Easter 6 C
Listening for the Spirit’s Leading
May 22, 2022

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In today’s gospel, Jesus speaks words of comfort and encouragement on the very night when he is betrayed and when all that leads to his death has been set into motion. The disciples are confused and afraid, uncertain about Jesus’ future and their own. Grief and fear fill the room. He has told them that he is going away but that he will reveal himself to those who love him.

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Easter 6 C May 22, 2022

Acts 16:9-15 Pastor Susan Henry

John 14:23-29 House of Prayer Lutheran Church

Hingham MA

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

Listening for the Spirit’s Leading

In today’s gospel, Jesus speaks words of comfort and encouragement on the very night when he is betrayed and when all that leads to his death has been set into motion.  The disciples are confused and afraid, uncertain about Jesus’ future and their own.  Grief and fear fill the room.  He has told them that he is going away but that he will reveal himself to those who love him.  One of those who are present asks, “But how?”  Jesus replies, “Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.”  Jesus and the Father will move right in and make themselves at home.

Because his friends are caught up in confusion, fear, and grief, Jesus’ comforting or encouraging words may not actually register.  We might know that from our own experience.  So Jesus goes on to assure them that the Holy Spirit will teach them and will remind them of all that Jesus has said.  “’Peace I leave with you,” he says; “my peace I give to you.’  You don’t have to be afraid.”  It was a lot for them to take in, so thank heavens for the Holy Spirit.  It’s a lot for us to take in when confusion, fear, or grief overwhelm us, so thank heavens for the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit.  At baptism, our prayer is that God will sustain us with the gift of the Holy Spirit.  At confirmation, our prayer is that God will stir up in us the gift of the Holy Spirit.  Any time at all, our prayer can be that God will lead and guide us through the Holy Spirit.

After Jesus’ resurrection and ascension, the promised Holy Spirit came in wind and fire on Pentecost.  Those on whom the Spirit fell that day can’t help but tell Jesus’ story wherever they go – “in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”  The book of Acts recounts their travels, and we read from Acts throughout the Easter season.

Last week, in a story about Peter and Cornelius, we heard how the Holy Spirit fell upon Cornelius and his household, just as it had on Peter and the others on Pentecost.  Peter said, “If God has given even to the Gentiles what God has given to us, who am I to stand in God’s way?”  Both Jews and Gentiles then became followers of Jesus’ way.  That it should be like that might seem self-evident to us, but including Gentiles in what was becoming “the church” was hotly contested in its time.

A complication arose when some believers insisted that, while Gentiles were welcome, they had to be circumcised, like Jewish believers.  This was a huge conflict – one with “no little dissension and debate” – and so a council was held in Jerusalem to resolve the crisis.  There, Peter told his story about Cornelius, and Paul and Barnabas spoke “of all the signs and wonders God had done through them among the Gentiles.” Others remembered the prophets’ words about God rebuilding the house of David “so that all other peoples may seek the Lord – even all the Gentiles over whom my name has been called.”  Witness to what God is doing and remembrance of what God has promised seem to have nurtured in those at the council confidence that they and the Spirit were on the same page.  They sent out word that “’It has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us’ to not require Gentile believers to be circumcised.”  The Spirit has been teaching and reminding them – as the Spirit still does for us, as we still need the Spirit to do for us.

In our own time, there is “no little dissension and debate” over many important matters, including about the relationship between faith and politics.  Seeking to discern where the Spirit is leading seems critical to both the integrity of our faith and the health of our politics.  In a recent article in the Atlantic about the wrenching struggle taking place within the evangelical church, Tim Alberta writes about “millions of American [Evangelical] Christians who, after a lifetime spent considering their political affiliations in the context of their faith, are now considering their faith affiliations in the context of their politics.”

Those of us in mainline denominations might feel some of that same pull toward letting our politics inform our faith rather than letting our faith inform our politics.  Given the world we live in, it’s easy to can see how confusion, fear, or grief might keep us and others from remembering Jesus’ promise that the Spirit will teach us and that the Spirit will remind us of what we have learned from Jesus.  In the midst of all the noise around us and within us, it can be hard to listen for the Spirit’s leading.  But next Saturday, the council will meet for part two of our council retreat where, as best we can, we will listen for what the Spirit wants to teach us and what the Spirit wants us to remember so that we as a congregation can be who God is calling us to be and do what God is calling us to do.

In the verses just before our reading from Acts today, it’s clear that God is in charge of this mission to the Gentiles because Paul’s own plans keep getting thwarted.  He wanted to go to Asia, but the Spirit had “forbidden” it, just as the Spirit had kept him from going to Bithynia, which is why he’s ended up in Troas.  There, in the night, Paul has a vision.  A man of Macedonia pleads with him, saying, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.”  Convinced that this is God’s call, he and his companions sail west across the Aegean Sea and make their way to Philippi.  What kind of help is needed isn’t clear, although Paul and the small community with him understand it to be a call to come preach the good news about Jesus.

They come to the city and . . . do what?  We don’t know.  We’re only told that they “remained in the city for some days.”  While Paul’s practice has been to go to the local synagogue in the cities and towns he visits, here in Philippi, on the sabbath, he goes to a river outside the city gates.  It’s easy to imagine such a place.  We don’t know why he thinks it is a good place for prayer, but he is right.  He finds a gathering of women there, and he joins them, sitting down and speaking with them. 

