.  So I ran out and picked him up and brought him inside to Judy, who was his day care provider and had brought him to church that day.
Later on in the afternoon I got a call from his mother.
“I have to tell you something funny, Pastor.  When Ian got home from church today he told me about falling off the swing set.  I asked him, “Well, what happened, were you alright?” and he replied “Jesus came and picked me up and brought me to Judy.”
I loved that.
I’ve had that a number of times during my ministry, where children thought I was Jesus.  The beard, the white robe, it all makes sense.
But on a more serious level, isn’t that our calling—
To be the face of Jesus in the world?
One of the things about those young adults that responded to the “unChristian” study is that they do, often, deeply love and appreciate Jesus.
It’s just that for them, the Church has often not been the face of Jesus in their lives.
One of my most heartfelt prayers, which I wrote a while back, is:
“Hold me tight most precious Lord,
                That I might follow you.
Grant me grace to live each day,
                May I be born anew.
Lift me up whene’er I fall,
                And never let me fade
From the grace filled light
                Of your own sight
                That turns the night to day.”
A warm embrace.
Grace filled love.
Being lifted up, when we fall.
And a light to calm the terrors of the night.
In short, the experience we long for is much like what we had in our mother’s arms as a child.
Or, in other words, I think that one of the deepest longings within the human heart is for a mommy and daddy, but mind you, not necessarily for a Mother and Father.
And by that I mean we simply long to be held tight, to be loved and accepted, and to safe and secure.
When Jesus called God “Father”, the word he actually used is “Abba” which means “daddy” or “papa”.
He didn’t use “patér” which is the formal “father”.
Is that the difference between ‘Jesus’ and the ‘Church’.
Jesus prayed to his daddy.
And the Church has insisted on praying to our Father.
We devoted so much of our time and efforts to the Motherly and Fatherly tasks of teaching and discipline that we have too often failed in being the mommy and daddy and simply showing unconditional love and acceptance.
As simple as that sounds, that may in fact be one of the greatest stumbling blocks we’ve put before our children.
We’ve been more concerned about how to live, and not concerned enough about how to love.
We may have gotten it wrong, but Jesus got it right.
And that is the hope for all of us, children and adults.
Jesus got it right.
We may have failed to be the mommy and daddy, but Jesus never faltered. 
And what that means is quite simple.
You are loved.  Whoever you are, and whatever you do, you are loved.

