Pentecost 9 C / Proper 14
God’s Good Pleasure
August 7, 2022

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So . . . on the Sunday after I announce my retirement, the first thing we hear in the gospel is the Shepherd’s voice: “Do not be afraid, little flock.” Really, you can’t beat that as an example of how scripture is “the living word” that speaks not only to its own time, but to ours as well.

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Pentecost 9 C / Proper 14 August 7, 2022

Isaiah 1:1, 10-20 Pastor Susan Henry

Luke 12:32-40 House of Prayer Lutheran Church

Hingham MA

Grace to you and peace from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

God’s Good Pleasure

So . . . on the Sunday after I announce my retirement, the first thing we hear in the gospel is the Shepherd’s voice: “Do not be afraid, little flock.”  Really, you can’t beat that as an example of how scripture is “the living word” that speaks not only to its own time, but to ours as well.  “Do not be afraid, little flock,” Jesus says. 

There seem to be endless reasons to be afraid nowadays.  Take your pick among the big things to worry about – the climate crisis, inflation, racism, Ukraine, our democracy, hunger at home and across the globe, Taiwan – a place dear to my heart since we lived there for two years.  And then there are the personal things – the cost of groceries and gas, changes in relationships, the health and well-being of people we love -- or our own health.  Plus, there are church things – that churches everywhere have to figure out how to be church in new ways, that a troubling fusion of religion and politics is in the air, that we’re a littler flock than we used to be.  Whew – so many things to worry about, to agonize over, to be afraid of.  But here comes Jesus, saying “Don’t be afraid.  Fear not.”  Here comes Jesus, saying what messengers of God often say when people are indeed fearful.  Jesus’ words come not as a command, not as something we have to pull ourselves together and make ourselves do.  Instead, Jesus’ words come as a promise: “You don’t have to be afraid.”

In the verses between the parable of the rich fool and today’s gospel, Jesus uses images from creation to draw attention to how God provides for the needs of all.  “Consider the ravens,” he says, pointing out some birds; “they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse or barn” -- like the rich fool did -- “and yet God feeds them.”  They don’t have to be afraid.  Jesus points to the flowers growing nearby and says, “’Consider the lilies, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these.’  If God sees that they are fed and clothed, how much more will God see that you are fed and clothed?  God knows what you need, so you can stop with the worrying and the clutching, the hoarding and the grasping.”

I love the language Jesus uses: “Consider the birds.  Consider the lilies.  God knows what they need, and God provides it.  God knows what you need, and you matter to God, too. You don’t have to be afraid.”  I love the images, but I’m unsettled by how, although God provides for all, not all receive what God provides.  Some people have more than enough to eat, while others go hungry.  Some people’s barns -- and some towns’ and nations’ barns -- are full to overflowing; others don’t have what they need. 

At Bible study this week, Kris Niendorf was telling us about the monthly meal that their new congregation in Missouri provides as part of a nonprofit that addresses hunger in their community.  At Loaves and Fishes, three meals a day are available to the people who come.  While staff serves breakfast, churches, community organizations, and other groups sign up to provide a meal on a regular basis. 

Most recently, when their Lutheran church cooked and served supper, they prepared a meal for about a hundred people.  Kris said that when the numbers grew to a hundred and twenty, the kitchen folks got creative.  In the refrigerator, there was chicken left from a previous meal, so they found bread and rolls, warmed up the chicken, and served hot, hearty sandwiches.  Because of the heat, they went through gallons and gallons of lemonade and gallons and gallons of cold water, as the guests got a little respite from the heat outside.  Many of the people who come are unhoused, Kris said, and most walk at least a couple miles from where they stay at night.  She said the volunteers try to pack up fruit or snacks in single servings, so people can take them along with them.

God feeds the ravens, and God feeds the people who come to Loaves and Fishes through the work of churches like Kris and Karen’s.  God feeds the birds, and God feeds the people who come to Father Bill’s through people like us when we make lunches for them.  It’s God’s Work / Our Hands in myriad places and through myriad people.  Thanks be to God for all of that.

And yet . . . this is surely just a stop on the way to the kingdom Jesus proclaims.  “Do not keep striving for what you are to eat and what you are to drink and do not keep worrying,” he says; “Instead, strive for God’s kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well.”  How can that be?  When human beings live in ways that align with God’s vision for how the whole created world is meant to live justly and mercifully together, committed to the common good, then something shifts in the society.  The “me, me, me” guy with more than enough in his barn might have a change of heart and put his abundance to work for the sake of the whole community, not just for his own personal well-being and security.  He might let go of his own miniscule vision and get caught up in God’s expansive, extraordinary, brilliant vision of a world where everybody has enough to eat, clothes to wear, work to do, a place to live and to flourish, neighbors to help and be helped by, dignity and agency and a sense of belonging, and life-changing love for creation and one another and the Creator of it all.  Others, maybe like us, might get caught up in God’s vision, too.  Living it ripples out beyond house and barn into neighborhood and town, city and nation.  Despite tenacious opposition by people and forces with their own priorities, God’s vision takes form here in the world, in the realm in which we live.    