Now, although we may have been on the lookout for the man from Macedonia who appeared in Paul’s vision, we meet a woman from Thyatira there at the river.  She’s a foreigner from Asia, the place that the Spirit wouldn’t let Paul go.  Her name is Lydia, and she is a businesswoman who deals in purple cloth – expensive goods.  That suggests that she is a woman of some means, and it appears that she is the head of a large household.  She is “a worshipper of God,” although she’s not a Jew, and she may have been the one leading the women in prayer there by the river.  As Paul speaks, “the Lord open[s] her heart to listen eagerly” to him. 

The Spirit opens or closes the way for Paul as he travels.  The Lord opens Lydia’s heart, and after she and her household are baptized there at the river, she opens her doors to Paul and his companions.  “Come and stay at my home,” she says.  She presses them to stay with her, and they accept her hospitality. 

Paul may have expected to encounter someone like the man from Macedonia who called for help in a vision.  What Paul got instead was a woman from Thyatira who offers help to Paul and his companions.  “Come and stay with me,” she says; “Make yourselves at home.”  Now, perhaps it is not only Paul and the others who are welcomed there.  Perhaps Jesus and the Father also “come to [her] and make their home with [her]” as she and her household come to know Jesus better, to love him more, and to faithfully follow his way.  That she was already a worshipper of God surely prepared her heart to hear the good news Paul brought.

The book of Acts is full of stories about what the Spirit is doing, where the Spirit is leading, what the Spirit is teaching, who the Spirit is reminding – or surprising, and when the Spirit is opening or closing a door.  That same Spirit still moves among us.     

When confusion tempts us to hunker down and go it alone, to trust ourselves rather than trusting God, the Spirit may teach us and encourage us to remember who and whose we are.  When fear divides us or cuts us off from one another, the Spirit might remind us that through water and the Word, we belong to God and to one another.  When grief and loss threaten to pull us under, the Spirit moves to sustain us, to remind us of Jesus’ promise that he will not leave us orphans, but will make his home with us.  When a way we hoped to go seems closed to us, we may discover that the Spirit is leading us and accompanying us down as we go down a different road.

And so we pray that, as the Spirit directed Paul and opened Lydia’s heart, the Spirit will continue to direct us and open our hearts, our eyes, our ears, and our minds to go where the Spirit leads us, both in our individual lives and together as a congregation.  May we be moved to welcome people and offer generous hospitality, as Lydia did.  And may we be sustained and encouraged in our love for God and for all creation, trusting that we are not alone, but that Jesus and the Father have come to make their home with us.

Amen  

         

         

               

Easter 5 C
May 15, 2022
Who Am I To Hinder God?

During the Easter season, the first reading each Sunday is from the book of the Acts of the Apostles, most commonly just called Acts. In the New Testament, Acts follows the four gospels, and it’s the closest thing we have to a history of what happens in and through the lives of those who’ve been sent out by Jesus and, after his death, resurrection, and ascension, been empowered by the Holy Spirit on Pentecost. In Acts, we hear a lot of stories about Peter and about Paul.

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Easter 5 C May 15, 2022

Acts 11:1-18 Pastor Susan Henry

John 13:31-35 House of Prayer Lutheran Church

Hingham MA

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

Who Am I To Hinder God?

During the Easter season, the first reading each Sunday is from the book of the Acts of the Apostles, most commonly just called Acts.  In the New Testament, Acts follows the four gospels, and it’s the closest thing we have to a history of what happens in and through the lives of those who’ve been sent out by Jesus and, after his death, resurrection, and ascension, been empowered by the Holy Spirit on Pentecost.  In Acts, we hear a lot of stories about Peter and about Paul.  In today’s reading, we get Peter’s first-hand testimony about the God who not only brings new life out of death, but continues to surprise and confound Jesus’ followers.

We hear Peter describe to the other apostles the new thing that God is doing – a new thing that Peter himself had strongly resisted.  Jesus’ followers were part of a people who understood themselves to be chosen by God not because they were so great, but because they weren’t.  What God would do through them would point to God, not to them – to God’s power and initiative and direction, not to theirs – and so people would come to know the God of Israel.  Long ago, God had said, “You will be my people, and I will be your God.”  Practices like honoring the Sabbath, observing dietary laws, and circumcising the males in the community set the people of God apart from other people.  These practices set boundaries.  They were about identity, about reminding God’s people who and whose they were.

Part of what gets Jesus in trouble is crossing some of those boundaries – healing people on the Sabbath, for example.  Relationships are at the heart of Jesus’ ministry, and we see how restoration to wholeness and to community has a higher priority for him than observing practices about ritual cleanness or uncleanness.  Now, messing with the system, so to speak, felt liberating to some people, confusing to others, and just plain wrong to still others.  To the religious leaders, it felt like a challenge to their authority – and it often was.  Maybe it seemed to them like the proverbial slippery slope – if it’s okay to heal on the Sabbath and to let your followers ignore the ritual washing of hands, what else is okay?  Eventually, anything goes?

Maybe the religious leaders were convinced that you risked losing your sense of identity if you didn’t honor those everyday boundaries that clarified who’s in and who’s out, who belongs and who doesn’t.  Such concerns trouble us today as well, in regard to boundaries or traditional practices that might be seen as defining who belongs and who doesn’t.  Borders and pronouns and biases are contentious issues in society and in the church.  We may feel threatened when what felt unchangeable begins to change.  Change is hard, and even good change can unsettle us.  When who belongs and who doesn’t seems unclear, we might want to hunker down and hold on tight to how things have been.  We’re not the only ones.

