Putting our Money where our Prayers Are

Who taught you to pray? When was it? Did you learn to pray only in memorized rote prayers? Did you learn a formula, like, 1) greet God; 2) praise God; 3) thank God; 4) ask God for what others need; 5) ask God for what you need; 6) close in the name of Jesus, Amen. Do you remember the first time you prayed, or was it something that you began doing so young that it has faded from memory, like learning to walk and talk and eat and breathe. Last week, Arlys Hopkins read the Scriptures for us during worship, and she mentioned that she had read an article that referred to the 23rd psalm as the other Lord’s prayer, and I remembered something that I wrote while I was serving as a chaplain at a hospital in Minneapolis many years ago, about the prayers that we learn so well that they serve us from cradle to grave. I don’t actually remember when I learned to pray the Lord’s Prayer, which is strange, since I wasn’t raised as a Christian, and didn’t attend any church at all as a kid. I suppose it must have been my mother who taught it to me, but I don’t remember when. But I know that it has been what I have turned to when I needed the words, when words failed me, and I needed to reach for God, even before I was a Christian, even before I would have acknowledged that I was reaching for God.

Today’s passage from Ephesians is an open prayer. Quick refresher from last week: this probably wasn’t written by Paul, and the author probably wasn’t writing to Christians in Ephesus, and it was probably written in the late 1st century, about 20 years or so after the Temple in Jerusalem had been destroyed by the Roman armies. You may also remember from last week that, when this letter talks about the peace that Christ brings, it is a direct affront to the Roman authorities, to Caesar himself, because in the Roman world, peace comes only from Caesar, and only by the use of war, and anyone who challenges that winds up crucified; and these Christians are claiming that peace could be brought to the world by a crucified peasant from an unimportant backwater of the empire, one who was in fact crucified for being a disturber of the emperor’s peace. And now here is this prayer, in which the author says, “I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name,” and again we see the subversive nature of this letter, and again you can imagine that the listeners in this tiny house church somewhere in Asia Minor were looking furtively over their shoulders, wondering if the soldiers would be bursting in. Because Caesar is the father of nations, and it is Caesar who gives families the right to exist and gives them their names, but Caesar’s power ends at the edges of the empire, while, as this prayer states, God’s power extends to every family on heaven and on earth.

This passage in Ephesians is a turning point in the letter. For the first two chapters, the writer has been laying out his theological concerns. If you have been following along at home, we have picked up on at least three major themes so far: 1) God is a God who gives blessings; 2) All that we do, we do for God because we live in Christ; and 3) for our sakes, God is busy breaking down the walls that hold us apart from one another, such as the walls between Jew and Gentile, the walls between heaven and earth, the walls between human and divine. Now starting in the next chapter, our author is going to take these theological issues to more practical concerns of what it looks like to be a Christian living in community. But first, a prayer.
A prayer for the community, the Body of Christ that has gathered to hear this letter read. It is, in fact, a prayer for you, who are gathered here today to hear this letter read. And it is a prayer about God’s abundance.

  •  according to the riches of his glory
  •  you are being rooted and grounded in love
  •  the breadth and length and height and depth
  •  love of Christ that surpasses knowledge
  •  filled with all the fullness of God
  •  able to accomplish abundantly far more
  •  to all generations, forever and ever

This is a prayer about abundance. God’s overflowing gifts that are poured out on each and every one of us, from the moment that we are conceived to the moment that we die, and beyond. And because I spent this last week at a conference that was all about faith and finances, all about stewardship, I am going to talk to you now about the one thing guaranteed to make you squirm, even if you are game to talk about sex and politics. I’m going to talk about money. And I will borrow some of the words of Margaret Waters, one of the presenters this week, to introduce this topic, adding a few of my own: I am going to talk about money. I am not going to ask for your money. When we are asking for your money we will be totally transparent about it. Right now I am talking about money because Jesus talked about money more than anything else, except the Kingdom of God. I am talking about it because I don’t want to, and you don’t want me to, and it’s not polite to. I am talking about it because if we don’t talk about it here in the church, we won’t talk about it at all, and because if we don’t talk about it, we cannot be intentional about it, and it will begin to rule us, just as surely as Caesar ruled the empire. Because, while we may not raise our political leaders up as divine, and we may not believe that every household and nation takes its name from our rulers, as the Romans did, I am not so sure we know where to draw the line with money. I think that we do believe that every nation and every family on earth derives its being from its money. And if we do not talk about that here in the church, if we do not call foul on that notion here, we are allowing that illusion to continue, and we are ourselves complicit in perpetuating that belief, the belief that my money defines me more than my God, that my wealth saves me and loves me and gives me meaning, more than my God does. And, as Margaret Waters said in her talk, if you would rather talk about sex, then we will talk about sex when we’re done talking about money, but we will probably never be done talking about money.