Saturday, September 22, 2018

Year B, Pentecost 18, Mark 9.30-37, Unbounded Grace

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus the Christ.  Amen
There’s something about Jesus that challenges us and everyone who has heard him speak and teach throughout the ages.
He is simply different.
He doesn’t conform to the ways of the world in which we live, and that makes us uncomfortable.
It makes us uncomfortable because not only doesn’t he do things the way the world expects, he doesn’t do things the way WE expect.
Elisabeth Johnson is an ELCA pastor and missionary serving in Cameroon and the writer of this week’s commentary in the “Working Preacher”.
She writes:
“In this narrative, Jesus arrives proclaiming that the reign of God has come near, calling for repentance, healing diseases and disabilities, and forgiving sins. Throughout his ministry, he associates with the last and the least in society -- Gentile women (Mark 7:24-30), bleeding women (Mark 5:24-34), lepers (Mark 1:40-45), raging demoniacs (Mark 5:1-20), tax collectors and other notorious “sinners” (Mark 1:13-17). He even welcomes and makes time for little children, much to the disciples’ consternation (Mark 10:13-16).”
“For all of this, he is condemned as an outlaw and blasphemer by the religious authorities, who decide that he is too dangerous and must be eliminated. Here it is important to emphasize that Jesus does not die in order for God to be gracious and to forgive sins. Jesus dies because he declares the forgiveness of sins. Jesus dies because he associates with the impure and the worst of sinners. Jesus dies because the religious establishment cannot tolerate the radical grace of God that Jesus proclaims and lives.”
“The radical grace of God that Jesus proclaims and lives completely obliterates the world’s notions of greatness based on status, wealth, achievement, etc. Perhaps that is one reason we resist grace so much. It is much more appealing to be great on the world’s terms than on Jesus’ terms. Greatness on Jesus’ terms means being humble, lowly, and vulnerable as a child. Greatness on Jesus’ terms is risky; it can even get a person killed. But as Jesus teaches repeatedly, his way of greatness is also the path of life.”
In our day we don’t spend much time worried about Gentile women, bleeding women, lepers, demoniacs, tax collectors, and other notorious sinners, nor for that matter do we view children in the way that they were viewed in Jesus day.
At that time, they simply had no status and were of little account.
That Jesus would put one such child before the disciples and instruct them that “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me” was simply unheard of.
Who are the last and the least in our world?
That’s one of the questions we need to ask, if we would understand the implications of Jesus’ teaching, and who Jesus is.
Who are the last and the least in our world?
Race is one issue.
“White privilege is the fact of people with white skin having advantages in society that other people do not have.”
We don’t like to admit that it is so, but minorities simply do not have the same status in our society that white people have always enjoyed.
Some will argue that point, citing things such as affirmative action, and suggest that there are actually privileges afforded to those who are minorities.
But that our culture has tried to correct a wrong does not mean the wrong doesn’t exist.
As for myself, I have little experience with minority cultures.
I haven’t lived in predominantly black or Hispanic communities.  But I have seen firsthand the plight of Native Americans in this country.
Race simply is an issue regarding status in this country, still.
Who are the last and the least in our world?
Economic status and vocations (or lack thereof) are major indicators of the value we place on people.
Migrant workers.
Homeless people.
People on welfare.
People who are locked in minimum wage situations.
Blue collar as opposed to white collar.
We simply do not ‘afford’ the poor much status, in spite of God’s own concern for the poor in the Bible.
Who are the last and the least in our world?
Sexuality matters.
It matters if you are male or female.
It matters if you are gay or straight.
It even matters if you have been a victim of sexual abuse.   People who have come forward and spoken about having been abused or who have sought justice, have routinely been devalued and dismissed.
The stigma in our society associated with being a victim of abuse is so great that many will refuse to acknowledge that they have been abused, and in fact may not even recognize their abuse for decades.  I know, I am one such person.
Education matters.
Geography matters.
Citizenship matters.
It matters if you’ve ever been convicted of a crime, especially a sexual crime.
The point is that Jesus reached out to the outcast.  Those of little value.  Those so often overlooked, or even despised by the world.
And for that he was rejected.
As Dr. Johnson wrote:
“For all of this, he is condemned as an outlaw and blasphemer by the religious authorities, who decide that he is too dangerous and must be eliminated. Here it is important to emphasize that Jesus does not die in order for God to be gracious and to forgive sins. Jesus dies because he declares the forgiveness of sins.”
Why is it so important for us to recognize this about Jesus?
The answer to that question is simple.
If we do not understand the favor Jesus has shown to the least of these, we cannot comprehend grace.
Here I’ll just share a personal observation from my own experience.
There was a time when my status was that of being a young, highly educated, successful, white, married man with four children, and as such, an ideal pastoral candidate.  With that as my public image I was a viable candidate for almost any call in the church.
That status changed.
I am now an aging, bipolar person, a recovering alcoholic, and one who has faced many different struggles in my life, including being a victim of abuse.  When I share that I become vulnerable.
I become vulnerable because the world as a whole does not value those experiences.
The opportunities for me are now much more limited.
And it isn’t lost on me how gracious you have been as a congregation to welcome and accept me.  Not every congregation would.
And you know what?
Your acceptance of me has taught me a lot about grace, and God’s acceptance and forgiveness of me.
That’s what it means to be witnesses to the Gospel.
It means to live gracefully, condemning no one, and welcoming all.
That’s what Jesus did.
But it remains a struggle for us.
All of us, I think, value some people over others, and see certain people as simply being beyond the reach of grace, compassion, and understanding.
For me, the most difficult people of all to accept and forgive are people who abuse others, especially children—and this is because of my own experience of that.
I have had a person, one in particular that I remember, who confessed to having sexually abused a young child. 
As a pastor I am called to proclaim the forgiveness of sins.  To offer absolution for those who confess and seek God’s grace.
But this issue more than any else leaves me wanting to condemn such people for all eternity.  They are to me a notorious class of sinners.  And for them, I have a difficult time offering any word of forgiveness.
We state that our purpose as a congregation is to welcome, love, and serve all in our local and global community –
Well, for me, the difficulty with that would arise if a pedophile showed up.  Such a person is the lowest of low, in my estimation.
And yet, grace abounds.
It may be beyond my capacity to forgive a pedophile but it is not beyond God’s grace.
Nor is it beyond God’s grace to heal the wounds of one who has been abused.
Nor is it beyond God’s grace to lift up all who have been put down.
Nor is it beyond God’s grace to welcome the outcast, to value the worthless, and to forgive the unforgivable.
We welcome children, because in our day children are highly valued.  They are not the “least of these”.
But there are others that challenge our human standards.
I have tried over the years to forgive the man who abused me, and perhaps with God’s help I have.
The thing about recognizing that God can and will forgive, even him, is that it helps me to appreciate all the more that God can and will forgive me.
Does he deserve to be forgiven?
Probably not, but grace is not about deserving.
Do I deserve to be forgiven?
No, but I am.
That’s grace.