I don’t think “kingdom” language really helps us hear what Jesus is saying about life in God’s realm.  Kingdom language always makes me think of gold thrones and fancy crowns and Cinderella’s castle -- not really what Jesus has in mind.  When he wanted to describe that realm where God’s vision is lived out fully, he told parables about sowers and mustard seeds and treasures and a shepherd who finds his lost sheep.  The realm where God’s priorities become human priorities isn’t in some faraway castle in the clouds.  That realm is very near to us, and we catch glimpses of it now and then.  It is God’s “good pleasure” to give us the kingdom, to take delight in inviting us more fully into the world where God’s vision is being realized even here and even now.  The kingdom is already here, but not yet fully here.

Where God’s priorities call forth justice and evoke love in us who are Jesus’ friends and followers, a deeper commitment to the common good will surely arise.  Where love and justice make a difference in our common life, our grip on what we consider “ours” will loosen, and we will realize that we don’t have to be so afraid.  When love and justice move us to actions that help make Father Bill’s and Loaves and Fishes less necessary, God is feeding the ravens and clothing the lilies and bringing forth the kingdom among us.

So, despite all the reasons for fear and worry, it is good for us to take Jesus at his word, to trust that we don’t have to be afraid.  It is good for us because God can use us more.  It is good for our sisters and brothers at Loaves and Fishes and at Father Bill’s.  When we are not afraid – or are at least less afraid – we are more available for God’s purposes.  We are freer, more loving, more engaged in the coming of God’s realm, and more open to God’s future for us and with us.  So . . . do not be afraid, little flock.

Amen           

               

                             

Pentecost 8 C / Proper 13
July 31, 2022
Bigger Barns

Years ago, I was bemoaning how my children seemed to take turns insisting that I gave the other one a bigger piece of cake or pie or anything, really, and complaining that “It’s not fair.”

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Pentecost 8 C / Proper 13 July 31, 2022

Hosea 11:1-11 Pastor Susan Henry

Luke 12:13-21 House of Prayer Lutheran Church

Hingham MA

Grace to you and peace from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

Bigger Barns

Years ago, I was bemoaning how my children seemed to take turns insisting that I gave the other one a bigger piece of cake or pie or anything, really, and complaining that “It’s not fair.”  A friend said, “Oh, there’s a fix for that.  One of them gets to cut the cake, and the other one gets first pick of the pieces.”  Brilliant, right?  There’s a built-in incentive to divide something fairly when you know you’ll get the second piece.

In Bible times, Jewish law provided for the oldest son to inherit two portions of the family estate.  If there were five sons, a father’s estate would be divided into six portions, and the firstborn would get two, while the other sons (and sometimes the daughters) got one portion each.  The firstborn was responsible for the continued well-being of the whole household – all the family members, any servants, the flocks and the fields, and the family’s status in the community.  With that responsibility came a larger share of the estate.  Humans being human, however, the eldest’s double portion didn’t always sit well with the other siblings.  It didn’t seem fair, to some, anyway.

In today’s gospel, I suspect that it’s an unhappy younger son who wants Jesus to step in and divide things up equally in his family.  He wants more than he got.  Now, Jesus is a rabbi, a teacher, someone with authority, someone to appeal to for a legal ruling from the Torah, even.  But Jesus refuses to be drawn in.  He tells the whole crowd to notice when they’re tempted to be greedy and to remember that life isn’t about how much stuff you’ve got.

And then Jesus tells them all a parable.  When a rich man’s land yields a huge harvest, he asks himself what he should do since he doesn’t have anywhere to store the abundance that the land produced.  He says to himself, “Well, I’ll tear down the barns I have, and I’ll build bigger ones.  That way I can store all my grain and my goods.  And then I’ll say to myself, ‘Self, you’re all set for years to come, so take it easy.  Eat, drink, and be merry.’”

He says to himself, “My barns are already full, but what am I going to do with my $780.5 million payout from my Mega Millions $1.337 billion winning ticket?  I’ll tear down my warehouses and build some that are big enough to store everything I’m going to buy for myself.  And then I’ll sit on my private island somewhere and say to myself, ‘Self, you’ve got it made.’” 

When we read this parable at Bible study on Thursday, someone said, “The rich man’s only thinking about himself.  He could have given all his workers a huge bonus.  It wasn’t him out in the fields doing all that work.”  Right.  In Jesus’ parable, the rich man’s all about “I,” “me,” and “my.”  That is sin.  It’s what Luther called incurvatus in se -- being curved in upon yourself.  The rich man’s wealth, in and of itself, isn’t the problem.  The problem is greed.  He doesn’t wonder if his workers and their families have enough to eat.  He doesn’t ask whether they have adequate shelter.  He doesn’t think about whether others ever get to relax, eat, drink, and be merry.  And he doesn’t consider how, when he holds on to everything he has, it affects the well-being of his whole community.  All he thinks about is himself.  And that way of being in the world -- without relationships, friendship, care, mutuality, generosity, commitment, love, and community -- is a really impoverished way to live.

Think of Lester.  In “Where the Sidewalk Ends,” poet Shel Silverstein does just that.

Lester was given a magic wish

By the goblin who lives in the banyan tree,

And with his wish he wished for two more wishes –

So now instead of just one wish, he cleverly had three.

And with each one of these

He simply wished for three more wishes,

Which gave him three old wishes, plus nine new.

And with each of these twelve

He slyly wished for three more wishes,

Which added up to forty-six – or is it fifty-two?

