No Need for a Sycamore Tree (Sermon on Luke 19:1-10)

He entered Jericho and was passing through it. A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax-collector and was rich. He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycomore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way. When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, ‘Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.’ So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. All who saw it began to grumble and said, ‘He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.’ Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, ‘Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.’ Then Jesus said to him, ‘Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.’ —Luke 19:1-10


tmp_939-2486382_e9075f4c-209931559 The story of Zacchaeus is a well-known one, especially for us short people. Ever since I stopped growing when I was in 8th grade, I’ve been able to relate at least partially to our vertically challenged main character in today’s passage from Luke. One of my most vivid memories related to my height was standing in the lunch line in high school. We were all teenagers, which means we were starving, so of course everyone was crowding as close to the front of the line as possible. Which meant standing shoulder to shoulder and heel to toe with the people beside and in front of you. Luckily, my female friends were more or less my height at the time, but the boys in our grade… not even close! They all had insane growth spurts around freshman year, so they were towering what seemed like feet above us. I distinctly remember standing next to my best friend, who was at eye level, and looking around to see nothing but boys’ t-shirts around us, since all the boys’ chins were above our heads. If I craned my neck, I could see some of their faces, but it wasn’t even worth trying to have a conversation at that angle. It was easier just to let them look over our heads and face the fact that we were basically invisible.

Being short, that is a nice advantage. It’s usually pretty easy to hide or escape notice when that’s what you want. As a naturally shy person, I’ve used this technique many times. Why draw attention to myself when doing so would mean having to worry about impressing people, whether by my appearance or wit or social skills? Much easier to quietly duck down and fade into the background. Anytime I’m not feeling particularly confident, this is a handy strategy.

Unsurprisingly, due to his short stature, Zacchaeus in our story was familiar with this strategy as well. And for good reason: he was about as unpopular of a person as you could find in ancient Judea. Zacchaeus was a tax collector, which means that it was his job to collect money from his fellow Jews to give as payment to the occupying Roman army. This “job” didn’t actually come with wages, so the only way to any kind of living doing it was to collect extra money from the taxpayers and keep some of it yourself. How much you chose to take, and from whom, was up to the individual tax collector to decide, so although it was a widely despised occupation, some tax collectors would have been more hated than others. Based on his reputation in our passage, Zacchaeus would’ve been in the “more hated” category for skimming too much off the top, since he is described as being very rich and is clearly disliked by his fellow citizens.

And so, when he wanted to get a better look at Jesus, he used a trick that he as a short man already knew: hiding. Although this time he cleverly combined it with adding height and therefore a better view: he climbed a sycamore tree. Now, sycamore trees in ancient Judea were a type of fig tree with wide, dense, fairly low branches. Those low branches would’ve made the perfect hiding spot for a small person to get a couple yards off the ground but stay concealed so as to avoid notice. His hiding didn’t work out quite as he planned, but we’ll get into that part later.

When most people hear the story of Zacchaeus, I think we tend to think of him either as this funny, bumbling man—probably due to that silly children’s song about the “wee little man”—or else as this worst-of-the-worst sinner who is just lucky that Jesus was so nice to him. I don’t know that we necessarily read the story and automatically put ourselves in Zacchaeus’s place. But when I read this passage this week, that was how it hit me. No, I may not be the “worst of the worst” as a sinner—I can certainly name some terrible sins that I haven’t committed, including the extortion that Zacchaeus was guilty of—but that does not make me innocent.