Saturday, September 15, 2018

Don’t “Cross” Me, Year B, Pentecost 17, Mark 8:27-38,

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus the Christ.  Amen
This last week I observed my thirtieth anniversary of ordination.  I was ordained in my home congregation, Agnus Dei Lutheran Church in Gig Harbor, WA.  We were a new congregation that didn’t have a building yet, so I was ordained in the Masonic Temple, where we were worshipping.  I am humored by the fact I am probably the only pastor in the history of the Lutheran Church to have been ordained in a Masonic Temple.
That aside, the Gospel lesson for today was the text for my ordination.
“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”
I thought this was a particularly appropriate text for an ordination.
Perhaps I was a little full of myself, thinking that my entry into ministry was a case of “losing my life for Jesus sake, and for the sake of the gospel”, of “taking up my cross” and following Jesus.
I had read Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s book “The Cost of Discipleship”, where Bonhoeffer declared
 that “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.”
It was a vision and understanding of the cost of ministry.
My professor and friend, Dr. James Nestingen, was the preacher for the day.
He surprised me with the direction he took in his sermon.
He asked the congregation, “Is this the word we want to send David out with today?  That he must take up his cross and follow Jesus, losing his life for Jesus’ sake and the sake of the Gospel?”
He went on to say, that though we’d never wish that upon anyone, nor should anyone ever seek out the cross, nevertheless, if one is faithful to Christ suffering will come as a result.
He then pointed back to the beginning of the text and stated that in the face of the inevitable suffering and rejection that will come, we turn our eyes to the one who gave his life for us, and whose suffering and death redeemed us.
What shall we say today about this “taking up our cross and following Jesus”.
First of all, to take up one’s cross and follow Jesus does not refer to all manner of inconvenience and suffering.  It is neither a trivial matter, nor does it refer to every negative experience.
Sometimes we suffer because of our own brokenness, or the consequences of other’s actions, quite apart from any relation to the work of Christ.
I suffered both as a result of my alcoholism, and also as a result of my being bipolar and the depression that is part of that disease.  That suffering, though significant, has nothing to do with the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  It is simply a symptom of a disease that anyone with that disease will experience, whether Christian or not.  It’s hardly a case of taking up one’s cross and following Jesus.
Also, sometimes we hear people declare “it’s my cross to bear” in reference to any negative experience.  Taking alcoholism as an example, the family of an alcoholic suffers as a result of their loved one’s struggles.  Just ask my wife.  But again, this suffering as a result of one’s loved one struggling with a disease and addiction is common to all in that circumstance.
It is not ‘losing one’s life for Jesus’ sake and the sake of the Gospel.’
What then does it mean to bear the cross of Christ?
“Jesus asked his disciples, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.” And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him. Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
On the surface, Peter seems to have come up with the right answer, but his understanding of that was all so wrong, even Satanic, opposed to God.
How can that be?
It’s a simple matter.  When we envision a savior, a messiah, we have a human perspective on that quite different from Jesus’ own understanding.
To understand this, consider that for a Jewish person like Peter, the Messiah was to be a savior of the nation.  Specifically, the messiah would rise up against the Roman government, defeat it, and re-establish Israel as a Godly nation.  The cross and suffering was not part of this expectation.
In our own time, we also have a concept of our Nation as a Christian Nation.  There are a number of elements to this common belief among us.
·         It begins with an understanding that we have been blessed by God, and that as a Christian nation we have experienced God’s special favor.  The phrase “God bless America” is our expression of this.
·         The second fundamental belief is that our power and prosperity as a nation is the direct result of God’s grace and favor toward us. 
·         And finally, we believe that if we are faithful, we will always be victorious for God is on our side.
These beliefs are much like Peter’s understanding of what the coming of the Messiah would mean.
It did not involve suffering, or rejection, and certainly not being killed.
But what does Jesus say?