Today’s reading from Acts begins, “Now the apostles and the believers who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also accepted the word of God.”  That might sound like great news to us, but it raised a huge issue for followers of Jesus’ way.  If Gentiles accepted the word of God, did they now belong to the people of God?  Were they “in”?   Were they not quite “in”?  Or were they still “out”?  To be a Gentile was by definition to not belong to God’s chosen people – from whom Jesus came.

The apostles in Jerusalem have heard about the remarkable thing that happened when Peter went to see Cornelius in Caesarea.  “So what’s up with that, Peter?” the more conservative believers want to know.  “We heard that you not only went when some Gentiles asked you to come, but you also stayed with them and you ate with them.”  They think Peter crossed a line when he ate with people who don’t honor practices that are so central to Jewish identity.  Other people do such and such; we Jews don’t.

Peter’s response was, “Have I got a story for you!”  He tells them how, when he was praying, he experienced the strangest thing.  He describes “something like a large sheet coming down from heaven,” and as he looked at what was contained in it, he saw creatures that, following God’s command, no Jew would ever eat.  Shockingly, a voice said, “Get up, Peter; kill and eat.”  Peter tells those who are questioning him that he objected and said, “No way, Lord.  I’ve never eaten anything that’s profane or unclean.”  The voice responded, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.”  This must have not only baffled Peter but elicited a lot of resistance from him because three times God had to say, “What I’ve made clean, you don’t get to call unclean anymore.”  And then the vision was gone, and I suspect Peter might have been thinking, “What the heck just happened here?”

He tells the apostles and the others in Jerusalem that “at that very moment,” three men who were sent to him from Caesarea, the Roman capital of Judea, arrived where he was staying.  When the Holy Spirit said to him, “Go, and don’t worry about them being Gentiles,” Peter went.  If we looked back to the previous chapter in Acts, we’d learn that the person who sent for Peter was a man named Cornelius, a man who commanded a cohort of a hundred men in the Roman army.  Cornelius was an influential person, and he was head of a large household.  And, perhaps surprisingly to us, Cornelius worshipped God, prayed constantly, was generous to those in need, and followed Jewish customs, even though he wasn’t a convert to Judaism.

Peter had a vision, and Cornelius also had a vision.  An angel had told him to send for Peter who would preach a message by which Cornelius and his whole household would be saved.  Cornelius did what the angel said, and Peter came to Caesarea.  Now, in Jerusalem, Peter recounts what happened when he began to speak to Cornelius and his household.  Peter says, “The Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning.” Peter reminds them of what they had experienced together at Pentecost.  They heard the rushing of the wind, saw something like tongues of fire over each of their heads, and were able to speak so that everyone present could understand the message about Jesus, no matter what language they spoke. 

Peter tells those who are questioning what he did in Caesarea that “The Spirit was given to us at Pentecost, and it was also given to Cornelius, his family, his servants, and those whom he’d invited to hear me speak.”  In John’s gospel, Jesus tells his disciples – now called apostles – that the Spirit would teach them and remind them of what they had experienced with Jesus.  Peter remembers how Jesus said that while John baptized with water, others would be baptized with the Holy Spirit.  “That’s what happened at Cornelius’ home,” Peter tells the other apostles, “and if God gave them the same gift that God gave us, who am I to stand in God’s way?” 

It’s quite the compelling story, isn’t it?  If God is making a way where there was no way – which God has so often done before – who are we to hinder God?  Who’s “in”?  These Gentiles, at least, despite others’ conviction that they didn’t belong.  Now, Peter didn’t think his way to a new place, theologically.  He went where the Spirit led, and he didn’t get in God’s way.  God took the initiative.  The Spirit showed up.  And God drew a circle big enough to include not only Jews, but Gentiles as well. 

When Peter finished his remarkable story, those who heard it had no comeback, no argument to make in response.  What else was there to say?  “If God has given even to the Gentiles what God has given to us, all we can do is give God praise.”

This story in Acts is a turning point in the ongoing story of those who follow Jesus’ way.  Acceptance of what’s called “the mission to the Gentiles” didn’t come at once and didn’t come easy.  A few chapters later in Acts, a big council takes place in Jerusalem, and what it means to be Gentiles and Jews together as followers of Jesus gets settled -- or at least hashed out for the moment.  And since most of us are descendants of Gentiles, we can give thanks for the work of the Spirit early in the church’s story.

When the Holy Spirit fell on Cornelius and his household, something that seemed utterly new took place.  Those who had never belonged had a place in God’s family now, not because of what Peter did, but because of what God did.  Because of what God always seems to do – make the circle of belonging larger, make room for outsiders to come in, to belong.

For example, when the people of God were about to enter the promised land, a Canaanite woman named Rahab protected the men sent by Moses’ successor Joshua to scout out the city.  In return, she asked that they spare her and her household when the city fell – and they did.  As a Canaanite, she was an outsider by definition, but she and her household ended up insiders, incorporated into the people of God.

Or think of Ruth, the Moabite woman who came to Israel with her mother-in-law Naomi after the death of Naomi’s sons, one of whom was Ruth’s husband.  Ruth said to Naomi, “Your people shall be my people, and your God my God.”  Not only did she, a foreigner, become part of the family of God, but she became the great-grandmother of King David.  That’s some serious belonging!