Yes, Zacchaeus took more money than he should have, and did so at the expense of his fellow Judeans. But, the very nature of his job required that he take some if he wanted any money at all to live on, and it’s hard not to get a little carried away when looking out for your own interests. How many of us could say for certain that we wouldn’t do the same in that situation, or at least take a little bit extra? I don’t think I, for one, could say that with 100% certainty. The truth is that our world is complicated. The systems in which we live and participate are corrupt, just as the system that produced Zacchaeus’ job as a tax collector was corrupt. We participate in sinful patterns and systems on a daily basis as we purchase clothing or food that was produced by workers paid less than a living wage, as we reap the benefits of not being discriminated against based on our skin color—or as we live on land claimed for “free” by our white ancestors after it was taken forcefully away from its Native American inhabitants. Not all of our actions are necessarily malicious, evil, or even sinful in themselves, but that does not mean that we are free from the burden and consequences of this sinful world around us. And that doesn’t even get into the everyday actions we do that are sinful, some large and some small: letting loose harsh words about a family member, coworker, or neighbor; selfishly taking something for ourselves when we know someone else wanted or needed it more; or pretending not to see the person in need whom we could have chosen to help. We are all sinners, plain and simple. And the more we stop to think about our sins, the more ashamed we feel. And the more shame and guilt we feel, the more and more tempting it is to hurry to the nearest sycamore tree and find a good hiding spot.

As Zacchaeus was sitting there up in the tree, he was trying to get an unobstructed view of Jesus. Jesus, this famous traveling rabbi known for his compelling teachings, happened to be in town, and for whatever reason, Zacchaeus really wanted to see him. I imagine it was because he had heard such amazing stories of this teacher: of the healings he had performed, the cryptic parables he would share, and the quotable sayings he originated. Jesus had a magnetic personality and drew people to him, and Zacchaeus was not immune to that pull. The truth is that no one is—that “pull” is the loving presence of God made flesh and dwelling in our midst. A whole crowd had already gathered to see Jesus walk by, and Zacchaeus had a good view of the proceedings from his tree branch, safely shielded by the leaves from anyone seeing such a high-ranking official doing something as undignified as sitting in a tree. Or so he thought.

Suddenly, when Jesus arrived at Zacchaeus’s tree, he stopped! No one else had noticed this little man sneak up the tree, since the crowd was so focused on Jesus and since Zacchaeus had run ahead so that he wouldn’t be seen. But Jesus saw him. And not only did he see him, but he really saw him. He saw him for who he was—for his self-conscious desire to hide, for his many sins, for his social isolation due to everyone’s hatred toward him—but also for his goodness. Jesus saw the goodness in Zacchaeus that no one else had noticed. No one else had believed it existed or had cared to even look for it. No one, not even Zacchaeus himself! But Jesus, this seeming stranger and famous teacher from another town, could see all of this in just one instant. He looked at Zacchaeus, peering through those sycamore branches, and he loved him. And seeing short, despised, Zacchaeus hiding in that tree, Jesus said to him, “Come down at once. I must stay in your home today!” (v. 5). What a shock that must have been!

This is where everything changes. Zacchaeus had planned to stay hidden, but now he was the center of attention. He had planned just to watch, but now he was being called to action. He had assumed that he was unqualified to do anything related to Jesus’ visit, but now he was being asked to contribute in a way that he could certainly manage. He had expected to be despised, but now he was given the greatest honor of all: being the one person chosen to host this renowned rabbi during his one-night stay in Jericho.

And it’s amazing the transformation that happened within Zacchaeus in that moment. Immediately, he jumped down from his branch and welcomed Jesus. The love and respect Jesus had for Zacchaeus instantly extinguished Zacchaeus’s nerves about being seen in the tree. But even more miraculously, Jesus’ loving treatment awakens a desire in Zacchaeus to be a better man. Without any prompting whatsoever—without judgment, knowing glances, demands, or even requests—Zacchaeus decides that it is time to change his life. He declares right then and there that he will change his ways. He will give half of his belongings to the poor, and he will repay anyone that he has cheated with four times as much. Wow! That is not the same man who until this day was cheating his neighbors in order to store up extravagant wealth for himself.