The author of Ephesians prays that we might be strengthened with power through the Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in our hearts, as we are being rooted and grounded in love. But I think we in our culture tend to be more rooted and grounded in money than in love. If you doubt that, I will point you to Penn State, where faith and finances were certainly connected, and the faith that was chosen was faith in money and power, and the decisions that were made there were rooted and grounded in something very different from love. Because where your money is, there your heart will be also, and it’s not the other way around – we don’t throw our money after our hearts nearly so often as our hearts follow our money, that’s just the way we are wired. And I wonder, how hard is it for Christ to dwell in hearts that are rooted and grounded in money. Jesus told us that we could not serve two masters, that we could not serve both God and wealth, and so here this writer is, praying fervently, down on his knees before God, that Christ might dwell in our hearts, and that our hearts might find new and fertile ground for rooting and grounding, that we might be grounded in love, in order to make room for Christ to dwell.

And so I have to ask. How do you pray? And have you ever thought that the way that you use your money might be a prayer? Did anyone ever teach you that when they were teaching you how to pray? Because I don’t think I ever heard that. But I think that now I will teach this to others, to my own children. How you spend your money is a prayer. And we ought to be careful what we pray for. Thomas Aquinas said that money only has meaning when it’s used. When it is sitting in a bank account, or in a piggy bank, or under a mattress, money doesn’t mean anything. It only begins to have meaning when we begin to apply our imagination to it. It only begins to have meaning when we begin to dream about what we can do with it – then it takes on value, it takes on the weight of our hopes and our dreams. And our prayers.

It may seem like money is mundane, and spending it not particularly inspiring as a spiritual practice. But it is precisely because it is mundane that it is important. God comes to us in the mundane. God meets us in bread and wine, and turns a simple meal on a hillside into a feast for the ages. It may seem like money is precious, it is scarce, and spending it is frightening, and it will never be enough to satisfy the needs and wants of everyone. But it is precisely because it is precious, because it is scarce, and because we are frightened, that it is important. Because God meets us in our fears, and turns scarcity into abundance, so that five barley loaves and two fish are blessed and distributed and feed 5000 and there are twelve baskets left over and prayer is answered.

What kind of prayer is it when you spend your money? Is it a rote and memorized prayer, the one that you pull out when you don’t know how else to pray? Is it a prayer of thanksgiving and praise, as you remember the abundance of that hillside, and the freely given gift of God on the cross, freely given, but not free, as Martin Luther says in the small catechism, because he knew that we would understand money better than theology. So Luther explains that I have been redeemed, purchased and delivered from sin, death, and the power of evil, not with gold or silver, but with Christ’s holy and precious blood, so that I am free to be rooted and grounded in love, and not in sin or death or money or any other thing, but in love. So that when I spend my money, I am free to spend it as a prayer of thanksgiving and praise, grateful for God’s abundant grace. Or as a prayer of petition, of hope and expectation, putting my money as a prayer toward God’s promised and preferred future. That may mean that I am praying for my own future – maybe I’m saving for an education, or a retirement, or a new home, or an unexpected need. It could be a prayer for the environment, when I choose to buy reused or recycled or energy-efficient. It may mean a prayer for the future of God’s mission, here or elsewhere – maybe I’m giving my money to my church or to a charity that I believe in. It may mean a prayer for a friend or a loved one – maybe I give a gift to someone I love. It may combine these – maybe I give a gift to my daughter on her birthday, and that is a prayer of gratitude for all God has given me in her, and a prayer of hope for all that is to come for her.

I don’t want to give you the impression that I have this all figured out. I don’t. I stand fully convicted by my own words, and I am busy remembering all the obnoxious little plastic toys that I have bought at the $1 bins at the front of Target, that broke before they got home; and I’m pondering the credit card bills that I have left over from our recent vacation, and wondering just what all I spent; and I know that none of that spending was a prayer, at least not intentionally, and I’m asking myself what gods I have been praying to in my fiscal prayers. But I also know that I hate talking about money, but Jesus clearly did not hate talking about it, and thought it was important enough that he spent a good bit of his ministry talking about it, and so maybe I need to pay it better attention. So I am inviting you to join me in this conversation, because I want to become a better steward of the abundance that God has given me. I am inviting you to join me, because I suspect that you want to respond to God’s gifts faithfully and joyfully, and I suspect that many of you have as hard a time doing so as I do. I am inviting you to join me, because someone in Asia Minor 1900 years ago began praying for us, that we might truly be the Body of Christ in the world, that we might experience the power at work within us to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine. I am inviting you to join me because I know that it will be hard to be a better steward of my money, and that I will fail, and that I will need you to remind me of the truth that I will also tell you: that even if we fall short of our goal, even if we don’t get it right, even if our prayers slip into old habits, those failures do not own us any more than money does, and we do not have to live them out day after day. Instead, we live in Christ, and in Christ, we have the freedom to begin each day anew. In Christ, we have been given the freedom to break the boundaries, both within us and between us, to have the difficult conversations and make the difficult moves. To him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.

