Martin Luther described the Holy Bible as the "cradle of Christ"...in other words: The Manger.
Not only at the Christmas stable, but all year-round,
God's people are fed at this Holy Cradle.
We are nourished at this Holy Table.
We are watered at this Holy Font.

This blog is a virtual gathering space where sermons from Bethlehem Lutheran Church (ELCA) and conversation around those weekly Scripture texts may be shared.

We use the Revised Common Lectionary so you can see what readings will be coming up, and know that we are joining with Christians around the globe "eating" the same texts each Sunday.

Sunday, September 30, 2018

September 30 -- Nineteenth after Pentecost

These “amputation metaphors” are tough.  

I’m just going to go there:   There are other things in this passage like welcoming the ministry of others who are not like us, and keeping things good and salty.  But when Jesus says “when your eye causes you to sin, cut it out...” it’s hard, at first, to notice or focus on much else.  So let’s talk about this...

“Amputation metaphors” were certainly common in Jesus’ day and his hearers would have certainly been attuned to their teacher’s hyperbole and known that they were just that — metaphors — and they would have heard clearly what Christ was really saying: 

If something is preventing you from following me, from trusting in me, from living in me — if something is preventing you, causing you to stumble, deep down at your core, that thing needs to be cut off and cut out, even if it’s highly “valuable”.  (Colleague talks about the Offering as an exorcism.  “Are you ready for an exorcism?” he says, as the ushers prepare to come forward for the plates!)

Coming into October, friends in Christ, we are being asked too:  what does a “sin-ectomy” look like for us?  What do we need to cut out and cut off?  

Let’s just think for a minute about our hands our feet and our eyes, because Jesus talks about them:  It’s not about literally cutting them out and off, but how are they causing us to sin?  (Let me say too, the word sin in the Greek: hamartia = “missing the mark.”)  How are we missing the mark, the mark of our baptism, the mark of the cross, the mark of Christ?

Where are the places we’re going, the investments of time and resources we’re making...that might be causing us to miss the mark of Christ?  What do our credit card statements and internet search histories, and if there was a record of our conversations this past week that we could  listen back to, how are we stumbling?  What needs to be cut off and cut out?

You might do a little inventory this week.  Think about your hands, as Jesus does: what are things that your hands have done, that should stop?  Have your hands been used for violence against others or against yourself?  Our hands can be used for typing...words and ideas that hurt others.  Our hands can be used to signal terrible things...  [pointing sharply]   Or our feet?  Where have they taken us?  To places that build up or places that drain life, hurting others and earth...[pause]  Or your eyes, what have you been feasting your eyes on?  Things, people, self-serving dreams and wishes? 

There are things we all need to work on, yes?  Things to ponder and pray over, things to confess, things that only we as individuals (in the quiet presence of God) can truly know simply need to go, must be cut off.  Addiction in its many forms is a powerful force.  And it’s not just substances or material things that hook us:  some of us are addicted to the chase, or to receiving praise and recognition, or to making sure everyone else is doing it right (disciples in the text), or to securing certainty, or to out-doing everyone else, and looking humble and calm all the while.  Right?   

(Last week: clenched fists)  And let’s be honest: so much of this has to do with money — Ivan the Terrible’s troops baptized with swords out of the water: our wallets?

An interesting thing happens with this text, doesn’t it?  At first, it seems so medieval and out of touch — chopping off of body parts and all... But when we move through, slow down and “pray these scripture words of Jesus”, it gets intensely personal.  And in the grip of these stumbling blocks, we might just be experiencing a certain hell, a certain and painful distancing from God, from the peace and the joy of God.  

We all, if we’re honest need a “sin-ectomy”.  We all need Christ to come and surgically remove that which is holding us back, tying us down, clenching our fists...like they’re wrapped into a clench.  We need God to come and cut this binding!
How did we plead earlier at the font?
“We confess that we have not allowed your grace to set us free.  We fear that we are not good enough.  We hear your word of love freely given to us, and yet we expect others to earn it...”
Here’s what I know: we need Christ.  This world needs Christ!  We are indeed, in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves.