Later on in Mark’s Gospel he is quite clear, and his words are disturbing:
"As for yourselves, beware; for they will hand you over to councils; and you will be beaten in synagogues; and you will stand before governors and kings because of me, as a testimony to them. .  .  . Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death; and you will be hated by all because of my name. But the one who endures to the end will be saved.”
The truth is that the world is fundamentally opposed to the message of Jesus.
The world believes in retribution, not forgiveness.
The world believes in protecting and defending, not giving of one’s self.
Another example, Pope Francis rightly stated that Christians ought to be about building bridges between people, not walls.  Yet our own concern for our national security will not allow that.
Rather than welcome the stranger in our midst, as Jesus would have us do, we inter them, and send them home. 
In short, it is simply not possible to be a “Christian Nation” for the way of Christ leads to the cross, not the capital. 
Imagine, for example, if President Bush had offered a word of forgiveness to the terrorist of 9/11 instead of launching two wars.
He would have been rejected.
The prophet Micah said:
“He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?”
Jesus set the agenda for us when he commanded us to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.” and to “love your neighbor as yourself.”
These words sound wonderful, but their application challenges us to the very core of our being.
The truth is that we are quite incapable of being truly Christlike.
“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”
Taken as a command, these words convict us for rarely do we truly lose ourselves for Jesus’ sake and the sake of the Gospel.
As pastors we are more committed to having a pension, than bearing the cross of Christ.
Just saying.
And pastors are no worse than anyone else in this regard.
In Philipians 2, Paul writes:
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.
OK, so let me be blunt.
In our sinfulness, we do not have the mind of Christ.
Like Peter we are “setting our mind not on divine things but on human things.”
And yet Christ was obedient even unto death, and he was so for our sake.
Our faithfulness is but a reflection of Christ’s faithfulness and is not anything we can accomplish on our own.
“Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?  Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.”
The mystery of the Christian faith is that we are so joined to Christ that we participate both in his death, and then in his resurrection.
The world will never be able to comprehend how God could redeem and save the world via the cross.
It is simply not a ‘worldly’ thing to do.
And yet that is what he did, and does for you and me.
Personally, I’d rather be prosperous and powerful, than to be a suffering servant upon a cross.
But Christ bids us come and die with him that we might also live in him.
It’s a hard, but life giving word.