Be Specific

This is the second week of our sermon series on Ephesians and it seems like a good time to share some context. Like all of the books of the New Testament, including the Gospels, and most of the books of the Old Testament, the Book of Ephesians was written for a specific group of people, in a specific time, at a specific place, with a specific set of questions or circumstances. And it’s important to realize that, for those of us who are reading the Scriptures today. Because we, too, are specific people, in a specific time and place, with a specific set of questions and circumstances. And our specifics are not the same as theirs. But that doesn’t make the Scriptures irrelevant. What it does is to remind us that God comes to us in specificity. That God’s story is told over and over again, in every time and place, and we are specifically invited into that story. So we read the Scriptures to learn about how this God of ours enters in, and engages, and draws specific people into the larger story of creation.

So, a little background on this book. Ephesians is one of the letters at the back of the New Testament. Tradition has long held that is was written by Paul to a community of Christians at Ephesus, a city on the southwestern coast of what is now Turkey. It was a major port, the capital of the region and the seat of the Roman governor. There were probably about a half million inhabitants in the first century after Christ. Which is probably why it was chosen as the addressee of this letter. Which wasn’t really a letter, wasn’t really written by Paul, and wasn’t really addressed to the Ephesians. Most modern scholarship agrees: this document was probably more of an encyclical, written with the intention of being circulated among the many churches of Asia Minor; it may have been addressed to Ephesus as the central city of the region, or it may have had many addressees, and only the one for Ephesus survived; and it was probably written in Paul’s name, but some 30 years after his death, by one of his disciples. This was a common practice at the time, and the people of the day would have understood it, but it has caused a great deal of confusion down through the centuries. So that puts the timing of this letter at the end of the 1st century, probably in the 90s, so some 25-30 years after the death of Paul, and some 60 years after the death of Jesus Christ.

So, what was going on in the world around the year 90? The Roman Empire was still going strong, though a little shakily, having just gone through the reigns of Caligula, Claudius, and Nero. And it’s important to understand what the Roman imperial rule meant. It was not just a political arrangement. Nothing in the ancient world was just a political arrangement. The separation of church and state had not been invented yet. So when you were under Roman rule, you were under their political, economic, military, and religious rule. The emperors of Rome were hailed as semi-divine bringers of peace, a peace enforced, of course, by the  war machine of the Roman empire. And anyone who challenged the emperor’s peace, or the emperor’s divinity, would be silenced, most often by crucifixion. Even as this imperial peace was intended to unite rival factions around the Mediterranean, it threw up walls through violence and religious persecution. The latest victim of this policy was the Temple, the home of God in Jerusalem, the house for God that David dreamed of 1000 years before. Destroyed. Torn down stone by stone. Just 20 years before, in 70 A.D. In the name of peace. In the name of the divine emperor.

This Roman approach to religion was not a new thing. Any good emperor knows that, in order to maintain a kingdom, you need to consolidate power. Even David knew this. And though the story that we hear from Samuel today gives us the impression that David had every pious motive in mind when he suggested that God needed a permanent home in Jerusalem, God seems to have seen some more worldly motives at work as well. And this is another story, another context, worth looking into. The story of the ark, and the tabernacle, and the Temple. Because it tells us something important about God and how God works in specific times and places. So the ark of the covenant, as you probably know from having seen Indiana Jones, is where the pieces of the original stone tablets from Mt. Sinai are kept. And it is revered by the Israelites as the throne of God. Literally. The Mercy Seat is the top of the ark, between the two cherubim, those golden winged things that you saw in the movie. That is the throne of God. And, though the ark itself has sort of been lost and found a few times through the history of Israel, as God says, “I have not lived in a house since the day I brought up the people of Israel from Egypt to this day, but I have been moving about in a tent and a tabernacle.” In other words, God has stayed among the people, has lived where they lived, has been right in their midst. The people have not had to go looking for God in a particular place, because God is right there among them. All the time. And now David has this idea that it’s time for God to settle down.