The text doesn’t say so, but I have no doubt in my mind that upon hearing this, Jesus burst into a huge smile. This kind of transformation is exactly what his ministry is about; it’s exactly what God’s love does and what God intends for the world. Turning from bad choices to good ones, from broken relationships to life-giving kinship, from greed to generosity, and from scarcity to abundance. On that day, through Jesus’ invitation, Zacchaeus discovered his God-given potential to do good in the world, embraced it, and was welcomed into this new life with celebration. As the crowds around him grumbled with jealousy at this sinful tax collector receiving such high honor, Jesus ignored the negativity and proclaimed with joy, “Today, salvation has come to his household” (v. 9). This man whom others looked down upon for his sinful lifestyle, and who was self-aware enough to know his own failings and hide from the hostile eyes of the crowd, was never too sinful or too hated or too invisible for Jesus not to see and love him. The love of God emanating from Jesus penetrated through the leafy branches of the sycamore tree and directly into Zacchaeus’s heart, opening him up to his inherent goodness as it pushed away the selfish desires of sin. God’s love is not just for the righteous, or the well-put-together. It is for sinners. It is for us.

And when we allow God’s love in, astonishing things happen. Like the spouse whose love and presence drives you to be a better person when you’re around them, like the coach who knows just how to teach and motivate you to constantly improve, the Holy Spirit works within us to bring out the very best in us and works alongside us to multiply our efforts beyond what we could achieve ourselves. We need not let our guilt and shame burden us any longer; Jesus knows all about it and does not judge us for it. His love for us is not an ignorant love; it is all-knowing but also powerful beyond measure. He loves us because he knows exactly who we are, our very best and our very worst. And he chooses to shower us with that love in the hope that we can embrace our own best and live into the amazing potential that God has created us for. Zacchaeus was not meant to live out his days as a hated tax collector. Instead, he through his transformation has become an inspiration for countless Christians over two millennia and counting. We have our failings, and will continue to fall short, but that is not all we are. We are also beloved children, created by God out of love and precious in God’s sight.

So when we have those days, or those moments, when we wallow in our own sin—when we feel sorry for ourselves, think that we don’t deserve love, or feel hopelessly lost—we can take heart. Jesus says specifically that he came “to seek and save the lost” (v. 10). Jesus doesn’t love us for our perfection, because that’s not who we are. He loves us for our broken, but beloved, selves—for the goodness in our hearts even when shadowed by guilt and sin, and for the powerful potential we each have within us to be his hands and feet spreading love in this world that he came to save. And when we accept that love and allow ourselves to believe and relish in its goodness, we are transformed. We can take a stand for what’s right. We can give more than we thought we could afford. We can reach out to the people who are different from us. We can make a positive difference in spreading the good news of God’s love.

Like Zacchaeus, sometimes we feel so ashamed that we want to hide from God’s love, but the good news is that Jesus will not hold our past against us. Out of love, he died on the cross and freed us from the bondage of sin so we can face the future with hope. Like Zacchaeus, sometimes we worry that we’re not talented enough or experienced enough to be able to do the work God has set in front of us, but the good news is that we don’t do it alone! The Holy Spirit is empowering our every breath, guiding our steps and our hands to serve the needs of the world.

So let us take those steps, accept that love in our hearts, and look ahead with courage and confidence into a future brimming with possibility. Jesus, our Savior, has seen us as we are and loves us, and he is reaching out with a hand and a smile to allow us to experience something new. We, the lost, have been found, and the burdens of our old life need no longer weigh us down. With Jesus inviting us and the Holy Spirit empowering us, we can experience the incomparable life of faith made even more abundant as we learn to share and spread Christ’s love near and far. Thanks be to God. Amen.

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Look Ahead: A Sermon on Luke 9:51-62

Luke 9:51-62

51When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem. 52And he sent messengers ahead of him. On their way they entered a village of the Samaritans to make ready for him; 53but they did not receive him, because his face was set toward Jerusalem. 54When his disciples James and John saw it, they said, “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” 55But he turned and rebuked them. 56Then they went on to another village.

57As they were going along the road, someone said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” 58And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” 59To another he said, “Follow me.” But he said, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” 60But Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” 61Another said, “I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” 62Jesus said to him, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”

plow

I don’t know about you, but I really struggled to make sense of today’s reading from Luke, especially the second half of it. It’s one of those sections of the gospels where my natural inclination is to read it, pause, spend a few seconds wondering what I’m missing, then shrug it off and keep going. I may not get anything out of it that way, but at least I don’t sit there confused, or indignant, at what I’ve just read.