Saturday, September 8, 2018

"A Dog’s Life", Year B, Pentecost 16, Mark 7.24-37

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus the Christ.  Amen
“Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”
There are some statements of Jesus that just seem out of character.
This is one of them.
An immediate response is to hear Jesus calling this woman, a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin, a dog, and to find this offensive.  I don’t know if being called a dog, in Jesus’ day, was as much as a put down as it is in our day, but I suspect it was. 
Did Jesus put her down because she was a woman?  Or a Gentile?  Or Both.
“And really, Jesus,” we ask, “couldn’t you be nicer?”
A few  words of background.
Jesus had withdrawn into the Region of Tyre hoping that nobody would know he was there, and apparently seeking some down time, a time to rest from all that he was doing.
But even there, in the region to the north of Israel, in today’s Lebanon, Jesus is known and he could not escape notice.
This woman was one of the locals.
The second thing, is that the word Jesus uses for ‘dog’ is actually diminutive, which would mean, likely, puppy.
I don’t know if that lessens the impact of what Jesus was saying, namely that the children get fed first and then, the puppies, but it definitely sounds better than Jesus calling this woman a dog.
But beyond our concern that Jesus would call this woman a dog, there is an image of something any dog owner has seen, time and time again.
We have a dog, Kinzie, a very lively labradoodle.
And we have our grandson, Jasper, a delightful little child, the joy of our life.
One of the things about children and dogs is they have a special relationship at the table.
The dog’s favorite place is at the children’s feet.
Every crumb that falls is quickly gobbled up. 
And then, children delight in this, often throwing morsels of food to the puppy, much to the chagrin of their parents.  And of course, the dog delights in this even more than the child.
Jesus sounds like the mother, here.  “No, don’t throw your food to the dog.  That’s for you!  Eat it.”
But we all know, children will drop the crumbs off their plate for the dogs, and the dogs will eagerly eat every morsel that falls their way.
We’ve all seen that played out, time and time again.
That’s the image I’d like for you to consider, this morning.
Not that Jesus is referring to a woman, or a Greek, as a dog, but the relationship of sheer delight between the child and the dog in this scenario. 
Pure grace.
I say that because the dog, in this example, knows, really knows, that they are getting something that they are not supposed to. 
In our own house, there is a certain irritation that no matter how hard we try, Kinzie, the dog, will not go away.  Given the chance, she will always be right there lapping up the crumbs.
Grace:  receiving a gift that we don’t deserve, but which comes to us, nevertheless.
“Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”
It is reported that Martin Luther’s last words were “We are beggars, this is true.”
All of us are like dogs, begging for any morsel of food that might fall our way from the master’s table.  And if we’re lucky, there’s a child at the table willingly dropping those crumbs for us.
At the risk of pushing this metaphor too far, what if Jesus is not the master in the tale, but the child?
The child who delights in throwing those morsels and crumbs to the dogs eagerly waiting below.
”Then he said to her, “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.” So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.”
From that place, in the Region of Tyre, Jesus went on to the Decapolis, another Greek region, and there too he healed, this time a deaf person with an impediment in his speech, as most deaf people do.
More crumbs from the Master’s table.
And then in the next passage in Mark’s Gospel Jesus is at it again, feeding 4,000 people with a few loaves of bread, seven loaves Mark says, and after everyone had eaten, they gathered up seven baskets full of crumbs.
More crumbs from the Master’s table.
An abundance of crumbs.
There’s one other thing I think about this image of children, crumbs, and the dogs below.
No child has ever starved to death, because of the crumbs that fell to the dogs below.
There is an abundance of grace.
Now if you listen to the parents, and how they chastise the child for throwing their food to the dogs, you’d think that there is simply not enough food for both.  But, there is always enough.
We have this tendency to live with a mindset of scarcity.
Our sinful side tends to believe that if we don’t hoard what we have, we won’t have enough.
That’s not how grace works.
Grace is about God’s abundance.
One of my memories from childhood is about hoboes. 
These men, homeless, would travel from community to community, and would come to the back door of a home, knock, and ask if they could have anything to eat.  Often, they’d even offer to do some task to earn the meal.
Noone ever starved because they shared a meal with a hobo.
One of the things hoboes did was to mark houses.  Somewhere, visible from the alleys they traveled down, they’d put a mark indicating that this was a house where they had received a meal.  Then, other hoboes would know that they would also be able to get a meal there.
Grace is about abundance.
Grace is “one beggar telling another where to find bread.”
What is this story about Jesus really about?
Is it about Jesus being uncharacteristically rude, and politically incorrect, calling this Gentile woman a dog?
Or is it about grace, and each of us being beggars dependent on the crumbs that fall from the Master’s table?
I think the latter.
And I love the thought that Jesus, as God’s son, is like the child who delights in dropping morsels of food to the dogs below.
And then there is the image of communion.
A little bread, a crumb.
A few drops of wine.
This is my body, this is my blood, given and shed for you.
And we like puppies, kneel below the table eagerly waiting for the morsels to fall from the Master’s table.
Martin Luther, in his small catechism explains that all that is required to receive communion is a simple faith that these words, ‘for you’, mean us. 
This is my body, this is my blood, given and shed “for you” for the remission of sins.
Do you believe that indeed, Christ’s gifts are for you?
As I think more about this image of dogs at their master’s table, I think about faith, and a dog’s understanding of ‘for you’.
One of the unwritten rules that governs this scene of dog’s eating the crumbs that fall from the Master’s table is that the food that falls to the dogs on the floor is ‘for them’.
Our dog knows that the food on the table is not free for the taking.  And she’s been good about that.
But food on the floor is for her, whether it’s in her dish, or below Jasper’s chair.
A dog understands “for you”. 
Crumbs from the master’s table.
Given and shed “for you”.
It’s a simple concept, but one we get so wrong so much of the time.
Going back to the story of Jesus and this woman, one of the immediate ways of interpreting it is that Jesus sees his mission as being to the children of Israel, and not to foreigners, or possibly, not even to women.
That’s our human sinfulness.
We like to make rules about who is worthy of God’s grace.
Who is welcome at the Lord’s Table?
When we do that, we tend to think of ourselves as the honored guests with a place at the table.
And in our human sinfulness we look at other’s as being unworthy, and not welcome. 
I will leave you with another image.
If we are actually like dogs devouring the crumbs from our Master’s table, what dog is not welcome??
The thing about grace is that there is more than enough for all.
Race doesn’t matter.
Gender doesn’t matter.
Sexuality doesn’t matter.
It doesn’t matter if you’re rich or poor.
It doesn’t matter whether you’ve been a ‘faithful’ one all your life, or if your story is like the prodigal Son.
It doesn’t matter who you are.
It doesn’t matter how much you know.
It doesn’t matter how good you are.
We are all dogs below the Master’s table, eating the crumbs that fall from the Child’s plate.
That’s grace.