And sisters and brothers in Christ, God comes to the rescue.  Christ is here.  Jesus is our surgeon who scrubs in...and cuts out all that is causing us to stumble.  Today is the day of surgery.  And Christ operates with divine precision.  Removing what needs to go — not pain free — so that we can now use our hands and our feet and our eyes and our ears, our tongues and our brains and our backs and our fingers to love and serve both inside this church community and beyond!

And Christ’s successful operation leaves us with everything we need to be God’s people.  AMEN?

Even now.  Even here, we have everything we need to be the people that God has created, called, gathered, enlightened and sanctified us to be!

Forgiven or our sin, surgically removed of it, all of it, as we heard and celebrated and trust that we are, over there at the font — right at the very beginning of our worship service! (thought it was just another Sunday…) — to have had a successful “sin-ectomy” flings wide open the doors of the church and the doors of our hearts and minds to live in faith and love and joy together, reaching out.  

Or as Jesus said in the last verse of our passage for today, to “be at peace with one another.”  

May that peace of God which passes all human understanding, keep your hearts and minds in faith in that Christ Jesus, this day and forever.  Amen.


Sunday, September 23, 2018

September 23 -- Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost

I want to ask you to do a simple exercise with me:

Clench your fists as tightly as you can.  Squeeze like your hanging on for dear life or squashing a bunch of grapes in the center.  Now hold them there until I say stop…

Now, let go.  Open you hands, relax them…    Try this all again.

“May the words of my mouth…” — 

Which was easier?  Which do you think you could sustain longer?  Which was more grace-filled?  
Which do you think is more Christ-like?

My heart actually started pounding a little bit with the clenched fists, sweat…

Of course, it’s easier to relax and let your hands be open.

At the core of our text from James is an invitation — in the midst of all the gripping and grasping and clenching in our lives and our world — to relax, trust and hold your hands open.  This is to receive the peace of God, the gentleness of the Spirit, the welcome of the Word, the vulnerability of Christ himself.


James is a “400-level” letter written for an early Christian community, a small congregation. [Explain “400”.]

Obviously conflict has been an issue in that small church.  Disputes have broken out among members of the family.  Competition, gossip, backstabbing, judgmental status seeking, high anxiety...outright hostility even...have ripped into the fabric of that early church community, and so James is addressing these directly and clearly.

And here’s what’s surprising us in Scripture today: 

(A couple weeks ago, Ephesians said that the opposite of drunkenness was singing?  That was Scripture surprising us too: not sober, stoicism, but singing...)

Today, James describes wisdom as gentleness...also not what we would think of.  I’d think of some Harvard Astrophysicist, who’s travelled the world, knows every species of plant and bird, and is now well into her 80‘s.  That’s my definition of wisdom, but James says that the one who is wise is [open hands] gentle.  Nothing to do with age, education, social standing.   The one who is wise is willing to yield, peaceable, full of mercy, no hypocrisy.  That’s where James says there’s “a harvest of righteousness.”  Not grasping and grabbing...but open and welcoming.  Isn’t that a fantastic invitation...and a surprising idea?  In the midst of communal strife in James’ congregation, comes a lesson: wisdom is gentleness.

We live in a cut-throat culture, where wisdom (which we would now call, acc. to James, earthly wisdom) is used to get ahead, even at the expense of others.  But the wisdom from above, as James teaches, the wisdom of another level, is not envious or boastful [clenched fists].  It’s gentleness [open].  

Friends in Christ, when you pray, how do you do it?  I mean, we’re thinking about our hands today.  Do you clench your fists, interlocking your fingers?  That’s fine if you do, but just as a spiritual exercise at least today, maybe this next month, try praying with your hands open.  See if that does anything for you.  When you pray with us here at church, or at home at the dinner table.  That might be an interesting experiment.  
Fake it, if it doesn’t feel natural at first...but try to stick with it.  I’ve actually invited people into this practice before and the results can be...like Scripture...surprising.