If you ask me, confusion and indignation would both be very appropriate responses after hearing Jesus tell us that becoming his disciple means having to shunt two basic, core responsibilities to our families. To one man, Jesus says that he has to miss his own father’s funeral. To another, Jesus says that he shouldn’t say good-bye to his family before embarking on what is implied to be a lifelong journey of itinerant ministry. Don’t we normally expect Jesus to encourage loving actions and family values, not abandonment? These harsh commands are not what we expect to hear from our loving teacher and savior. This, in short, is why I often gloss over this passage without trying to understand it. It’s too hard, and more importantly, it’s too unpleasant, to want to believe.

This week, though, because I’m preaching on this text, skipping over it is not an option. So, let’s look at this story again, but with new eyes. Is Jesus really saying what it sounds like—that being a Christian and being a good family member are incompatible—or is there another message here for us?

In this passage, we meet Jesus as he is starting to head to Jerusalem, where he will eventually be arrested and killed. His disciples are with him, and they have just passed through a village in Samaria. Of the three exchanges Jesus has with different disciples in this text, the first one is probably the least offensive to us. As they all are walking down the road, one of the disciples, feeling inspired as he contemplates what an amazing leader Jesus is, says to him, “I will follow you wherever you go,” (v. 57). In this way, this disciple speaks for all of us. We all have our moments of optimism, of passion, when we feel like we could and would do anything for God. But Jesus knows that the road ahead is far more complicated than the rosy picture in our minds. He tells this disciple that following in his footsteps means roughing it: “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man [and by extension, his followers] ha[ve] nowhere to lay [their] head[s],” (v. 58). This disciple is free to follow, but he needs to know what he’s getting into. This is not a commitment for the fainthearted. In this case, following Jesus means journeying where the Spirit leads, and this requires being homeless.

While being homeless is not exactly anyone’s dream, it at least has a noble quality to it when done for a good cause. The next two things Jesus says are harder to get behind. First, he calls to a different disciple, “Follow me.” And the man makes what sounds like a reasonable request: “First let me go and bury my father,” (v. 59). However, instead of agreeing to that one, very understandable, condition, Jesus refuses. Instead of allowing the man to fulfill this important family obligation, he is told to “go and proclaim the kingdom of God” (v. 60). There is some debate among scholars as to precisely what is meant regarding the burial of the man’s father. Some believe that the disciple wanted to continue living at home as usual until his father died and was buried, and then come follow Jesus. Others see it as a more immediate event—the father has just died and will be buried soon. Either way, though, Jesus makes it clear that family obligations—even important ones—cannot match the urgency of the coming kingdom of God. And this is not an easy truth to hear or accept.

The last disciple we encounter in this passage tells Jesus, “I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home,” (v. 61). Again, this sounds like a very reasonable request. If I were about to leave home for months or years to go follow a traveling preacher, I think that the very least I’d owe my family would be a nice good-bye. How would they feel if I just went away without saying good-bye? Since when is abandonment a Christ-like thing to do? And yet, Jesus’ response indicates that saying good-bye was too much to ask. He says, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God,” (v. 62). It’s an unexpected and indirect answer to the man’s question, but the implication is clear. Rather than honoring the man’s simple request to say farewell to his household before joining Jesus’ ministry, Jesus tells him that he has to follow without looking back. Considering the fact that the prophet Elijah accepted Elisha’s request to kiss his parents good-bye before he joined Elijah’s ministry (1 Kings 19:20), Jesus’ refusal here is all the more noteworthy. Again, we see Jesus emphasizing that following him is no easy task, and its importance surpasses everything we normally hold dear.

So according to this passage, proclaiming the kingdom of God is more important than having belongings or a place to stay. Following Jesus is more important than following the commands of the Torah such as honoring one’s parents through appropriate burial. Living into the kingdom of God is even more important than upholding the rituals of the most beautiful of human relationships, the family. In short, commitment to God’s kingdom must come first, before anything and everything else, no matter how valuable. And that is a hard, hard truth.