Cornelius and his household are part of the long arc of God’s story about including those who had been on the outside looking in.  I would imagine that some of God’s people thought it was stupid to take in a Canaanite woman, one of the enemy.  And I suspect that not everybody was happy to see Ruth, a stranger and an outsider, when Naomi returned to her own people.  And yet . . . by the grace of God, there was a place for Rahab and a place for Ruth among God’s people.  By the grace of God, there was room for Cornelius and his household – and room for us as well.  A colleague often quotes one of his seminary professors who used to say that any time you draw a line between who’s in and who’s out, you’ll find Jesus on the other side of that line.

That’s surely an invitation to cross that line and be where Jesus is, knowing that we might find ourselves in the company of people we’re not necessarily inclined to hang out with.  People who are not “like us,” in whatever way we define that.  If the size of the circle of those who belong depends on our drawing it, it’s likely to be pretty small.  But since it’s God who takes the initiative, the circle grows.  God continues to surprise and confound and bless us by drawing a circle of love that’s made known in Jesus who opens his arms to all.

Amen

Easter 4 C
May 8, 2022

Whose Voice?

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The way the church tells time, the fourth Sunday after Easter is always Good Shepherd Sunday, and the gospel reading each year comes from the tenth chapter of John. During Lent, I invited you to read the Twenty-third Psalm every day, and I based my Wednesday reflections on it. “The Lord is my shepherd,” it begins – and as we read it together today, maybe you knew it by heart. You might be surprised to learn that in early Christian artwork, Jesus is most often portrayed, not on the cross, but as the Good Shepherd.

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Lent 4 C March 27, 2022

Luke 15:1-32 Pastor Susan Henry

House of Prayer Lutheran Church

Hingham MA

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

Lost Sheep, Lost Coin, Lost Son

A lost sheep.  A lost coin.  A lost son.  In this chapter of Luke’s gospel, Jesus tells three stories about losing and finding and celebrating.  He tells them in the presence of people who are fussing about the company Jesus keeps.  “Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to [Jesus]” -- and the religious leaders were grumbling because Jesus welcomed them and shared meals with them.  Jewish New Testament scholar Amy-Jill Levine says that the problem with tax collectors “is that they work for Rome and would be seen by many within the Jewish community as traitors.”  Sinners are those who are out for themselves and don’t attend to the needs of others, especially the poor, or to the common good.  They’re the ancient equivalents of “drug pushers, arms dealers, inside traders,” and so on.  “And yes,” she says, “Jesus eats with them – it’s part of his genius, that he recognizes that they are part of the community and he goes out to get them.”  They count, just like the sheep, the coin, and the son.

The writer of Luke tells these stories with an eye to repentance, which is probably why this reading has landed in Lent.  But here’s a strange thing – the two allusions to repentance are in the little stories about the sheep and the coin.  It’s quite a stretch to imagine a sheep or a coin repenting.  The story of the son who was lost says nothing about repentance.  In all three stories, however, there’s rejoicing.  There’s a party, a celebration with friends and neighbors because what was lost has been found.

The story of the lost son is one of the most familiar in scripture, and it’s often called the prodigal son.  Prodigal means wasteful, and although it’s the younger son who wastes his inheritance, there are ways in which each son is lost.  So – the lost sheep, the lost coin, the lost son.

The father in the story was surely taken aback when his younger son asked for his inheritance ahead of time.  It’s not like the father could go to the bank and take money out of his savings account.  He’d have to sell some of the family’s land or its flocks and herds – which he did.  We might imagine the father’s heavy heart when his son packed up what was now his and put some distance between him and his family.

We might have stories of our own to tell about difficult family dynamics, feeling unconnected to a community, or refusing to take personal responsibility in our lives.  Some of that might have contributed to our making a bunch of bad choices, just as it seemed the younger son did.  He squandered what he had, and when he found himself in need, there was a famine in the country where he was living.  He hired himself out to someone and was sent to tend to the pigs.  Pigs stink, and shoveling their manure is no picnic.  And speaking of picnics, in the midst of that famine, he had nothing to eat – not even the pods he fed to those pigs.

As Luke tells it, “When he came to himself, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am, dying of hunger!”  He decides to go home, and he practices what he’ll say to his father when he gets there.  “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”  Now, you may be thinking that here’s where repentance comes in, and you would not be alone in trusting that something genuine is happening.  That’s the traditional reading of this story, and it’s been expressed in scholarly commentaries and in moving artwork for hundreds of years.

But I have my doubts about his motives.  He doesn’t say, “I have screwed up my life and my relationship with my father.  I’m going home and ask him to forgive me and to tell how me how to make amends for what I’ve done.”  Instead, he says, “I’m starving here, but there’s always been enough to eat where I came from, so I need a plan if I’m going to survive.”

Amy-Jill Levine thinks he’s a con man who feels no remorse.  She hears “an echo of the empty words Pharaoh mouths in order to stop the plagues: ‘Pharaoh hurriedly summoned Moses and Aaron and said, “I have sinned against the Lord your God, and against you”’ (Exod. 10:16) The prodigal is no more repentant, has had no more change of heart, than Egypt’s ruler.”

But home he goes.  “While he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him.”  And before the son could finish the speech he’d practiced, his father saw to it that the best robe would be put on him, along with a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet.  The father ordered up a celebration, “for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost, and is found!”  And they began to celebrate.

If the father had only one son, that would be a fitting end to the story – lost sheep found, lost coin found, lost son found.  But the father has two sons, one of whom has been working in one of those fields that he didn’t sell off.  When that son comes near the house, he hears music and dancing.  When he asks what’s going on, he’s told, “Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.”  Well, that did it.  The elder son is livid, and there is no way he’s going to join that party.