This passage talks about disputes among church people.  Can you imagine that?  ;)  Good thing that’s a thing of the past.  Poor early church.    ;) Those of you who are joining BLC today, we don’t ever have disputes here, right?  ;)

No, there is a timelessness to conflict within God’s church.  Helps us to take a breath and realize, when churches do have issues (not us of course ;), that that’s nothing new.   

And here’s what James shares with us about disputes:  They come from clenching and gripping and grasping so tightly.  James uses words like envy and coveting and “craving after”...but isn’t that just language for what you physically experienced in your body earlier?  Heart racing, sweat, a flexing that simply can’t be sustained — eventually we give up or burn out!  

When it comes to disputes in God’s church, we are called to relax our hands, open and welcome what Christ teaches and elicits from us.

I have a giant poster of Planet Earth in my office.  And in the bottom corner I have taped a tiny newspaper picture cut out of the SD Union Tribune.  The woman’s name is Tameka Brown, and she’s obviously standing in a courtroom, wood panels, police officer standing in the background.  I’ve always kept that tiny picture, ever since I heard the story behind it... 

It was a couple years ago in San Diego.  Tameka Brown’s son was shot and killed...in yet another act of downright evil, aggression: “clenching”.  The crime was careless, racially motivated by someone who did not, as James would say, “resist the devil”.  But, Tameka’s son’s murderer was caught.  

And Ms. Brown was given a chance to testify in the courtroom, to speak about her son to the jury, the judge and this young man, all looking at her.  What would you say?  Ms. Brown had a well-prepared statement ready to go.  She was going to talk about her boy, about justice being served, and she would have most definitely put her son’s murderer behind bars.  Evidence all there.

But in the interview, Tameka Brown said that something came over her that morning:  She had literally been clenching onto her prepared statement for days.  But when she was finally called on to testify, she let her statement fall [open] to the side, she went up to the stand, [pause] and began singing “Amazing Grace” to the courtroom.  “I don’t know what came over me,” she said, “but there was no more room in my heart for hate and revenge.”  Then, in a stunning and eloquent display, she turned to the judge and looked at the young man who shot and killed her son and said, “I forgive you.  And I even love you.  Judge, I beg of you, let me take this boy home with me and take care of him.  We all know what prisons do to young men: it won’t make him any better, and it won’t make me or our neighborhoods any better.  I’ve lost my own son, but let him be like a son to me.”  The judge said in an interview, he had never seen anything like this in all his years in the judiciary system.  His eyes welled up with tears. 

Tameka Brown may be the wisest person in the world, according to James...because of her gentleness.  

Friends, Ms. Tameka Brown doesn’t just inspire, her little picture in my office serving as a reminder of mercy:  Tameka Brown gives us a glimpse of God.  

Will you pray with me:  [open hands]

“Ever-gentle God, you are wise.  Thank you for bringing us home and for caring for us.  Fill us now with your wisdom.  Release us from our gripping.  Open our hands to trust, and call us again to service, humility, and peace, in Jesus name.  AMEN.”

Sunday, September 9, 2018

September 9 -- 16th Sunday after Pentecost

Sisters and Brothers in Christ – Don’t you dare let Jesus off the hook!  I don’t care if you’ve been part of a Christian community for a long, long time, or if this is your first time in a church ever today!  Don’t you dare let Jesus off the hook.

This Syrophoenecian woman didn’t let Jesus off the hook…and it was her first encounter (so it’s never to early to say, “Hey Jesus, you can’t get away with that!”)  Ask for what you want from God – make sure it’s the right thing to ask – and don’t let Jesus off the hook, casting you off like a dog.  Don’t imagine yourself unworthy of Christ’s eyes, ears and healing hands.