And yet, could it be any other way? Think for a moment about these disciples’ requests. Outside of the context of this story, they are honorable and reasonable requests. They show strong commitment to family and living up to one’s responsibilities. Similarly, wanting to provide a balanced, nutritious, filling meal for your child is very honorable and appropriate. But what if you’re on a boat filled with dozens of sick and starving people and there is only a small amount of food to go around? In that context, is it still right to give your child enough food to provide a complete and nutritious meal? Or would it be better to limit what you give your child so that the other children on the boat might not starve?

In other words, priorities change in different contexts. What Jesus is expressing to his disciples here is an urgency that they were not understanding. It’s not that any of their requests were wrong; it’s that the kingdom of God is just that important. And that immediate. As important as family and other relationships are, they are not God. To put them first, before God, even if done out of love and good intentions, is one form of idolatry. And I say this as someone who is just as guilty of this as anyone, especially now that I have a new baby.

The thing is, none of these requests sounds excessive at first. But any and all of them could easily lead down a rabbit hole of “just one more.” In the example of burying his father, there are so many other things that happen when someone dies (and this is assuming the father has already died, which is unclear in the text). Can’t you just imagine the man finishing the burial and then wanting to stay just to get the house settled, just to plant the crops this year, just to wait until harvest, just to get a good nest egg saved up for his mother, just… just… As the saying goes when it comes to any big decision—going on that big trip, trying to have a baby, changing jobs, moving—there’s always some reason to put it off. There’s never a “perfect time.” And Jesus knows this about us, even when we don’t realize it ourselves. We will always find that next excuse to wait until later, or to decide that the commitment isn’t for us. If Jesus had let the man go bury his father, would he ever have come back?

The same problem applies to the man who wants to say good-bye to his family. I would know, since I’m from Minnesota: home of the so-called “Minnesota good-bye.” In my 3 years so far in South Dakota, I’m pretty sure you have it here, too. It’s when you announce that you really should leave soon, then have another round of dessert or coffee, then spend a half hour talking at the door, then another 45 minutes talking next to the car, and then another 20 minutes chatting through the rolled-down car window before finally driving off. Good-byes can last forever. Especially when saying good-bye to loved ones, it can be incredibly difficult to pull ourselves away and actually go through with leaving. I imagine that this disciple might have some “just one more”s of his own: just one more hour, just one more night, just one more hug, just one more kiss… Again, Jesus is showing us that he understands. He knows what it’s like to be human because he’s experienced it himself. If we give even an inch, we may soon find ourselves a mile away. And when the goal is something as important as the kingdom of God, that mile is too much to risk! So when these disciples ask him for an inch, he doesn’t give in. Instead, he reminds them why he’s here in the first place.

Jesus didn’t come to Earth to uphold the status quo. He came to turn the world upside down: to pull the powerful from their thrones and lift up the lowly, to preach good news to the poor and release to the captives, to heal the sick and liberate the oppressed. And this message, this mission, is something worth giving up everything for. When Jesus calls to us, “Follow me,” he isn’t inviting us on an afternoon excursion. He’s calling us into a kingdom of new possibilities that go beyond our imagining. The sorrow, pain, and injustice we see around us—brought to light so excruciatingly in the recent shooting in Orlando—will not last. God is transforming this world—our broken, sinful world—into a kingdom of peace, life, and wholeness. And Jesus calls us, inviting us to follow him into that new world of transformation.

It sounds crazy—impossible, even. And I’ll be honest, I still don’t really understand how this will all happen, even though I believe it. If God can come to earth in human flesh, can drive out demons and heal the sick, and can die but rise again to new life, then who are we to say that God can’t transform the entire world!? I’ve felt the power of the Holy Spirit working through me to accomplish things I’d never be able to do on my own. I’ve been in Spirit-filled gatherings where people display inhuman amounts of love as they collaborate and come together in spite of divisive differences. I’ve met people whose lives were completely turned around after encountering Jesus Christ and people whose sense of peace truly does pass all understanding. These, I believe, are all examples of God’s kingdom coming to fruition in the here and now. Even in the midst of all that’s wrong with the world, transformation is happening. New life is bursting forth out of places of decay. Joy is erupting in the face of sorrow.