And it sounds like a fine and pious plan. He is going to build a Temple for God! After all, David has his house in Jerusalem, shouldn’t God? Even the prophet Nathan tells him, “Go, do all that you have in mind; for the Lord is with you.” But what David has in mind has as much to do with consolidating his power as it does with piety. Because you can’t control a God who is floating around in a tent and a tabernacle, and you can’t control the lives of a people who can find their God wherever they are. What you can control is a Temple. What you can control is a priesthood centered in one place, a place in your city, a place where there is a market to buy sacrifices. It is in the interest of the monarchy and of the Kingdom to build a Temple. Because, as all kings know, you need to control all aspects of the people’s lives, including religion, to maintain a proper empire. And it really helps if you can control God’s self. If you can control access, and if you can dictate the terms of God’s interaction with the people. If you can pick and choose how God’s law is applied, and how God’s grace, God’s peace, is doled out.

But God is not one to be controlled. So God turns this plan back on David. You think you’re going to establish a house for me? No. I’ll establish a house for you. You think you’re going to box me in? No. I’ll tear down the walls that you put up, because I am a God of the people, not a God of the monarchy.

From this specific story, we learn two important things about God. One, God is not interested in being boxed in or controlled. God is the ruler and the sovereign, and will not be dictated terms. And two, God wants to be among the people, where the people can find God and know that God is always present for them.

These are two really important truths about God that we learn from the specific stories around David and the ark of the Covenant. And the author of Ephesians is a very gifted preacher, who has figured out how to take those truths (among others) and apply them to the specifics of the Christian communities of Asia Minor in the late 1st century. Christian communities that were experiencing persecution because of these truths. Because Christianity challenged the emperor’s peace. Not that the Christians were rowdy or revolutionaries. They weren’t. They were claiming that God would not be pinned down or controlled by any empire, not by David and not by Caesar. They were reminding one another that God was not interested in building walls, but in tearing them down – the walls between communities, the walls between God and humanity, the walls between Gentiles and Jews. They were claiming that divinity was found, not in the imperial court in Rome, not in the person of royalty, but in the backwaters of an outlying province, in the person of a poor artisan, from the bottom of the social spectrum. And when this passage was read in a house church in the Roman Empire 1900 years ago, you can bet people were glancing over their shoulders to make sure the door was closed good and tight as the words were read: “For he is our peace.” Because if a crucified criminal is our peace, then the entire empire is called into question.

And that is indeed the point. Not only the empire, but everything that we think we know, about ourselves, about society, about God, is called into question. Because, the author goes on to say, Christ has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances. And the law is what we think we know, about ourselves, about society, about God. No matter how often we hear that we are forgiven, no matter how many times we hear that the law has been abolished, no matter how many times we are told that God’s grace is freely given, we will set that aside, in favor of the law. We will make the law the cornerstone of our lives, of our communities, of our relationships, of our marriages. Which means that when things go wrong, when we fail to live up to the law, when we sin and fall short, all we can see is the law, the condemnation of failure and guilt and shame, weighing down on us, becoming the foundation for everything else that we do. When we place the law as the cornerstone, when we dwell only in the specifics of the past, when we focus only on our failings, we have no hope of building into the future. All hope crumbles as guilt and shame eat away at our foundations.

But with Christ as the cornerstone, everything that we thought we knew, including guilt and shame, all of that is turned on its head. With Christ as the cornerstone, the specifics of the past point, not to what we have failed to understand about God in that time and place, but to larger truths about God, to eternal truths about God, to the God revealed to us in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Such as the truth that God is always present, that God’s Word became flesh and dwelt among us. In fact, the book of John takes the specifics of the story of the ark and tells us, not only that the Word dwelt among us, but that it tented and tabernacled among us, just as God said to David 3000 years ago. And if you are listening to this letter to the Ephesians, knowing that the Temple has just been destroyed, you will probably hear this language about a cornerstone, and be reassured once again of that truth – that God is among us. That God is not to be found only in a Temple in Jerusalem, a Temple that is no more, but that God is indeed the cornerstone right here and now, and that we are building on that cornerstone, building on the cornerstone of forgiveness, building on the cornerstone of reconciliation, of new life and new beginnings. Building on the cornerstone of walls being torn down and boundaries being broken.