Well anyway, he used each wish

To wish for wishes ‘til he had

Five billion, seven million, eighteen thousand thirty-four.

And then he spread them on the ground

And clapped his hands and danced around

And skipped and sang, and then sat down

And wished for more.

And more . . . and more . . . they multiplied

While other people smiled and cried

And loved and reached and touched and felt.

Lester sat amid his wealth

Stacked mountain-high like stacks of gold,

Sat and counted – and grew old.

And then one Thursday night they found him

Dead – with his wishes piled around him.

And they counted the lot and found that not

A single one was missing.

All shiny and new – here, take a few

And think of Lester as you do.

In a world of apples and kisses and shoes

He wasted his wishes on wishing.

“While other people smiled and cried / And loved and reached and touched and felt,” the rich man built some bigger barns for all his stuff.  When the land produced abundantly, he could have thanked God for that abundance.  When he asked himself, “What should I do with what God has given me, since my barns are already full?” he could have wondered who needed what he had more than enough of.  He could have had a lot of fun thinking about the good his wealth could do – the rent he could have paid for people, the grocery store gift cards he could have surprised folks with, the meals at Father Bill’s he could have helped provide and serve, the symphonies he could have supported, the medical research he could have underwritten.  He could have imagined “five billion, seven million, eighteen thousand thirty-four” ways to love God and love his neighbor as he shared the abundance his land – God’s land -- had produced.

And because generosity begets generosity, and joy begets joy, because relationships can flourish, and faith can grow, surely the rich man would not have remained impoverished or isolated or stuck on himself.

This parable is a cautionary tale, and Jesus ends it with God’s assessment of the rich man as a fool.  That very night, when he thinks he has his life wrapped up in a secure and self-indulgent package tied with a bow, he will realize that he has been a fool.  And then, Jesus asks, what will become of all his tearing down and building bigger, all his plans to do nothing other than kick back and enjoy his life?  To whom will all his possessions belong?  When you’re full of yourself instead of full of God, Jesus says, this is what happens.  Think of the rich fool.  Or think of Lester.

Parables about “a rich man” appear to be about wealth, but they’re perhaps even more about poverty – others’ material poverty and our own spiritual poverty.  They may reveal who’s impoverished by a lack of empathy, especially for those who are poor, a lack of moral imagination, and a lack of action on behalf of the most vulnerable people in society.  Not just individuals, but congregations, organizations, cities and towns, political parties, and nations can be self-centered, self-involved, and just plain selfish, like the rich man who proved to be a rich fool.  When we hear Jesus tell a parable like this one, we’re invited to become “self” conscious, to count the “I”s and “me”s and “mine”s in our reflection on what we have.  

When we discover too much “I” and not much “neighbor” and not nearly enough “God,” we come to confession, and we ask for forgiveness because we don’t want to be fools.  “Save us from ourselves and free us to love our neighbors,” we pray.  In fact, we prayed those very words together at the beginning of worship today.  Then we heard the good news that our sins are forgiven, and we are free to love as God loves.  Free to discover “five billion, seven million, eighteen thousand thirty-four” ways to be rich in all the right ways, especially rich toward God. 

Amen    

             

   

Pentecost 7 C
July 24, 2022

Who Will be Neighbor to Sister Water?

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A few weeks ago, our gospel reading from Luke included Jesus’ story about a Good Samaritan. Here’s what came just before the story itself: Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

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Pentecost 7 C July 24, 2022

Outdoor Worship:  Water as Our Neighbor Pastor Susan Henry

Luke 10:25-29 House of Prayer Lutheran Church

Psalm 104: 1a and 5-9; 10-1; 14-16; 24-45; 33-35

Who Will be Neighbor to Sister Water?

Introduction

A few weeks ago, our gospel reading from Luke included Jesus’ story about a Good Samaritan.  Here’s what came just before the story itself:

Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus.  “Teacher,” he said, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”  He said to him, “What is written in the law?  What do you read there?”  He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.”  And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.” But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”

We want to know that, too.  Who is our neighbor?  We know Jesus doesn’t mean just the people who live next door to us – and maybe Jesus doesn’t mean just people!  In medieval times, Francis of Assisi experienced all of creation as his kin.  His Canticle of the Sun begins, “Sing praises to You, My Lord, of great glory, honor, and blessing.”

And then he praises Brother Sun and Sister Moon, Brother Wind and Sister Water, Brother Fire and Sister Earth.  “Sing praises to Sister Water,” he sings, “who is so useful and humble and precious and pure.”  Rejecting both his father’s and the medieval church’s wealth, Francis chose a life of poverty, and he experienced the earth’s elements and her creatures as his closest neighbors and his kin.  Although we birds or picked up worms so they wouldn’t get stepped on, he did not live an easy life.  But he lived a life full of joy, full of love for nature, for all the vulnerable, and for God.  As Robert Saler describes it, Francis offered a “passionate and courageous witness ON BEHALF of God’s creation and AGAINST that which sets itself against the work of God’s kingdom.” 

The Word

(Readings in italics are from Psalm 104.)

I

Bless the Lord, O my soul.

O Lord my God, you are very great.

You set the earth on its foundation,

so that it shall never be shaken.

You cover it with the deep as with a garment;

the waters stood above the mountains.