The closer we follow to Jesus, the more of this transformation we can see. And not only see, but also participate in. Being a disciple of Jesus Christ means living as he did: righting wrongs, feeding the hungry, comforting the grieving, and healing the sick. We may do it in ordinary ways rather than miracles like he often performed, but that doesn’t change the fact that each one of those actions is a beautiful example of transformation. But we need to be paying attention in order to find those opportunities and experience those moments.

To the third disciple in our passage, Jesus says, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God,” (v. 62). I’m not a farmer, but I’ve heard that looking backwards while plowing is a bad idea. And when the rows are not of corn or beans but rather seedlings of God’s kingdom on earth, it’s even more important to plant them straight so that they have the best chance at growing strong and tall.

In my opinion, this image really gets to the heart of what Jesus intended with all of his comments in this exchange. It’s not just about making sure we count the cost of discipleship or that we put God first. It’s about knowing who we are, whose we are, and where we are heading. If you know where you’re going, the rest will take care of itself. But if you’re looking back, or procrastinating, or making excuses, then you get so sidetracked that you forget your goal in the first place. When we follow Jesus into the kingdom of God, we need to be looking straight ahead. No matter what else comes up, we must remember the promise of the coming kingdom and orient our lives toward it: toward healing, peace, justice, and abundant life.

And when we do, those other requests are no longer relevant. When we have the kingdom in view, we can continue to pursue it in all aspects of our lives. Instead of asking Jesus those evading questions of “But first…”, we will be forging ahead excitedly, saying “But also…”! Not “But first let me bury my father.” Instead, “But also let me anticipate the resurrection, even when the time comes for my father to die.” Not “But first let me say good-bye to my family.” Instead, “But also let me share the good news of God’s kingdom with my family!” In Jesus Christ, in the earthly moments of transformation that show us the kingdom of God arriving, there are always new possibilities. It’s just that we miss them if we don’t look forward.

Let us look forward, then, with our faces turned toward resurrection and life, and take those first trembling steps in the path of Jesus. Amen.

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12 Questions: A Time to Reflect

A few days ago, Liz shared a few questions for other bloggers to ponder and answer as a time to pause and reflect a little bit. I don’t usually post things like this, but I thought the questions were really powerful and decided I’d better give it a shot!

What’s your favorite way to pass time? What do you enjoy most?

Well, for the cheesy answer, I enjoy any time I get to spend with my husband. 🙂 Of the things we do together, I’d say my favorite is when we just sit (or walk) and talk about deep things together for hours. Every time we have one of those epic conversations, I just think to myself about how there is nothing better in the world. But a close second would be the moments of pure bliss when the two of us get to relax outside in beautiful weather, watching our adorable dog run and play his heart out–the epitome of joie de vivre.

What is the best or hardest decision you have ever made?

Speaking of conversations with my husband, we literally JUST talked about this question a couple days ago. In reflecting on it, I’d have to say that the best and hardest decision I’ve ever made was to end a romantic relationship that I had finally realized was toxic to me and would’ve pulled me down a far different path for my life than I now have the joy and privilege to live. I probably would’ve come to my senses at some point before things got completely out of hand, but I am incredibly grateful that I had the self-awareness and courage to get out of it when I did. And, happily, ending that relationship made room for me to meet and fall in love with the man who I am now so blessed to be married to.

Describe your personality with only one word.

Hmm… SUCH a tough task for someone as longwinded as me! Well, I’m going to go with “purposeful.” I think that encompasses many of the aspects of my personality that are either strongest or most important to me (or both). I am very meticulous and a little obsessed with being productive, so everything I do has to have some sort of purpose. There are few things that can put me off-balance as quickly or reliably as having an indefinite period of unstructured time ahead of me and no plans to organize it.

On the faith side of things, I try hard to align my life to greater purposes than my own–living out my calling to serve God and neighbor. This comes out most visibly in my choice of career and ministry path, but I also seek to do this in smaller ways like how I spend my money, how my daily decisions can make a difference in bringing a little more justice into the world.

What’s been the most important/transformative moment in your life during the past year?