Saturday, September 1, 2018

Year B, Pentecost 15, Deuteronomy 4.1-2, 6-9, James 1.17-27, Mark 7.1-8, 14-15, 21-23, Perfect Gifts

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus the Christ.  Amen
I splurged this last week.
As you know, I work as a cabinet maker and am constantly around machinery and unhealthy amounts of noise.
I have significant hearing loss, and it’s not getting better, but rather continues to get worse.
A compressor, a dust collection system, and various power tools all add to a deafening din of noise that, in addition to causing hearing loss also simply makes for an unpleasant working environment.
It doesn’t have to be this way.  That was my conviction.
Over the years I’ve tried various methods to protect my hearing.
You can put foam plugs in your ears.
I have often worn ear muffs to lessen the sound.
And, in a rather bizarre move, used ear phones to play music and drowned out the sound, which means just covering up the objectionable noise with music, which just makes matters even worse because the music has to be uncomfortably loud to drown out the sound of the machinery.
But thank God for new technology that is available to us today.
I decided to invest in that in the hope it would help.
I purchase a set of Bose Quiet Comfort 35II noise cancellation head phones.
I have never been so impressed.
It’s just amazing.
These work by actually cancelling out the noise.  They don’t muffle it, or cover it up, they eliminate the noise itself.
Noise, you see, is actually sound waves that strike your ear drums, causing them to vibrate and send signals to your brain.
The way the Bose headphones work is that they have microphones that pick up the noise in the room, and then speakers which emit the opposite noise on the sound spectrum which then cancels out the original sound. 
It’s hard to imagine.
But it works.
For every sound, there is an opposite sound, and by emitting the opposite sound to what’s in the environment, the headphones simply cancel out the noise around you producing, not more sound, but quiet.
And then, as an added bonus, you can listen to music or audio books, take phone calls through the headphones.
Amazing, but it’s all possible simply by following the laws of physics.
If an objectionable noise is counter acted by an equal and opposite noise, the result is peace and quiet.  It’s one of nature’s balancing acts.
Last week our lessons focused on the presence of evil in our world and our battle against it.
Paul wrote in Ephesians:
For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.
Cosmic powers of this present darkness.
Spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.
These are powerful statements.
We have struggled over the years to deal with evil.
How do we respond to the evil in the world?
In 1 Peter, the third chapter, it is written:
Do not repay evil for evil or abuse for abuse; but, on the contrary, repay with a blessing. It is for this that you were called—that you might inherit a blessing.
10 For "Those who desire life
and desire to see good days,
let them keep their tongues from evil
and their lips from speaking deceit;
11 let them turn away from evil and do good;
let them seek peace and pursue it.
12 For the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous,
and his ears are open to their prayer.
In Romans Paul writes:
Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. 18 If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. 19 Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, "Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord." 20 No, "if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads." 21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