Did you hear that in the Gospel?  Jesus called that woman asking for help a dog!  That’s bad now—sounds kind of like “bum” and name-calling is a big deal: we’ve got a president who’s got a quick derogatory name for everyone, we’ve got a Social Statement that we just started studying TODAY on Women and Justice, timely right? Name-calling is a big deal today—but in that period in time, you have to understand, this wasn’t just a mean name, this was a racial slur:  

Syrophoenecia was the area up north over by the Mediterranean sea, modern day Lebanon, only the difference of about 100-150 miles.  So just stretch it, and think of Philadelphia. [pause]  Some stinky woman from Philadelphia, who never went to church (and cheers for the Phillies and the Eagles).  Can you believe she’s got the nerve to ask our dear Jesus for a hand out?  And Jesus calls her a dog. 

How do you deal with this? …Jesus making cruel, racial slurs.  Does that mean it’s ok?  Biblical scholars have tried to soften this through the years (some say Jesus was testing her, or he was just kidding) – but many scholars are also realizing we can’t get around this terrible name-calling episode – 
The Rev. Dr. Anna Carter Florence said that Jesus called a woman something that would have made his mamma slap his mouth and say, “I did not raise my boy to talk that way!”  

And she knew it too – that Syrophoenecian woman — she was a mama herself.  She knew that it was not an appropriate thing to say, and so she spoke up; she stood up to Jesus and said:  “Yes, Lord, but even the dogs eat the crumbs from the master’s table.”  [pause]

She didn’t let him off the hook.  And it was as if something snapped in Christ and he turned to her – and instead of chastising her (imagine if you were in a position of power over someone and they talked back to you)  — instead of publicly shaming her or punishing her for her lack of respect – Jesus says, “For saying that, you may go.  The demon has left your daughter (the next generation).”   [pause]

What a story.  What do we learn from it?  And the account immediately after where the blind man is made to see?  
What do we learn of God from all this?  

One: Don’t let Jesus off the hook.  Ask for what you want—make sure it’s the right thing.  And then keep coming back.  Jesus can take it.  He can take your anger, your standing up to him, your assertiveness.  Christ even admires it.

This text is not about emboldening bullies and racists, it’s about empowering the downtrodden and pushed-aside.

It’s not always pretty — Jesus employs a racial slur and you should be furious at him for that (and under anger is always hurt and fear)!  It’s not always pretty, but in the end, sisters and brothers in Christ, God always responds.  
It’s not always pretty, but in the end God gathers us in, heals our hurts and our fears and our sins, and then—having been forgiven and transformed—we are sent back out…to go and do likewise.  To go and heal the hurts and pains of our neighbor, to forgive and love, and forgive and love, and forgive and love…and serve.  We emerge from this very challenging Gospel text even stronger.  

And then the pesky book of James today holds our feet to the fire and says, “When someone comes into your church who’s obviously down and out, poor, maybe smelly (an outside group perhaps that asks to use “our” church).  And we say, ‘Sit way over there, you dog.‘  Versus when someone who drives a fancy car, wears nice jewelry and designer brands, smells good, and has a nice wallet, you say, ‘C’mon in.  Please sit here in the front row.  Could I get you some coffee?  Wanna teach Sunday School?”  

James full-on questions that person’s BELIEF IN GOD!  When our words and our actions, our faith and our works, don’t line up, James might just dismiss us—like many young people, frankly, who look at the church and say, “Well, they must not really believe in God.  Look at how they treat the outsider.”  Ugh, that pesky Lorax James – would have certainly held Jesus’ feet to the fire, upon hearing how Jesus himself first treated that annoying woman from Philly.

Sisters and brothers in Christ – these are challenging texts today, they go deep.  Here’s the Good News: first, we get to hold Jesus’ feet to the fire.  Put the pressure on him.  Ask Jesus for what you want for yourself, for this country, for this planet.  Demand justice for women.  Cry out for peace.  