His father comes out to him, and his father gets an earful.  “Listen!  For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends.  But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!”  Not “Father,” but “Listen!”  Not “working for our family” but “working like a slave for you.”  Not “my brother,” but “this son of yours.”  It reeks of grievance and fury and resentment and frustration.  “Don’t I count?” he wants to know.

Wanting to reassure and comfort this lost son, his father says, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.”  His father pleads with him to come in and join the party.  “Of course, you count – here we are together, and all of what’s mine is yours. ‘But we just have to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.’”

And that’s where Jesus ends the story.  We’re left to wonder whether this lost son will be found.  He was like one of those ninety-sheep who stayed where they were supposed to be, like one of the nine coins that didn’t get lost -- the ones who seem to have been taken for granted.  He wasn’t the problem sheep or the problem coin or the problem child who gets fussed over on its return, who has a party given in its honor, who has friends and neighbors rejoicing as they eat and drink and dance.  Nobody even bothered to come out and tell him what was going on.  It stings.  Really, like that pig manure, it stinks. 

There is no neat and tidy resolution to this story, is there?  The family dynamics are so complicated. There is no neat and tidy resolution to some of our family stories, either, is there?  I wonder who you and I can relate to today in this story.  We may be the one who’s indulged, who’s perceived as the favorite, who can get away with anything.  We may be the one who’s responsible, who gets our homework and our chores done, who occasionally or often harbors resentment in our hearts.  Younger or older, we might look in the right or wrong places for attention, for love, for assurance that we count, we matter.  We may have trouble acknowledging the truth about our lives or finding our way home.  We may seek reconciliation or we might refuse it when things fall apart in little or big ways.  Such is the nature of life in families and among friends and in congregations.  It’s complicated.

Least complicated in the lost son story, perhaps, is the father’s part.  He feels compassion for each of his children.  He goes out to each of them.  He offers each of them his unconditional love.  Whether his younger son has come home with a repentant heart or an empty stomach, his father loves him.  Whether his older son lets go of his resentment and joins the party or distances himself from it all, his father loves him.  For each, there’s grace.  In truth, there will be grace upon grace upon grace – and grace is powerful.  To be welcomed home with open arms when you’ve screwed up your life and maybe broken your father’s heart just might change you.  To be comforted and assured of your place in the family when you’ve just unloaded all your anger and resentment on your father just might change you. 

Some people think the father is naïve, that there’s too much love and not enough accountability.  Others suspect that the loving father is going to get his heart broken again and again.  That might happen. But some of us who’ve been lost ourselves know from experience how powerful, how painful, and how life-changing it can be to be loved when we least deserve love.  The father doesn’t love his children because they’re good; he loves them because he is good.  That kind of love can give our lives back to us.  We just have to celebrate and rejoice when we were dead and are alive again, when we were lost and have been found!  That kind of love sets us free to love as we are loved.

Belgian priest and writer Henri Nouwen was deeply moved by Rembrandt’s last work, “Return of the Prodigal Son.”  It’s a large painting, about 6 ½’ wide and 9 feet high, and to the left of the canvas stands the aged loving father, half-blind and bent over, with his hands tenderly and powerfully resting in blessing on his kneeling son’s back.  Nouwen first experienced himself as the younger son returning to the father, but came to identify more with the elder son at the right of the canvas, at a distance from his father and brother.  Both of those sons lived within him, Nouwen said, and I know both of them live in me, too.  In his book about the painting and its influence on him, he speaks of his sense that he not only receives the father’s love but is called to love as the father loves.  To love for love’s sake, not in order to be loved in return – which is incredibly hard for him, he says.  “I have to let the rebellious younger son and the resentful elder son step up on the platform to receive the unconditional, forgiving love that the Father offers me,” he writes, “and to discover there the call to be home as the Father is home to me.  Then both sons in me can gradually be transformed into the compassionate Father.  This transformation leads me to the fulfillment of the deepest desire of my restless heart.  Because what greater joy can there be for me but to stretch out my tired arms and let my hands rest in a blessing on the shoulders of my home-coming children.”

Grace abounds, dear ones.  It’s grace upon grace upon life-changing grace that goes out to find us and to welcome all of our restless hearts home.

Amen

Easter 3 C
May 1, 2022
Not the End of the Story

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The twentieth chapter of the gospel of John ends like this: “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.” It seems like you could put a “The End” or an “Amen” after that and call it the end of the story. It sure sounds like it, doesn’t it?

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Easter 3 C May 1, 2022

Acts 9:1-20 Pastor Susan Henry

John 21:1-19 House of Prayer Lutheran Church

Hingham MA

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

Not the End of the Story

The twentieth chapter of the gospel of John ends like this: “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book.  But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.”  It seems like you could put a “The End” or an “Amen” after that and call it the end of the story.  It sure sounds like it, doesn’t it?

But today’s gospel comes from the twenty-first chapter of John’s gospel.  There’s general agreement that this was added to the gospel a little later, and I’m so thankful that we have this gorgeous, gracious story about breakfast on the beach.  It bears witness to the risen Jesus whose presence is just grace upon grace upon grace for those he invites to “Come and have breakfast.” 