At your rebuke they flee,

at the sound of your thunder they take to flight.

They rose up to the mountains, ran down to the valleys

to the place that you appointed for them.

You set a boundary that they may not pass,

so that they might not again cover the earth.

Like St. Francis’ Canticle of the Sun, Psalm 104 begins with praise for the Creator of the universe, the Maker of all things.  “O Lord my God, you are very great.”  That greatness in evidenced in God’s power.  In poetic language, the psalmist describes how the vast waters of the earth are subject to God’s command.  We get a more-than-bird’s-eye-view of the world in which water blankets, moves, floods, recedes, and honors the Creator’s boundaries for it.  Water covers three-fourths of the surface of our planet.  The iconic photograph of the earth, taken during the Apollo 17 space flight in 1972, revealed our home as a small blue marble floating in the darkness that surrounds it.

O Lord, our God, you are indeed very great.

II

You make springs gush forth in the valleys;

they flow between the hills,

giving drink to every wild animal; 

the wild donkeys quench their thirst.

By the streams the birds of the air have their habitation;

they sing among the branches.

From your lofty abode you water the mountains;

the earth is satisfied with the fruit of your work.

With water, there’s life.  The system, so to speak, as God created it, works.  The earth likes it.  Can you recall a time or place when you’ve seen life flourishing because of the presence of water?  A time or place when water being water is just what’s needed?  Will you share that with us here and now?

[My niece Sara’s wedding beside a huge well-watered field of sunflowers, Lake Avalon in Michigan where you could find a good spot for fishing by looking down into the absolutely clear water for a brush pile, and the pots of herbs that I water on the deck of the parsonage come to mind for me]

Sister Water, we are thankful for you!

III

You cause the grass to grow for the cattle,

and plants for people to use,

to bring forth food from the earth,

and wine to gladden the human heart,

oil to make the face shine,

And bread to strengthen the human heart.

The trees of the Lord are watered abundantly,

the cedars of Lebanon that he planted.

God continues to create and re-create the world.  When all of earth’s inhabitants – human and other-than-human -- live as God intends, there’s food enough for every living thing.  We humans may find pleasure and beauty, strength and courage in what the earth produces.  Creation itself gets “watered abundantly,” cared for by God.

These images are about more than survival.  They’re about creatures and plants and people thriving.  So it’s painful to acknowledge that many creatures, people, the land, and water itself are not thriving and flourishing, but are vulnerable or suffering.  Monarch butterflies are now an endangered species.  Crops are withering in the relentless heat.  The water cycle gets disrupted as the climate changes.

And it’s very painful to acknowledge how human greed, arrogance, entitlement, indifference, complicity, and other kinds of sin harm the well-being of the earth that is home to all of the life we know.  For the first time in history, we humans are destroying God’s creation faster than nature can repair itself.

Sister Water suffers, too.  Can you think of particular ways or places that Sister Water is being threatened or has been harmed?  What comes to mind and grieves your heart?

[Flint, Michigan; fracking; draining aquifers; and the Great Pacific Garbage Patch come to mind for me.]

Sister Water is kind of like the traveler who “fell into the hands of robbers who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead.”

Sister Water, we feel compassion for you.

IV

O Lord, how manifold are your works!

In wisdom you have made them all;

the earth is full of your creatures.

Yonder is the sea, great and wide,

creeping things innumerable are there,

living things both small and great.

This portion of Psalm 104 takes us to the sea, to the blue of the blue marble that is the earth, and it reminds us of the great diversity of life in lakes and oceans.  Let’s just name out loud some of those innumerable “living things both small and great.”  Sister Water is home to . . . .

[Horseshoe crabs, bluegills, lanternfish, and blue whales come to mind for me.]

We praise God for God’s wisdom and creativity when it comes to the ordinary and the strange creatures who fill both the earth and the sea.  We sing praises, too, “to Sister Water, who is useful and humble and precious and pure.”  At the same time, we lament how Sister Water is sometimes exploited and abused and taken for granted and contaminated by the human race of which we are a part.  There’s grief in that, alongside sorrow over the harm done to Sister Water.  Maybe we could be neighbor to her as the Samaritan was neighbor to the traveler who was wounded and left half dead.

The lawyer’s question was “Who is my neighbor?”  How big, really, is the circle of my neighbors – and who’s outside that circle?  Who can I leave out, he wanted to know.  Maybe our question is similar.  Who is our neighbor?  Are only other humans our neighbors?  Who or what can we leave out?

Jesus doesn’t answer the question the lawyer asks.  Jesus poses a question of his own, a slightly different question from a slightly different perspective.  “Who,” Jesus asks, “was neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”  Reluctantly, the lawyer replies, “The one who showed him mercy.”  “Right,” Jesus says; “so go and do likewise.  Choose to care and that will make you a neighbor.”       

Who is neighbor to Sister Water?  Who is already showing mercy and tending to her wounds?  Maybe we can join them or be inspired by their care.  Can you think of projects or organizations or people who are mitigating harm to oceans or lakes or working to restore the purity of water or advocating for policies that protect Sister Water?

[Food and Water Action, the pediatrician in Flint who identified the crisis, coral reef renewal or restoration work, waterway clean-up projects come to mind for me, along with the work years ago to clean up the Cuyahoga River when it caught on fire.]