We are specific people, in a specific time and place. We have specific questions and circumstances. We all wonder at some time or another where God is, in the midst of our pain, our grief, our broken relationships, our regrets and our worries. We wonder how God is active in a world where violence and fear and anger appear be in charge, where death appears to have the final word. And we turn to the Scriptures for answers, and they seem to be speaking to people dead 2000 years or more. But this is the nature of incarnation. God comes to us in specifics. In the specifics of time and place, of people and things. God comes to us in the details. In the person of an artisan from Nazareth in the oppression of the Roman empire. In the ark of the covenant that will not be contained in a Temple. And from both of them we learn what we need to know. That God is here. God is present. God is always moving toward us, in our midst, tenting and tabernacling among us. Becoming the cornerstone, not of a building that we must travel to and sacrifice in, but of our lives, of we who are citizens with the saints, the very household of God, moving with God out into the specific time and place of Washington, MO, 2012, where we are called to remind our neighbors of the truth that is revealed in Christ: God is here! God is loose in the world! And the God of specifics, the of God of incarnation, the God of reconciliation and new life, has the final word.

Pity – and possibly redemption? – for Herod

I am starting a series today on the readings from Ephesians. If you are on Facebook with
me then you know that I am doing this with a bit of trepidation, because I find the book of Ephesians to be, shall we say, challenging. There are some things in there that have been used over the centuries to oppress people, to excuse abuses, to reinforce the hierarchies of institutions, to justify slavery and domestic abuse. So I am not crazy about the book of Ephesians. Still, I think it must have been included in the canon for some good reasons, not just because the people who compiled the Bible 1700 years ago wanted to justify unjust ways of being. I hope you will, therefore, enter into the spirit of this thing, and take a look at Ephesians with me over the next few weeks.

The sections that we will read are designated by the lectionary, so we aren’t just going straight through. And the lectionary committee, in their infinite wisdom, have selected the passages that bug me the least. But I think it will be important to see the whole picture of Ephesians over the coming weeks, and so I would invite you to, dare I suggest it, open your Bible at home, and read. The whole thing. It’s only 7 pages long in my Bible. You may only fall asleep once or twice. See if you can find the themes, the threads, the recurring phrases that the author uses. And then come back and tell me what you think. Tell me what you love. What you hate. What baffles you. What makes you mad. We’ve got 6 more weeks to puzzle it out together.

But before I dive into Ephesians, I want to stop for a moment and consider Herod. This story in the Book of Mark is probably one of the least favorites for preachers, because Jesus isn’t mentioned, and it is hard to find any good news in it. Even Matthew and Luke do their best to avoid the awkwardness of it. But it is also one of the most favorite stories for artists and musicians over the centuries. There have been countless depictions of this story by painters and sculptors. Oscar Wilde wrote a play about it, and later Richard Strauss turned it into a wonderful opera. There are movies and pop songs based on it. It has, in other words, captured the imagination of people. It has everything – intrigue, sex, betrayal, murder, guilt, and religion. And at the center is the figure of Herod. And it is Herod that I find the most intriguing of all.

Herod should have it all. He should be at the top of his game. He is a king, the son of one of the greatest kings – Herod the Great. His father built the fortresses at Masada and Herodium, the port at Caesarea Maritima, and most famously the Second Temple, the remains of which still stand today as the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem. The Herod of our story is Herod Antipas, who has inherited the rule of Galilee. He has the patronage of Emperor Tiberius, he has power and wealth, and he has the wife he wants. Which is a juicy story in itself. Because his wife, Herodias, is actually his second wife. His first wife was the daughter of a king, but he divorced her because he wanted to marry Herodias. Which doesn’t sound so bad, I guess, except that Herodias was still married to his half-brother (whose name was also Herod, just to keep things confusing). Not only that, but she was also the daughter of another brother, making her Herod’s niece. Are you keeping up with all this? It’s confusing. Let’s sum up – Herod’s current wife, Herodias, is also his sister-in-law, and his niece. His marriage to her also gives him claims on various other bits of ground, but let’s give him the benefit of the doubt and imagine that he may have loved her as well. In any case, it was unlawful, according to Jewish law, for a man to marry his niece, and for a man to marry his brother’s wife while his brother was still living. And Herod did both at the same time.