You may remember that in John’s gospel, the risen Jesus first appears to Mary Magdalene, who mistakes him for the gardener until he calls her by name.  That same evening, although the doors are locked, Jesus appears in the midst of almost all of the fearful disciples, saying, “Peace be with you,” showing them his hands and his side, and breathing the Holy Spirit into them.  A week later, when Thomas is with them, Jesus appears a second time.  Again he says, “Peace be with you,” and when he shows Thomas his hands and his side, Thomas responds, “My Lord and my God!”  The cross and the tomb and the fear that had seemed like the end of the story were not the end at all.

All those appearances took place in Jerusalem, but now Jesus’ friends and followers are back in Galilee where Jesus’ ministry began.  I don’t know what they’ve been doing so far, but now Simon Peter says, “I am going fishing,” and six of the others decide to go with him.  The Sea of Tiberius is just another name for the Sea of Galilee, home base for the fishermen whom Jesus called as his disciples.  It’s familiar territory, and they go back to doing what they did in the Before Times – before Jesus called them to follow him.  Maybe they don’t have a sense of what the present or the future are asking of them yet.  Or maybe they’d just like their old, ordinary, uncomplicated lives back again.  Whatever the reasons, they get into the boat and spend the night fishing, just like they used to.

All their work yields nothing, though.  Morning comes, and they’re tired and frustrated, and their nets are empty.  They see someone on the beach, but they don’t know that it’s Jesus.  He knows them, though.  He says, “Children, you’ve got nothing, right?” and they have to admit how fruitless their work was.  He tells them to cast their net “to the right side of the boat” where they’ll find what they were fishing for.  Soon, they can barely haul in the net because it’s so full.

On the cover of your bulletin is a glorious print by John August Swanson called “The Great Catch.”  And so it is!  Fish are everywhere.  With Jesus, it seems, there’s always more than enough.  The disciple whom Jesus loves realizes that the stranger on the beach is no stranger at all, and he says to Peter, “It is the Lord!”  Next thing you know, Peter’s plowing through the water while the rest of them bring the boat and the overflowing net to shore.  Now, if there once was some meaning to the number of fish – a hundred and fifty-three of them – it’s lost to us, but we do know it’s a lot, a great catch.

When Jesus’ friends come ashore, they see a charcoal fire with fish on it, and bread.  Jesus is making a meal for them, and he says, “’Come and have breakfast.’ You’ve worked all night, come and eat.  Come and rest.  Come and enjoy what I’ve prepared for you.” 

Now, one of the fascinating things about the risen Jesus is that nobody knows him right away.  Nobody says, “Hey, you’re back!”  Mary Magdalene, the women, and the disciples come to know him, but in a new way.  They don’t get to hang onto the old way, and it is disconcerting, to say the least.  Here on the beach, they’re torn between asking and acknowledging.  They know it’s him, and yet . . . . 

He comes to them, takes the bread, and gives it to them.  He does the same with the fish.  Surely they are remembering how he once took, blessed, broke, and gave a little bread and a few fish -- a child’s lunch, and he fed a massive crowd of people.  There was enough for everyone.  On that hillside and there on the shore and here at the Lord’s table, there’s always enough and more, with Jesus.

But breakfast on the beach is not the end of the story.  After breakfast, Jesus simply asks Peter, “Do you love me?”  Peter replies, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.”  A second time, Jesus asks, “Do you love me?” and a second time Peter answers, “Yes.  You know that I love you.”  When Jesus asks a third time, it goes right to Peter’s heart.  “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.”  And he does.  With each affirmation of Peter’s deep and genuine love for Jesus, Jesus is drawing Peter away from his old way of life, from fishing all night and sometimes catching nothing, from dwelling on the painful past, to a new way of life, a life of shepherding: “Feed my lambs.”  “Tend my sheep.”  “Feed my sheep.” 

Notice that Jesus doesn’t speak of what has surely tormented Peter since he stood around a charcoal fire and said, not once or twice, but three times, “Hey, I don’t even know that guy you just arrested.”  Here on the beach, by a different charcoal fire, Jesus graciously sets Peter free from the guilt and shame of those three denials, and Jesus entrusts him three times with Jesus’ own work of shepherding.  It’s grace upon grace upon grace for Peter who had never stopped loving Jesus but who got so caught up in fear that he failed to act out of love or with good courage.  Peter’s hurt gets healed by Jesus.  Peter’s burden is lifted by Jesus.  Peter’s love is acknowledged by Jesus.

I don’t for a minute think that Peter took any of that grace for granted or that he hadn’t agonized over what he had done.  But Jesus didn’t demand that Peter “repent” of it out loud or confess what a total jerk he was or beg for Jesus’ forgiveness.  From out there in the boat that day, Peter might not have known Jesus, but Jesus knew him.  Knew his heart.  Knew his boldness and his fear and his flaws.  And knew his love for Jesus.  That’s what Jesus speaks to, loving Peter into loving Jesus more, into loving Jesus so much that he’ll go where Jesus asks him to go.

He'll feed the lambs and tend the sheep.  He’ll feed the sheep and follow Jesus.  He’ll do it all out of love.  He doesn’t have to do it out of guilt or shame or fear that he’s messed things up forever but maybe he can win Jesus over by doing everything Jesus wants perfectly.  Jesus has set him free from the burden of all that.