To be a neighbor – to care, to have compassion and to show mercy by taking action -- is to be a sign of hope.  We who are followers of Jesus are called to be people of hope, even when the roads seem littered with people who’ve been left half dead and even when it’s Sister Water who needs to heal after being set upon by robbers of various kinds.

Lead us, God, to be neighbors to those -- like Sister Water -- who need our care.

V

I will sing to the Lord as long as I live;

I will sing praise to my God while I have being.

May my meditation be pleasing to him,

for I rejoice in the Lord.

Let sinners be consumed from the earth,

and let the wicked be no more.

Bless the Lord, O my soul.

That’s how Psalm 104 ends.  The singing and praising shouldn’t surprise us, but the part about the sinners and the wicked might come as a shock.  Verses like those are often left out of the psalms when we read or sing them in worship, but they reflect the come-as-you-are, bring-your-whole-self-to-God character of the psalms.  This psalm is overflowing with honor and praise for God’s creative power, generosity, provision for life, and diversity in creation.  The wish to be rid of the sinners and the wicked reflects the psalmist’s anger and frustration over those who don’t give honor and praise to God, but instead work against God’s purposes.  It’s like, “I just need to say this, God, and trust that you’ll know what to do with it.  And now that I’ve said it, I can go back to singing and praising.  ‘Bless the Lord, O my soul.  Praise the Lord!’”

In the good company of Jesus, the Samaritan who showed mercy, Francis of Assisi, the psalmist, the neighbors who show us the way, and each other as saints and sinners at the same time, let us bless the Lord.  Let us praise our Creator and give thanks for Sister Water, Brother Sun, Sister Moon, and Brother Wind.  And let us be passionate and courageous people of hope and bearers of God’s own mercy to the human and other-than-human kin with whom we share life on this beautiful blue marble.

Amen

   

Pentecost 6 C / Proper 11
July 17, 2022
Be Our Guest

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Both when I was growing up and with my own kids, our table grace was always, “Come, Lord Jesus, be our guest, and let these gifts to us be blessed.” Now, personally, I didn’t think asparagus was much of a gift, and I never considered what it could possibly mean for Jesus to “be our guest.” Martha and Mary, however, knew exactly what it was like, because “Martha welcomed Jesus into her home,” as the writer of Luke tells us.

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Pentecost 6 C / Proper 11 July 17, 2022

Amos 8:1-12 Pastor Susan Henry

Luke 10:38-42 House of Prayer Lutheran Church

Hingham MA

Grace to you and peace from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

Be Our Guest

Both when I was growing up and with my own kids, our table grace was always, “Come, Lord Jesus, be our guest, and let these gifts to us be blessed.”  Now, personally, I didn’t think asparagus was much of a gift, and I never considered what it could possibly mean for Jesus to “be our guest.”  Martha and Mary, however, knew exactly what it was like, because “Martha welcomed Jesus into her home,” as the writer of Luke tells us. 

You might remember that in this part of Luke’s gospel, Jesus is headed toward Jerusalem and to what will inevitably take place there.  Those who want to join him on the way are asked to make following him their first priority, to put it before their work or family obligations.  Along that way, Jesus sends out seventy of his followers without much in the way of provisions.  They are to depend on the hospitality of others – staying in the homes of people who welcome them, eating what they’re offered, healing people who are sick, and letting everyone know that “the kingdom of God has come near.”  And that’s what they do, two by two. 

I don’t know how that works.  Does the word get out ahead of time so that people anticipate having guests?  Or do a couple folks just show up at your door, tell you that they’re friends of Jesus, and ask if they can stay for a couple days – and if you’ll feed them, too?  Either way, it’s about hospitality.  Offering or receiving hospitality is no small thing among the people of God through the ages, and it’s a theme in this part of Luke’s gospel.  In the four little verses that make up today’s story, Jesus comes to be Martha and Mary’s guest.  It’s a more complicated story that it appears at first.

Martha and Mary are mentioned in John’s gospel as well, along with their brother Lazarus, and they are described as friends of Jesus.  Here in Luke, perhaps this is when their friendship begins -- or perhaps they are already dear friends.  Luke describes this as Martha’s home, and Jesus is invited to be their guest.  (Now, speaking of distractions – which Jesus will do -- that invitation may evoke for you – as it did for me – the image of an animated candlestick singing, “Be our guest!  Be our guest! / Put our service to the test. / Tie your napkin ‘round your neck, cherie / And we provide the rest.”  If so, just delight in it, as I did, and hopefully it will fade away and not become an ongoing distraction during the rest of worship!) 

Anyway . . . as we know from experience, having a guest means there are things to do.  We might see that the guestroom’s neat and tidy, clean the bathroom, put away the clutter on the kitchen counter, and begin to prepare the food we’ll serve.  We don’t know what all Martha was doing, but it seems likely that her hospitality included preparing a meal for their guest.  Gathering, washing, prepping, cooking, setting the table, and so on.  It’s good work when you want to offer hospitality that honors your guest, but it’s often a lot of work.  And Martha is in the kitchen alone.