In our lessons for today, we hear about Moses encouraging the people to keep the law of the Lord.
We hear James’ statement that “Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above”
And “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.”
And in the Gospel lesson, Jesus speaks about the right use of the Law, to counter the evil tendencies of the human heart.
When we hear the Law of God spoken, it works in us in various ways.
Jesus says:
'You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. ' 38 This is the greatest and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.
Traditionally, Lutherans have spoken about the two ways the Law works.
The first is as a guide and instruction for living.  Love the Lord.  Love your neighbor.  Do these things and life will go better for you.
The second is as a measure by which we are judged.  We have not loved the Lord with all our heart, soul, and mind, and so we stand condemned in the face of the Law, and dependent upon God’s grace and mercy that we might be forgiven.
But there is yet another way that God’s Law governs the world in which we live – and that is as a response to the evil in the world.
Imagine with me that evil is like the harsh noise in my woodworking shop. 
God’s Law and our obedience to that Law, functions like my new Bose headphones:  It responds to evil with and equal and opposing force of good, and thereby cancels out the evil.
In short, how do we respond to the hatred that is far too often evident in our world?
We do so by offering an equal and opposite response of goodness and love—by loving God with our entire being and our neighbor as ourselves.
We counter evil with goodness, and so restore the balance of life.
One of the ways we do this is by making amends for the wrongs which we have done.
This is one of the most important things that we learn in Alcoholics Anonymous.  We learn to face the wrongs that we have done to those we love, and then to make amends, to counter the wrong, with a good.
Another way we counter evil with goodness is to respond to the evil that others have perpetrated in the world, by doing right.
There is hatred and prejudice all around us.
We offer love and mercy.
Every act of kindness, every act of mercy, every time justice prevails over injustice, good is served and evil is countered.
I go back to my experience with the harmful noises that I must deal with.
One response was to try and muffle the noise with ear protection.  This works somewhat, but it a bit like denial.  If we cover our ears, we simply insolate ourselves from the noise, but it remains.
If I simply don’t listen to the news, I can muffle all the noise about evil in the world, and I feel better, but the world remains filled with the evil.
Another way is to seek to drown out the noise with other sounds.
We do a lot of this in our world.  People respond to what they perceive as evil by shouting out and seeking to drown out the evil they oppose.  But it just adds more noise.  And all too often what happens is that one evil is responded to with yet another evil.
What we need, is not insulating ourselves from evil, or simply trying to drown out evil of one type, with another type, but to cancel out evil with good, like my headphones cancel out the noise in my shop.
God’s purpose for our congregation is to welcome, love and serve all in our local and global community.
We welcome others, when often they are rejected.
We love, when too often people experience hate.
We serve, when so often people are oppressed.

If we do those things we will have done our part to overcome evil with goodness and to restore peace to the world.
We cannot do this alone, but by God’s grace “every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above. . .”
It’s easy for me, at times, to get depressed when I see what is happening in the world around us.  So much evil, how can we ever overcome it?
But then, at other times I realize that every act of love and mercy does overcome evil.
The promise for our lives is simply this:  That we can make a difference.
That’s why God has gathered us together as his people and called us into his service.
We’re not a large congregation by any means, but nevertheless, every act of goodness we do contributes to the redemption of this world.
That’s why God has so blessed us with gifts we have to do his will.