Grace upon grace upon grace.  That’s what Jesus extends to us, too.  It may take us by surprise because we expect a demand for repentance or confession or penance or perfection.  But grace upon grace upon grace assures us that it’s safe to acknowledge what we may have been keeping from Jesus or even from ourselves.  When what comes our way is grace, we just might let down our defenses and find ourselves being loved into letting go of what burdens us or wreaks havoc in our relationships or gets in the way of offering others the grace that we ourselves receive.  Grace upon grace upon grace continues to remind us that our flaws and failures and fears are not the end of our story.  Grace upon grace upon grace draws us away from our Before Times into Jesus’ present and into our future in and with him. 

I know that Martin Luther wrote compellingly about law and gospel, about how the bad news of our lives drives us to the good news of God’s love, about sin and guilt and death confronting us and driving us to the gospel.  But in my life, the order has often been reversed.  Grace has often come first, catching me by surprise and enfolding me in love that lowers my defenses.  Grace lets me trust that God knows the truth about my life and still loves me.  Grace is what I’m talking about when I say that Jesus is always loving me out of something or loving me into something. 

That’s what he did for his friends and followers in our gospel today.  He loved them out of their old, sometimes fruitless, often disappointing way of life into his own new, abundant, joyful way of life.  When at first they didn’t know him, he still knew them.  He made a charcoal fire, cooked for them, and welcomed them: “Come and have breakfast.” He fed them instead of asking why they had abandoned him.  He gave Peter a way to speak of his love for Jesus three times – once for each of those painful denials by that first charcoal fire.  Grace upon grace upon grace came Peter’s way after breakfast that day.

Grace comes our way all day, every day.  It can soften our hearts and lower our defenses and let us acknowledge the whole truth about our lives – that we are always forgiven and always in need of forgiveness.  Grace upon grace upon grace is surely God’s way of loving us out of what drains life from us and loving us into what truly gives us life.  Grace upon grace upon grace assures us that God’s ‘Yes’ is more powerful than our ‘No.’

And that is the end of the story.

Amen

A Sermon for Mother Earth Day
April 22 2022
On behalf of Lutherans for Restoring Creation

Live-streamed worship service

Intro – Proclaiming the Good News in the Midst of Bad News

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A Sermon for Mother Earth Day

By the Rev. Dr. Carmelo Santos, Ph.D.