Her sister Mary is sitting at Jesus’ feet, listening to him, and Martha is not happy about that.  What she does next puts her guest – Jesus – in a really awkward position.  She wants him to intervene on her behalf and get Mary to do her share of the work.  In fact, Martha accuses Jesus of not caring that she’s the only one who’s working.  “Tell her to come help me,” she says.  Now, I’m guessing that some of us have been resentful when we found ourselves alone in the kitchen or stuck out at the grill while everybody else was somewhere laughing or nibbling on the appetizers we made or just enjoying each other’s company.  But I’m also guessing that we’ve seldom accused one of our guests about not caring that we’re stuck doing all the work and then insisting that they make everybody come help us.  That would have cast a pall over the occasion, wouldn’t it?

But that’s what happens in this story.  So why might Martha have put her guest – her honored guest -- in that situation?  Maybe she’s so annoyed that she has lost all perspective, and she can’t let this go for now.  Or maybe she and Mary and Jesus know each other so well that they can each speak the truth -- in love or not so lovingly – and, because their friendship goes so deep, they can navigate the uncomfortable, difficult moments that arise.  I don’t know.  What I do know is that Jesus goes gently to the heart of the issue – to all that distracts Martha from what matters most.  It's a good thing to offer hospitality; it matters to welcome a guest.  It’s not so good to be captive to the “doing” instead of free to enjoy the “being.”  It's not so good to be distracted from why you’re doing what you’re doing – and for whom you’re doing it – no matter what anybody else is up to.  Remember, it’s “Come, Lord Jesus, be our guest.”

Notice that Martha is offering hospitality.  She is doing just what Jesus counts on his friends and followers to do.  She is modeling a ministry of service -- a ministry that Jesus values, that the early church valued as they appointed deacons, and that our congregation values as we see that the veterans in town have home-cooked meals, that the folks who come to Father Bill’s get a good lunch, that the recovery groups who meet through the week know we’re glad they’re here.

It’s not the serving that Jesus speaks about with her.  It’s the worry that keeps her from being really there with her guest.  It’s the endless distractions – even without an iPhone -- that keep her from being truly present to Jesus.  He’ll no doubt be glad when dinner is ready, but what he’s hungry for is her full attention, her listening to him, her experience of the kingdom of God coming near to her in him.

Setting women against women seems rampant in our culture right now, so it’s hard not to hear Luke’s telling of this story as an example of that.  I’m going to hope that Mary didn’t gloat and say, “See, Martha?” when Jesus affirmed Mary’s choice to sit at his feet and listen as “the better part.”  Enabling sibling rivalry won’t serve the kingdom Jesus is proclaiming, nor will a hardening of hearts that’s revealed today in the grieving or gloating slogans on protest signs held by all who are meant to be sisters in Christ.  How Luke tells this story doesn’t really help bridge the distance between sisters in our own time or between the real Martha and the real Mary who were Jesus’ friends and followers. 

Let me suggest that the writer of Luke has a bit of an agenda here and that he tells this story in a way that enlists it in the service of his perspective on the whole of Jesus’ story.  Because the gospel of Luke includes a number of stories about women that aren’t in the other gospels – like our gospel story today -- we may assume that Luke sees an expansive, more egalitarian role for women who followed Jesus.  Because he is such an engaging storyteller, we might miss how Luke actually portrays the women followers of Jesus in Jesus’ own time and as the Jesus movement grows.  You may be surprised to learn that in The Women’s Bible Commentary, Jane Schaberg calls this gospel “an extremely dangerous text” for women.  What she notices is that Luke prefers the quiet women, the ones like Mary who sit at Jesus’ feet and just listen.  In today’s story, Mary never speaks, and after Jesus gently chides Martha, she has nothing more to say.

But in John’s gospel, Schaberg points out, “Both are loved by Jesus, and they are not in competition with each other.  Martha, who serves at table, makes the central christological confession of this Gospel, of Jesus as the Christ . . . and Mary, who also enters into dialogue with Jesus, performs the prophetic action of anointing Jesus’ feet.”   By way of contrast, Luke, however, portrays the women in his gospel as “prayerful, quiet, grateful women, supportive of male leadership, forgoing the prophetic ministry.”  In the book of Acts, which was also written by Luke, the place of women in the early church continues to diminish.  Where, in the teaching of Jesus in Luke, women are mentioned eighteen times, when it comes to the teaching of the apostles in Acts, women only get mentioned once.  Luke’s portrayal of the women who followed Jesus has shaped – and continues to shape -- the role of women in the church.  We’re blessed to have four portraits of Jesus, four gospels written from four different perspectives, so that we can read them side by side and discover the riches they offer to us as we ourselves follow Jesus.

Now, one of the fascinating things about today’s gospel reading is that we don’t know how Martha or Mary responded to Jesus.  After all the distraction and drama and division, what happened next?  Did Martha say, “Ugh – I can’t believe I got caught up in so many distractions and worries and so much resentment.  Jesus, I’m sorry I dragged you into the middle of that.  I completely lost track of how much it matters to me to have you as my guest, as our guest, and to both serve you and give you my full attention!”  Did Mary say, “Jesus, I love nothing more than being with you, but I owe my sister an apology for leaving her with all the preparations for your stay with us.  No wonder she was worried and annoyed!  Give us a little time to finish what needs done, and then we can come listen to you together.”  I don’t know how the conversations went, but I hope their home was soon filled with the gift of the smell of dinner cooking, with the gift of laughter and lively conversation that went on long into the evening, with the gift of each of them being hospitable and truly present to the others in service and in the word, and with the gift of joy in sharing a glimpse of the kingdom of God that had come so near.  Gifts like those would surely be the blessing the sisters might have sought if they had prayed, “Come, Lord Jesus, be our guest, and let these gifts to us be blessed.”