“Smart off” to him for fair treatment of everyone regardless of gender or nation of origin or religious persuasion or any other hot-button modern-day dividers. Make sure it’s the right thing.
Shouldn’t everyone get the same…mercy, love, forgiveness, healing care, grace, treatment from God?  The Syrophoenecian woman sure thought so.  And she demanded it from Christ.  And Christ came through in the end.  In the end, there is healing and grace.

Christ comes though with you today.  The road might have been rocky up to this point, it’s not always pretty, but God is here.  Reaching out to you, promising you the same things that the Syrophoencian Philadelphian woman demanded.  God reaches out to you with a hand of healing.  Forgives you this day, and asks that you now go out and forgive and serve and welcome others…with the kind of passion and commitment that we see in the Scriptures.  

You know the other thing we see in the scriptures?  Imperfect people, mouthy people, racist people, selfish people.  We see broken people in the Bible, and this is good news because it means that God can take even us and turn us into forgiven and blessed healers and tellers of God’s enduring love.  Our eyes have been opened too.

Beloved, let us love one another, Ephesians says, for love is of God and anyone who loves is born of God.  You are born of God – a child of God: forgiven, healed, joyful, eyes wide open – and now free to go and tell the Good News to everyone you meet.  

May it be so, this day and all days.  AMEN. 

Sunday, September 2, 2018

September 2 -- 15th Sunday After Pentecost

Sisters and Brothers in Christ, welcome back to the Gospel of Mark.  For like 6 weeks we’ve been hearing from John, about Jesus as the Bread of Life.  Now we shift gears again, as we begin a new school year, as we stop for a moment to celebrate Labor Day, as we brace ourselves for another busy fall, as we continue to go about our work as people of God — welcome back to the Gospel of Mark, where Jesus is short-tempered and quick, particularly with any who think they’re better than anyone else.  With those who “lord it over” others. 

You know, I’ve been known to do that.  I’ve been known to lord it over others – maybe not out loud, but in my head, certainly.  Thinking I know better. Thinking I deserve what I have, thinking my churchy life marks me, not just as different, but better, than all those slackers and non-practicers out there.  Hypocrites!  “Dang it, Jesus is talking to me here this Sunday.”  And thanks be to God for that.  Welcome back to the Gospel of Mark. 

This text is obviously about much more than dirty hands: Not what goes in – churchy stuff, churchy friends, churchy house with crosses and bibles and jewelry and bumper stickers on display, the churchy life.  It’s what comes out – love, compassion, and namely care for the marginalized: the orphan and the widow (code for any who have no advocates)…It’s Christ-follower ACTIONS that make a person clean….not just honoring Christ with our lips.

I always think it’s a helpful exercise to think back on all the words that you said this past week.  What was on your lips?  (Maybe even go home and write down what you can remember.)  What came out of your mouth this week?  What kinds of words were on your lips?  Were they words of love, or words of anger?  Words of slander behind someone’s back, words of bitterness, words of impatience, or gossip?  What was on your lips this week—as you dealt with your family or your co-workers?  As you “chatted” with your friends?  Were they good words, or were they hurtful?  Were they words of humility or words of “lording it over others”?
I’m going to take a risk, sin boldly, and “lord it over” someone right now...but I still think it’s an interesting illustration: 

I’ll never forget how when I went backpacking in high school with our Lutheran camp in Colorado, we had to keep track of what came out of our mouths, what words were on our lips.  We had to hold each other accountable for any cut-downs:  any time you cut someone down in any way, we had to say 3 positive things to build them up.

And the one who was stuck constantly in this consequence of having to offer 3 positives, was the one in our group who never said a bad word, who always went to church, who dressed very properly, who had lots of Bible verses memorized – but she was full of contemptuous glares…and little comments that chipped away at other people’s self-esteems.  (see how I’m “lording it over” her now?)  And it was a struggle for her to think of positive things to say.  But wasn’t that interesting: it’s not what goes into a person that defiles, Jesus says, but what comes out.  Keep track of what you say this week…

(Maybe say a prayer for your lips and your tongue when you wake up every day this week.)