This has been a CRAZY INSANE year for me, so I really don’t think I can pick just one. It seems like all the big things in my life have transformed hugely in the last year! First of all, I got commissioned as a deacon in the UMC this May, which was an enormous step in my own call into ministry. The feeling of the support and prayers of the entire annual conference, as well as the pull of the Holy Spirit on my during the commissioning service was incredible. I left that moment totally inspired to be a leader, bridging the church and the world. (Not that I’ve been 100% successful at that in the months since, but still…)

Secondly, this has been the first year of my entry into the career I’ve been dreaming about ever since feeling a call to it about 5 years ago. I got to student teach from January to May, and working in a school every day felt so perfect and amazing that I didn’t even really mind the horribly early mornings, nights away from my family, or 2+ hour each way weekend commutes. It was a transformative period for me because I finally was able to transition from the identity of “student” (which I’ve been FOREVER) to “teacher,” which I was delighted to find fit me just as well as I had believed it would. And now, I’ve been teaching in my own classroom for the past 2 months and truly love it. I’m blessed to have wonderful students and supportive administrators, and it has been the most amazing adventure.

Third, because yes there’s more, there was the whole finding-out-I’m-pregnant thing! In mid-July, we found out that we’re expecting our first child to arrive around the beginning of March! This is something we’ve been looking forward to for a long time, but there was still always that fear of moving into the unknown… jumping from a marriage I love to a bigger family with a new member who will force us to change our routines (probably more than I can even imagine at this stage!). And I think the reality of seeing proof of it… in the form of a positive pregnancy test one day, when it was far too early in the morning for me to fully process anything… was the step I needed to start to move past the apprehension and into the eager anticipation. So now we’re just excited! As my belly grows and the baby becomes more and more noticeable to the outside world, I feel so privileged to get to have such a close connection to another human life and to feel the little kicks and movements when they’re still too small to discern from the outside. It’s still hard to imagine the kind of baby, and child, and human being that this new life will become–but I can’t wait to find out! I don’t necessarily feel prepared to be a parent, but I don’t think many people ever do beforehand, so I’m excited for the journey into this crazy new challenge that our bundle of joy will bring in a few months!

What is standing between you and happiness?

Wow, that’s a deep question. It’s really hard for me to answer it because (as I hope you’ve noticed through reading my previous answers), I have SO much happiness in my life already. I am so thankful to have a life where I don’t have to constantly worry about money, where I feel loved on a daily basis and have so many amazing people in my life, and where I have a job/career that I care deeply about, find meaningful on a daily basis, and can make a (small) income doing.

The only thing that could make me happier would be to know that more people (well, everybody) could live as blessed of a life as this. It’s hard sometimes to balance wanting to enjoy and appreciate the good things in my life with not forgetting those who don’t have such abundance around them, and making sure I actually do something about it other than feel guilty.

What (or who) are you most grateful for?

I could write such a long list here, but seeing as this post is already super long and I’m only halfway through the questions, I’ll go with the short-and-sweet, easy answer: my husband! And he definitely is a cut above all the rest, although I love and appreciate them all so much as well. If he weren’t, I wouldn’t have married him!

Name one thing you’ve always wanted to do, but have never done before?

In trying to come up with this answer, I’m discovering that perhaps I should create a bucket list somewhere to keep track of all the things I’d love to do… ride in a hot air balloon, see Les Mis on Broadway, travel to Scotland/Ireland/Germany/Switzerland/Sweden(over and over)/U.S. road trip/Central America… But for my “main” answer, I’d say– learn Spanish. I’ve been meaning to actually study it in an organized, disciplined way for years. I already know a decent amount of Spanish from one year of it in high school, plus a lot of interactions with Spanish-speaking ELL students in the last couple years. But my comprehension is way above my ability to produce Spanish, and I just wish I had studied it more thoroughly at some point to gain some fluency. Someday…

Where have you lived in your life? If you’ve never moved (or even if you have), where would you like to try living?