On behalf of Lutherans for Restoring Creation

April 22 2022

  1. Intro – Proclaiming the Good News in the Midst of Bad News
    1. Dear siblings in Christ: Grace and peace be unto you from God, who is our Mother and Father, and from Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior. Amen.
    1. I greet you from Alexandria, VA, the ancestral lands of the Doeg and Pistaway peoples. My name is Carmelo Santos and I serve in the ELCA as director for Theological Diversity and Ecumenical and interreligious Engagement.
    1. I was invited by the leadership of Lutherans Restoring Creation to share the Good News of the gospel with you today on the occasion of International Mother Earth Day.
    1. I must confess that although I was glad to accept the invitation I also felt overwhelmed by the task: how can I speak of Good News during a time when we are immersed in so much bad news, especially regarding the state of the planet and of our fellow creatures.
      1. How can we speak of Good News when we witness with a maddening sense of impotence how so many innocent lives are being destroyed and displaced by wars, by political and economic violence, and by draughts and famine.
      1. How can we speak of Good News when we witness the destruction of entire species and ecosystems sacrificed on the altar of the gods (idols!) of profit and progress. 
      1. How can we speak of Good News when we witness storms increasing in power and frequency, devastating communities, and sea-levels rising at an alarming rate, already forcing people to leave their ancestral homelands to seek refuge in strange lands.
      1. How can we speak of Good News when we witness with anguish the plight of people from all over the world, most often brown, black, indigenous and poor, risking it all in perilous journeys by land or sea to seek refuge in neighboring countries, only to often find themselves rejected, arrested, criminalized, and victimized. 
    1. The reason we can speak of Good News in the midst of so much bad news is because:
      1. the Good News that we speak of, the Gospel, was born in the crux of pain, suffering and hopelessness. The Gospel was born at the foot of the cross, where all hope seemed to have died; where even God felt abandoned by God. The Good News was born in an empty tomb and in a locked room where Jesus’ followers felt perhaps a bit like many feel today: fearful, confused, demoralized not knowing what to do next.
      1. The reason we can speak of Good News today, even today, is because thanks to the cross we have learned to recognize by faith the mysterious presence of the living God hidden in the midst of death, pain and suffering, making a way out of no way, wrenching life out of death, and transmuting the fear and hopelessness of our hearts into courage, peace and hope against hope.
    1. God speaks that Good News to the world through the living word that comes to us in the Scriptures. From today’s Scripture texts we can discern at least three ways in which God speaks Good News regarding the challenges we are facing in the struggle for climate justice, for creation care and for bringing healing to our communities and to the nations. Those three ways are:
      1. The gift of community.
      1. The testimonies of those who have been wounded like Christ.
      1. And the power of the Holy Spirit to proclaim the forgiveness of sins but also the retention of sins. 
      1. Let us begin with the first gift, the gift of community:
  1. The gift of community – We don’t have to carry the weight of this work alone
    1. Several years ago, theologian Vitor Westhelle, who is no longer with us, preached a powerful sermon on this gospel text. In his sermon he pointed out that even though Thomas didn’t believe in the witness of the resurrection, he nonetheless didn’t abandon the community nor did they abandon him. He was accepted by the community of faith even in his disbelief.
      1. In the gospel of John, Thomas functions as our twin, we are the doubting ones. But we are also the ones who are nonetheless accepted and sustained by the community even when we are having a hard time believing.
      1. In the community of faith we take turns believing and doubting, fearing and hoping, hiding and witnessing. We don’t have to be strong all the time, we don’t have to be courageous all the time; sometimes our faith and courage lifts others up and at other times we are the ones who need to be lifted up. That is why God gives us the gift of community.
      1. In fact, there is an ancient tradition that says that faith does not belong to the individual alone but to the church as a whole. We are sustained in our weakness by the strength of the church as a whole, in our weakness we are prayed for, loved by, and sustained and challenged. We need this community in order to do the work that is ahead of us.
    1. The Latin American song, Momento nuevo puts it well:
      1. “Solo y aislado no hay nadie capaz”; “Alone and isolated no one is capable.”
      1. The song further says that “it is no longer possible to believe that things will be easy, there are many forces that produce death, that inflict pain, sadness and desolation, so it is necessary to strengthen our unity” (Momento nuevo, LLC 490).
    1. Thank God for the gift of church and for the gift of communities like Lutherans Restoring Creation!
  1. The second gift that God offers us in today’s text is the gift of learning to listen to the testimony of those who have been wounded like Christ.
    1. It is interesting that when Jesus appears to Thomas he chooses to reveal himself by showing him his wounds. His wounds reveal something important to the disciples.
      1. The wounds reveal that he is Jesus but also that he is Jesus in the body, that the risen Lord is also the crucified Messiah. But there is more.
      1. The wounds of his crucifixion also reveal that the official powers of his day were illegitimate because they were not instruments of God for the well being of the people but rather instruments of domination and exploitation that were in direct contradiction of God’s will. That is symbolized powerfully by Luke in the words of the centurion right after Jesus died. He said: “certainly, this man was innocent” (Luke 23:7 NRSV).
    1. The wounds of the victims reveal something important about societies and systems of power.
      1. The lies of political and economic ideologies cannot resist the truth revealed by the wounds of its victims.
      1. Isn’t that what has happened with the war in Ukraine, the images of the victims destroyed the ideological lies used to justify the aggression.
      1. Nature also has wounds that reveal the lies about the ideologies of profit and perpetual growth that are the basis of our economy and of the structure of our society.
      1. The testimony of these wounds is so powerful that they must be kept out of sight, like in Dr. Seuss’ book and movie “The Lorax” – the wounded forest had to be kept outside the city borders, hidden by walls meant to conceal and deceive.
    1. But the wounded ones are not just victims, they are also survivors, purveyors of important wisdom.
      1. From the same communities that have suffered greatly because of climate change, pollution and economic injustice great leaders have emerged in the struggle for climate justice and planetary healing. This is true especially among the youth around the world and particularly youth from indigenous communities and from minoritized groups.
      1. We must listen to them because they have a perspective and a wisdom that is unique and important for addressing the current crisis. More than help them, those of us in positions of privilege or power should learn to listen to them and perhaps even follow their lead.
      1. Could it be that through them the risen one is speaking to the world?
  1. Finally, the third gift that God offers us in today’s gospel reading is the power that Jesus and the Spirit give to the church to forgive sins and to retain sins.
    1. Lutherans know a lot about the first part of that gift, that is, about forgiveness of sins, but we are very shy about the second part, the “retaining sins” part. And yet both are essential to the work of healing and redemption that the Spirit of God is doing in the world.
    1. What does it mean to forgive or retain sins? It means to proclaim what has already taken place on the cross and resurrection of Christ.
      1. To forgive sins is to make available that free-gift of God’s grace by means of proclamation. As the apostle Paul said: “‘everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’ But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him? And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent? As it is written, ‘how beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news! But not all have obeyed the good news . . .” (Romans 10: 13-16 NRSV).
      1. We could also add the question: and how are they to accept Christ’s forgiveness if they don’t even know that they need it? If they are not even aware of their sin or of the suffering that they are inflicting on others and on the planet?
      1. That is why Luther spoke of the word of God as having two functions, the law function and the gospel function.
        1. The law function “retains sins” in the sense that it moves people to recognize the ways in which they have fallen away from God’s ways and as a result are causing pain, suffering and death to themselves and to others in the world, including the planet.
        1. When people are moved to contrition and repentance by this proclamation of the law function of the word, then their hearts become fertile soil for the seed of forgiveness that the Holy Spirit uses to bring liberation and transformation.
    1. What that means in the context of the work of creation care and climate justice is that the church must be courageous and dare to speak truth to governments and corporations, that is, to show them the wounds of their victims and have them face the truth that they try to keep out of sight, sometimes out of their own sights and consciousness.
      1. The church must do this in private and in public.
      1. The church must not neglect its mission to proclaim the word in its entirety, that is as law and gospel, and not as a lukewarm and diluted version of the gospel. The church commits theological malpractice when it does not carry out its full mission to forgive and retain sins in the name of Christ through the proclamation of the living word.
      1. But law is not the last word. The last word is a word of forgiveness and of promise. The promise that a different world is possible. And that we can be collaborators with God in the awesome work of bringing about that new creation. Only God can bring it about, of course, but we have been given tasks and gifts that in God’s hands will make all the difference. Even if we can’t imagine how things can get better, we must remember that the limits of our imagination are not the limits of God’s power. We must do the part that has been entrusted to us and then be ready to be surprised by the power of the resurrection, as the first disciples were. I conclude with the words of revelation: “And the one who was seated on the throne said, “‘See, I am making all things new.’” (Revelation 21:5). And the church says, Amen!
      1. And may the peace of God which surpasses all understanding guard you hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.