James, the book of James – we’ll be in it for about 5 weeks and I encourage you to read the whole thing during the week – the book James, like Jesus in Mark, isn’t concerned about putting on a show.  It’s about pureness of heart.  Religion that is pure and undefiled is this:  it’s having the most glorious church building the world has ever seen ;) it’s having the brightest, most colorful Sunday School program in the ELCA, it’s having the sanctuary completely packed on Sunday mornings!  NO, of course not.  Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, according to James (and the long line of prophets that came before him, including Christ himself) is religion that cares...for one another and for those with no advocates (widow and orphan).
It makes me think of the LORAX…“I speak for the trees!”

Take beliefs and churchiness — talking — out of it: who are the people who are actively caring for the voiceless in our society, for the 21st century equivalent of the widows and orphans?  Who are the people actively reaching out to the poor, the planet (who’s going to speak for the trees, besides the fictitious Lorax)? Who is looking out for the immigrant, the disabled, the uninsured, the silenced, the oppressed, the powerless, for the one who is alone (even here at church on Sunday)…

Take religious beliefs and rituals out of it: who is doing the Word?  Who shows up in times of distress and conflict?  Who stays?  Who gives generously?…You know, we can learn a lot about ourselves by looking at our credit card statements – I’d never want to share mine with you.  Who shows you Jesus, not just tells you about Jesus?  (Think of people in your life — doers of the Word.)  Maybe they’re from inside the church, but maybe not.

Ever had that happen to you: a non-Christian, maybe even atheist actually teach you something about Jesus?  The “happy reversal”?  I’ve been blessed by many instances…pure and undefiled persons, not part of my Christian family, showing me about care for the voiceless and the powerless!  These kinds of things happen all the time, but I invite you to pay more attention, to notice those people.  (maybe say a prayer for our eyes too)

Now, I plan to stay in the church for as long as I live.  This not church bashing.  (Article a few years back: “So You’re Spiritual but not Religious, Don’t Bore Me”)  The imperfect and yet faithful community, the Word, the Meal, the Font—these are just too important in my life to go without them.  But these things alone don’t make me pure and undefiled…

Christ makes me clean.  And I need the church to keep hearing that, reminding me of that.  Jesus is the one alive in but also beyond the pages of Scripture – Christ is the one alive in my sisters and brothers outside of the church too!  I need the church to keep calling me back to that.  I need this inside to keep moving me outside.

Surround yourself with people who care for the “voiceless in their distress”.  Who’s your Lorax?  Your scratchy old voice that, while annoying, might just be right, and at the core is deeply loving?  

Who are those who don’t just say the Word of God, they do it…as Francis of Assisi put it: they, “preach the gospel at all times, and only when necessary, use words.”  Maybe they’re children, or people in their 20’s or their 80’s – crying out for justice and compassion, annoying the rest of us.  But maybe they’re spot on?

These people are God’s gift to us, part of God’s on-going work in shaping you and molding us.  We can resist them, “the Loraxes” but they keep coming and nipping at us, pointing us to greater faithfulness.

Will you pray with me…  “God, we’re doing our best here.  But we fall short.  Take us the rest of the way.  Continue to mold us and fashion us.  God, you have washed us in the waters of baptism, you have cleaned our hearts.  And we give thanks that you continue to cover us in your faithfulness, in your forgiveness, grace and love.  Bless our lips and send us out now...to be doers of your joy and hope and welcome in a hurting world.  Thank you for sending us prophets, advocates for the voiceless, to nip at us and call us back to what matters.  Thank you for leading us in this journey, through your Son Jesus Christ, AMEN.”

#808 “Lord Jesus, You Shall Be My Song as I Journey”