Which is why John the Baptist was on his case. Herod and his supporters were not strict observers of Judaism. They muddied the waters, let things slide for political reasons, and generally did what kings have always done down through the ages. So John the Baptist criticized Herod and Herodias, and eventually paid for it with his life. There have been all kinds of interpretations of this story – mostly as a morality play about fidelity or sexuality or other law-keeping. But what intrigues me most about this story is not the morality of Herod and his family. It is the freedom of Herod. Or rather, the lack of freedom of Herod. Because it would seem that Herod would be free to do whatever he wants. As I said, he has power and wealth, he has the patronage of the Emperor. He has beautiful women to dance for him. He seems to be nearly at the top of the pecking order. He should be free to follow his own conscience, to do as he wishes. And yet, he winds up having John killed, against his own wishes, out of regard for his oaths and his guests and his wife, even though he feared John, and protected John, and believed him to be a righteous and holy man, and liked to listen to him, and he was deeply grieved to kill him. He should have been free, as king, to spare John’s life. But as it turned out, he was the least free person in the room. It’s lonely at the top.

Which is, I think, one of the problems I have with Ephesians. Because Ephesians has been used over the years as an excuse for putting up walls between people, for building hierarchies in which those at the top wield power over those at the bottom, and though that power is often tempered by a call for the powerful to love the powerless, somehow, in our sinful and broken world, that part of the message gets forgotten and all we have is power for the sake of power, with Christ as the excuse.

Somehow, in our sinful and broken world, a king finds himself unable to do the right thing, out of regard for his oaths and his guests and his wife; Somehow, in this world where power and wealth take precedence, good men such as our founding fathers find themselves keeping slaves against their better natures, because of economic and political necessity; Somehow, in our heartbroken world, the head coach of a major football team, who should be able to protect children from abuse, finds himself beholden to systems of wealth and power, and unable to bring himself to report an offender. Somehow, in the difficulty of daily life, we find ourselves doing what we wish we would not, reinforcing systems we despise, and upholding the ways of the world, over the ways of justice and righteousness. And the Word of God, the verses of Scripture, and often, oh, so often, the letter of Ephesians gets dragged in and made justification for injustice.

But is that what was intended for this letter? Did the original author actually plan to set it up as a justification for abusive hierarchies and lonely power? A thorough reading of Ephesians suggests a different goal. Of course, thorough readings are rare. It is so much easier to pick out the pieces that support our own ideas. But it’s worth asking the question of the original author – what is this letter all about? As it turns out, the bulk of Ephesians is about reconciliation and community, about tearing down walls, about the boundaries that God is breaking down for the sake of Christ.

The passage that we start with, today’s second reading, is verses 3-14 of chapter one. In the original Greek, these verses are all one sentence, one huge, long, run-on sentence designed to make the English teachers among us cringe, though the Greek rhetoric masters would be pleased. In any case, this sentence follows the standard form of a letter for the time, by opening with a blessing – a blessing of God and a statement of the blessings that we have received from God, for the sake of Christ. If you have ever been to a Jewish synagogue for shabbat service, you will actually hear echoes here of the opening of that worship, which is a litany of berakoth, “blessed are you Lord, our God, King of the universe…” It may even be that this letter was used as a part of an early Christian worship service, following a similar liturgy to the Jewish synagogues. yet the difference that we find is, of course, the invocation of the name of Christ. And this will be one of the major themes that we hear over the coming weeks – in Christ.

  • who has blessed us in Christ
  • just as he chose us in Christ
  • He destined us for adoption through Jesus Christ
  • to the praise of his glorious grace that he bestowed on us in the Beloved
  • according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ
  • In Christ we have obtained an inheritance
  • so that we, who were the first to set our hope on Christ
  • in him, you also were marked

And that’s just in the first few verses. To be “in Christ” is a major theme of the book of Ephesians.

So, blessing. In Christ. And broken down walls.

Today we welcome several new members into our community. We offer them our blessing and our prayers, and we praise God for their desire to join us, to live out together the call of our baptismal promises. In Christ. If anyone is in Christ, Paul says in 2 Corinthians, there is a new creation. Everything old has passed away. Behold, everything is made new. What it actually says in the Greek is, “if anyone is in Christ (and they are) – BAM – new creation!” In other words, by virtue of our being in Christ, new creation happens, and not just to us, not just to those we love, but to the world – everything old has passed away, everything is made new. And that is something to consider.

As our community grows and changes, as we live out our lives in Christ, our blessed lives, in which we experience daily in community the many blessings of life in Christ, it is not just we inside these four walls that are being made new. It is not just we who gather here at this table that are being drawn into Christ, into blessing. It is not just the walls between us that are being broken down. Though it is those things. And those are the things that we might experience most immediately – the blessing of community here at Peace Lutheran, that we hope to share – the joys of serving together at the Harvest Table and providing food and fellowship for those in need; the celebration of new life and baptism with the smallest among us; the excitement of sending our youth to New Orleans to learn and serve and Dwell in the Word with other young people from across the country; the poignant sharing of grief, when we come together to carry one another through our most difficult times, to carry the pain of loss and brokenness, to speak the words of hope and redemption, to practice reconciliation and to break boundaries for the sake of Christ. Those are the blessings of community, the joys of life in Christ.