Amen             

        

  

  

        

      

Pentecost 5 C / Proper 10
July 10, 2022
That Neighbor?

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Throughout the summer and into the fall, we hear, in pretty much chronological order, a travelogue of sorts. Jesus is on the move. After a time of ministry in Galilee, he has “set his face toward Jerusalem,” and toward all that will happen there. As the journey begins, a Samaritan town doesn’t welcome him. As the journey continues, what it means to follow Jesus is becoming clearer.

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Pentecost 5 C / Proper 10 July 10, 2022

Amos 7:7-17 Pastor Susan Henry

Luke 10:25-37 House of Prayer Lutheran Church

Hingham MA

Grace to you and peace from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

That Neighbor?

Throughout the summer and into the fall, we hear, in pretty much chronological order, a travelogue of sorts.  Jesus is on the move.  After a time of ministry in Galilee, he has “set his face toward Jerusalem,” and toward all that will happen there.  As the journey begins, a Samaritan town doesn’t welcome him.  As the journey continues, what it means to follow Jesus is becoming clearer.  There are lots of places Jesus intended to go, and he sends seventy of his followers out there to cure the sick and to proclaim that “the kingdom of God has come near.”  They return, astonished by the power of God at work through them bringing healing and wholeness, and so Jesus gives thanks to God for revealing to these very ordinary people what it’s like when God’s kingdom comes on earth as it is in heaven.

After that, Jesus turns to those closest to him, and says to them privately, “Blessed are the eyes that see what you see!  For I tell you that many prophets and kings desired to see what you see, but did not see it, and to hear what you hear, but did not hear it.”  This of course is about more than whether their eyes and their ears are working.  This seeing is about perceiving, and this hearing is about understanding.

As they’re taking all that in, “Just then,” Luke tells us, “a lawyer stood up to test Jesus.”  To test Jesus.  The lawyer asks, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”  A strange question, really.  What someone inherits doesn’t usually come because of something they’ve done.  What this lawyer means by “eternal life” isn’t self-evident, although it suggests a life that somehow continues after death.  His question suggests that he’s got a checklist, and he wants to know how much or how little of what’s on it he has to do.  “What must I do?” he asks Jesus.

Jesus responds with a question of his own.  “What do you find in scripture, and how do you interpret that?”  The lawyer quotes a verse from Deuteronomy and another from Leviticus, one about loving God more than anything and the other about loving your neighbor as yourself.  Jesus says, “Great.  You’ve got it.  Do it, and you’ll live the life you’re longing for.”  Now, if the lawyer is really looking for guidance, he has all he needs.  End of story.  Except that it’s not.

The lawyer is looking for a loophole, a way to justify not doing what he just affirmed are the right things to do – love God and love his neighbor.  So while he asks out loud, “Well, who is my neighbor?,” he’s also asking, “Who’s not my neighbor?  Who can I leave out?  Whose needs can I ignore?”  I’m pretty sure Jesus could have quoted both scripture and the ancient rabbis’ teachings that addressed the lawyer’s purported question, but instead Jesus chose to tell him a story.  Jesus does that a lot, doesn’t he?  He lets those who hear him find their own place in his stories.

Jesus says, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead.”  The lawyer and all those who were listening would be able to picture that scene.  You always went “down” from Jerusalem because it was up on a hill.  There were eighteen miles of rocky road between Jerusalem and Jericho, and they could be dangerous.  The man in Jesus’ story – a person we know nothing about – was robbed, wounded, and left half dead along that road, a victim of violence.  Jewish New Testament scholar Amy-Jill Levine says, “He is robbed not only of his possessions, but also of his dignity, his health, and almost his life.”  Maybe many of those who heard this story could imagine that happening to them, too.  They might have been wondering who will help that man – or who would help them in the same situation.  Maybe they’re wondering if they themselves would stop to help.

By coincidence, Jesus says, a priest was going down the road.  He sees the man, but he passes him by on the far side of the road.  Then a Levite comes along, also sees the wounded man, and also passes by on the other side.  There’s all sorts of speculation about why they pass by, most of which Amy-Jill Levine refutes.  Some commentators suggest that the priest passes by because he needs to be ritually pure for his duties in the Temple, but he’s coming from there, not headed that way, so that wouldn’t apply.  Others cite Jewish law about not touching a corpse, but the man along the road is not dead.  He’s perhaps barely alive, and although Jewish law requires that you offer help in such a situation, both the priest and the Levite failed to do that. They might have been worried that the robbers are still nearby -- and then what might happen to them?

So far in Jesus’ story, two people have seen the wounded man but passed by on the other side.  Like in Jesus’ stories of the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son -- and in lots of folktales -- his listeners might be expecting a third figure.  First a priest, then a Levite, and next . . . an Israelite, of course, who would stop to help.  However, Jesus being Jesus, and parables being parables, what’s expected is not what happens.  Jesus continues, “But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity.”  The lawyer and the rest of Jesus’ listeners must have been shocked by that.  There was ancient and current animosity between Jews and Samaritans.  Remember how, not that long ago, James and John were ready to call down fire from heaven to destroy a Samaritan town that wasn’t very hospitable to Jesus?  So, a priest, a Levite, and an Israelite – that, people would understand.  But a priest, a Levite, and a hated Samaritan – not so much.  Maybe we’d be just as stunned if the third person coming down the road was one of Putin’s generals.      

The Samaritan did not distance himself from the man who’d been robbed and beaten and left half dead.  He came near, he saw him, and he had compassion for him.  His heart went out to him, and he set about doing what he could.  He washed the man’s wounds with wine, an ancient antiseptic.  He poured soothing oil on those wounds and bandaged them with whatever he had with him.  Then the Samaritan put him on his own animal and brought him to an inn, where he took care of him through the night.  The next day he gave the innkeeper the equivalent of a couple days’ wages, asked him to continue to care for him, and promised to repay anything more that was spent when the Samaritan came back that way.  Not only did he himself provide care, he trusted the innkeeper to do what he asked – and the innkeeper had to trust him to come back and make good on his promise to repay any extra cost.  The Samaritan loved a neighbor he didn’t even know in ways that he would surely want to be loved if he were the one found half dead.

At the end of the story, Jesus turned his attention to the lawyer who had asked, “Who is my neighbor?”  Instead of answering the question that evoked the story, Jesus shifts the focus a little and asks the lawyer, “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?”  The lawyer’s answer may reflect his reluctance to even speak the word “Samaritan,” but he acknowledges that it was “The one who showed him mercy.”  The one who, when he saw, felt compassion and was moved to action – to coming near, washing, bandaging, helping, bringing, caring, providing.  The one who, in coming near to someone’s pain and tending to their wounds, was himself experiencing life in the kingdom Jesus was proclaiming.  The one who, in acting compassionately for the sake of another’s healing and wholeness, was living eternal life in the here and now.

Heaven knows there are far too many wounded people in our nation and world today who’ve been robbed of justice or of opportunity or who’ve suffered violence in myriad ways and need mercy from whatever unlikely person sees them and is willing to come near, just as the Samaritan was.  There are myriad opportunities for us, individually and together, to respond with compassion and action for the sake of the hurting people we see on the virtual roads we travel along with the Samaritan.  I suppose that saying, as Jesus did, “Go and do likewise” might provide a neat and tidy end to this sermon, but I think there’s still some annoying, unfinished business here.  I blame it on Jesus and the stories he tells.

Here’s what’s been gnawing at me.  Assuming that the man who had been robbed, beaten, and left for dead was a Jew like the priest and the Levite, I wonder how he reacted when he looked up and saw one of the last people on earth he’d want help from.  Did he think or say, “Oh, no! Not you!”?  How did he hold together two disparate responses: “Someone has come to help me” and “I hate Samaritans”? 

I found myself wondering who would be the last person on earth that I’d want to have tend to my wounds when I was half-dead.  This is somewhat of a confession, but I have a top three list, all of whom I see as selfish, arrogant, greedy, uncaring, power-hungry people.  My first response to the possibility of one of them seeing me in need of help was that none of them have any compassion whatsoever, so they’re never straying from the road to check on me, even if I am half dead.  Not a chance.

In other words, I wrote them off.  That way I don’t have to consider any of them as a neighbor to me – or think of myself as a neighbor to them.  Unfortunately, that kind of lands me with the lawyer who really wants to know who he can ignore, who he can avoid caring about or caring for – and I don’t really want to be on his side of the interaction with Jesus.  He intended to test Jesus, but, when he knew the right answer to Jesus’ question and just didn’t want to do it, he wanted to justify himself to Jesus.  Apparently I do, too. 

What way is life-giving?  What way gives life now and eternally?  The way of loving God more than anything and loving my neighbor as myself. . . except for those three, I want to say.  I’ll be honest here; the idea of either having my own wounds tended by one of them or discovering them in need of my compassion and care is a real struggle.  It’s a lot easier to love God than to love those three particular neighbors who I know have wounds of their own, even if they’re not visible.  I’m trying to find my way to our shared humanity, to seeing each of them as a child of God who is as captive to sin and dependent on grace as I am, but it’s not easy.  It’s hard to acknowledge that they are among the neighbors that I’m called by God to love.  Now, it’s possible that I’m not the only one who struggles to get beyond all that divides us and can bring out the worst in us instead of evoking compassion for each other in all our woundedness. 

In our shared struggle, what I hope for is that Jesus will be the one who shows up when we find ourselves robbed, beaten, and left for half dead along life’s road.  At first, we might resist even his care for us because it means our wounds will be revealed, but Jesus’ own care and his entrusting us to the care of one another will surely help bring healing and wholeness.  And, not only that, but it may help us love the people we’ve been loathe to even call our neighbors and help us grow in our understanding of how to love them as we love ourselves.  Maybe the inn or the church or the community to which Jesus brings us will post signs on the wall that say, “Love God and love your neighbor” and remind us, “You were shown mercy. Now go and do likewise.”  If we spend enough time together in such a place of grace, I trust that we’ll come to practice living the way of love and life that Jesus is calling us into, both now and forever.      

            Amen