And if anyone is in Christ – bam! new creation. everything old has passed away. everything is made new. old ways of being; old ways of seeing; old ways of knowing; old ways of wielding power and enforcing hierarchies. Even loneliness. Even Herod and his loneliness, even Herod’s lack of freedom as he sits at the top of the power structure, even the death of John the Baptist for what seems like a whim, even that is made new.

Because if anyone is in Christ, then death does not have the last word. Loneliness and enslavement and powerlessness and fear, those do not have the last word. Christ has the last word. And we who are in Christ are blessed indeed – blessed in this community, blessed in the knowledge that we are free in Christ to choose justice and joy, blessed in the freedom to see the world through the eyes of reconciliation and redemption and resurrection. And being blessed, we are free to share that blessing and to come to the table with anyone and everyone, not just with those with whom we agree, but with those whom God has made new. With all of creation. Even, possibly, with lonely old Herod, whom Christ has made new, and whom Christ welcomes to the table, breaking down all walls for the sake  of God’s blessing.

The Force be with you…

Wait, what? I mean, the Lord be with you…

Do you ever notice how it’s possible to know something too well? A prayer that you know by heart can be comforting and beautiful, but its meaning can also get lost in rote repetition. Sometimes, when you know something, or someone, too well, you can lose sight of their importance and its meaning. We’re guilty of this with our family and friends as well. We begin to take people for granted, forget what it is that we love about them, what they offer us in love and kindness and generosity, all the ways that they make room for our weird habits and all the times that they remember to replace the toilet paper, and all we can see is the toenail clippings on the end table and the lego that I just stepped on in bare feet on the way to the bathroom at 2 a.m. Familiarity, as they say, breeds contempt. And it is those who we love most, who we know best, that we have a tendency to overlook and undersell.

It’s not a new story. It is in fact an old old story. As Jesus points out, it goes back at least as far as the days of the prophets, who were honored and respected everywhere except in their hometowns, and among their own kin, and in their own homes. And this is what Jesus faces in today’s reading from the Book of Mark. He comes to his hometown, probably Nazareth, where he grew up. This story follows immediately on the heels of last week’s story, in which he not only raised Jairus’ daughter from apparent death, but also healed a woman of her bleeding without even trying, simply by being touched by her. When today’s reading begins with “He left that place,” it means Jairus’ house. So he has just performed two of the most astounding miracles of his career, just proven his power to a leader of the synagogue and to an outcast woman, showing the depth and breadth of God’s mercy and sharing God’s message of new life and wholeness. And now he stops by home to visit the family. And the people, presumably having heard a few stories about their hometown boy, invite him to preach in the synagogue. And they were astounded. Not just astounded – they took offense at him. Who does he think he is? Where is he getting all of this? Not exactly the reception you expect for the hometown boy done good. But remember, just a few chapters ago, his mother and brothers came looking for him to bring him home because they thought he had gone crazy. Apparently, so does the rest of the town.

Why? Why would they be so reluctant to accept Jesus’ teachings? Why would they be so very unreceptive, to the point that Jesus could do no deed of power there, except to cure a few sick people? Well, familiarity breeds contempt.  And these people are familiar with Jesus. Familiar enough that they know him to be a carpenter, and they can throw that at him almost as an insult. Carpenters and other artisans were among the lowest classes in ancient Israel, as in all of the Roman empire. They were below even the peasants, because they had no land to work, and were dependent on others to grow their food and trade for it. So to say, “Isn’t this the carpenter?” is to say, isn’t this that poor kid from the wrong side of the tracks? What’s more, and worse, they call him “the son of Mary.” To us, that sounds fine. We call him the son of Mary all the time – we sing Christmas carols about the babe, the son of Mary. But to call a man of the ancient world by his mother’s name, that was an insult. It was proper to call someone according to his father’s name – Simon bar Jonah, Simon son of Jonah. When you read ancient lineages and genealogies, what you find is lists of men, rarely if ever listing a woman. It is the line of King David, the house of Israel, who was once Jacob. To call someone the son of Mary was, at best, to say he was a momma’s boy, and at worse to question whether he had a legitimate father. The people of Nazareth were, to put it lightly, not impressed. This Jesus was forgetting his place, and, as you may know, in a small town, it is not okay to forget your place. People start getting uppitty, and they need to be reminded of where they come from and who they are. I suppose he should have expected it. But he was amazed at their unbelief. It puzzled him. And he left there puzzled, and took his ministry and his miracles elsewhere. He has to leave behind who he was, his past, his hometown Nazareth identity and move on, into a different future, into God’s future.

In Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, we hear a bizarre story. It seems to make very little sense, especially to our rational 21st century minds. Paul says, I know a guy who, fourteen years ago, was caught up into the third heaven, whether in the body or out, I do not know. Huh? What does that mean? Well, what Paul is apparently talking about here is his own conversion experience or another major spiritual episode in his life, where he came face-to-face with the divine in some way, caught up into Paradise somehow, where he saw and heard things that he cannot describe and is not permitted to repeat. Okay. If anyone today were to describe such a thing on their seminary entrance application, they would probably be asked to seek psychiatric care rather than pursuing a career in the ministry. But these were different times. And Paul’s pastoral calling is not in question. Paul’s purpose in sharing this experience is, as he says, not to boast. It is not to throw down his credentials and say, look at me, I’m more blessed than you, more enlightened than you. What he is saying is, look, I have had some weird stuff happen, and I cannot explain it. But that is not what makes me strong in the Lord. That is not what makes me a powerful  instrument of God. Instead, he says, it is my weakness that God chooses to use to God’s purpose. When Paul prayed to have his weakness removed, God replied, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” Paul is telling the people of Corinth, the people who want to brag and boast about who is the more pious, who is the more spiritual, who has the most stuff and the most blessings, who is more in favor with God, hey! If we’re going to throw down on spiritual experience and blessing, we can go there. But that’s not what’s important. Where we are ready to die to ourselves, where we are weak and in need, where we are begging God to take this cup from us, that is where we meet Christ. That is where God chooses to use us. If we are going to boast, that is where we should boast. Whenever I am weak, he says, then I am strong.

So I wonder. I wonder if Nazareth in the Book of Mark is another step in Jesus dying to his own self, moving further and further away from his strength and his power, and further and further into God’s strength and power. All along the way, from the very first verses of Mark, when Jesus goes down into the waters of the Jordan, through his question in chapter 3, “who are my mother and my brothers?,” through today’s scene at Nazareth, to his questioning of the disciples, “who do people say that I am?” and his invitation to “take up your cross and follow me,” right up onto the mountain where Jesus is transfigured in front of his closest disciples, Jesus is busy dying to himself. By the end of the Book he goes to Mt. Zion, and mourns for the coming fall of Jerusalem, the city of his ancestor David, and begs God in prayer to take this cup from him, and finally dies completely to himself, for the sake of the world, giving himself entirely into weakness, losing all strength and power, and demonstrating just how far God is willing to go to be among us.

Today’s story of Jesus at Nazareth is a step on that journey, where bit by bit, Jesus dies to himself as others see him, dies to himself as the world would paint him, dies to himself as he would envision his own power and strength, and finds the strength of God in his weakness. The strength of God that, through the weakness of a human being, through the weakness of all human beings, would show forth the glory of new life, of resurrection and restoration and reconciliation, so that each of us can find strength and power, even and especially in our weakness.

This is the story that we are drawn into. This is the journey that is laid before us. It is a journey of daily death and rising. It is the story of boasting, not in the glories of our past accomplishments, but in the ways that God joins us in our weakest moments. It is a difficult journey, and it is exactly the journey that we are all on. There is not one of us who does not at some point face, like Paul, a thorn in the side. A time of grief and sadness, of loss, of illness, broken relationships, struggling finances, transitions and changes. Even as a church community, we face difficult times, shifting cultural norms, the struggle to hear God’s call for us, to focus on a common vision of God’s preferred and promised future. And the temptation is there for us, as it was for Paul – to look at our strengths – as it was for Jesus – to find our identity in our past, not our future. But that is not our baptismal journey. We are called, as Paul was, as Jesus was, to die to ourselves, to look to God’s future for us, not our own vision. We are called to see Jesus, not like the people of his hometown, as those who know him and can make him who we want him to be, not like those who are offended when the Kingdom of God turns out to be something unexpected and to come not in glory but in an illegitimate son of Mary in a lowly carpenter. We are called to be surprised, to die to our own expectations of strength and power and find God where we least expect God. Right here among us. God with us, Christ, crucified, Christ, God who entered into the weakness of humanity, became fully human, so that in our darkest moments, in our most difficult times, we can remember the full truth of what we have learned by rote – the Lord be with you.