Oh, sooo many places! I’ve lived in 6 cities across southern Minnesota, 2 cities in Wisconsin, 1 in Illinois, and 1 in South Dakota. Plus 1 in Sweden. I tend to keep to the cold climates, it seems, which is silly for someone as cold-blooded as me. I will always consider Minnesota my home, so that’s the place I long for the most right now. But I would love to try living in Bath, England, too. When we visited there on our trip to Europe in 2011, it was the most incredible small city. It would be such an amazing place to get to stay day after day after day.

What is the most important/most meaningful thing in life?

I guess my answer here is twofold. First, it’s important to feel loved and secure in knowing you matter and have value. Second, it’s important (at least for me) to have a purpose behind what you do so that you can feel like it has more meaning than just whatever incidental enjoyment or effect is happening in the moment. While the enjoyment of the moment itself certainly can be the purpose, I don’t think that should be the limit of what our lives are for. As a Christian, I believe that God is calling us all into lives of greater peace and joy as we find our own unique ways to love and serve those around us and make the world a better place, one person and one moment at a time.

In one sentence share what your wish for your future.

My wish for my future is that I can continue living into my path as a teacher, a deacon, a wife, and a mother and that through these roles I can find meaning while helping to make a positive difference in the world around me.

Where do you find your inspiration + motivation?

As a theologically educated person of faith, my inspiration and motivation comes from my beliefs about God and the Way of living embodied and taught by Jesus Christ. I sometimes experience inspiration directly through the biblical text, but oftentimes it comes through the spoken or written words of others in sermons, theological books/articles, and even everyday conversations.

What is your motto in life?

For those interested, I consider Romans 12:1-18 to be my “plumb line” text, as they called it in seminary. It’s sort of like a motto in that I think it summarizes my philosophy about what a good life looks like. But it’s also quite long.

A shorter one, that I’ll steal from John Wesley (the founder of Methodism) via Liz, is “The world is my parish.” When John Wesley said it originally, he meant it in that he would take his preaching out of the church buildings and into the fields where all the poor and working class people were. For me, it’s similar. In my call as a deacon, I feel strongly that I should be living out a life of love and service to others in the name of Christ, but that (for me) it should be done out in the world rather than in the church building. As I’ve described in various questions above, I try [with varying levels of success] to align my daily decisions with my call to love my neighbors as myself, and I truly believe that even those little things are an important form of ministry. And that goes for all Christians–all people of faith, in fact–it’s not limited to deacons or pastors or clergy. So when I say “The world is my parish,” I mean that my faith doesn’t stop at the door when I leave the church, and it doesn’t disappear when it’s not being talked about explicitly. I want my whole life to reflect the goodness, love, and mercy of the God who created and called me (and all of us) into a relationship of wholeness and joy.

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The Power of Touch – sermon on Mark 5:21-43

Mark 5:21-43
21When Jesus had crossed again in the boat to the other side, a great crowd gathered around him; and he was by the sea. 22Then one of the leaders of the synagogue named Jairus came and, when he saw him, fell at his feet 23and begged him repeatedly, “My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live.”

24So he went with him. And a large crowd followed him and pressed in on him. 25Now there was a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years. 26She had endured much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had; and she was no better, but rather grew worse. 27She had heard about Jesus, and came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, 28for she said, “If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well.” 29Immediately her hemorrhage stopped; and she felt in her body that she was healed of her disease. 30Immediately aware that power had gone forth from him, Jesus turned about in the crowd and said, “Who touched my clothes?” 31And his disciples said to him, “You see the crowd pressing in on you; how can you say, ‘Who touched me?’” 32He looked all around to see who had done it. 33But the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came in fear and trembling, fell down before him, and told him the whole truth. 34He said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.”

35While he was still speaking, some people came from the leader’s house to say, “Your daughter is dead. Why trouble the teacher any further?” 36But overhearing what they said, Jesus said to the leader of the synagogue, “Do not fear, only believe.” 37He allowed no one to follow him except Peter, James, and John, the brother of James. 38When they came to the house of the leader of the synagogue, he saw a commotion, people weeping and wailing loudly. 39When he had entered, he said to them, “Why do you make a commotion and weep? The child is not dead but sleeping.” 40And they laughed at him. Then he put them all outside, and took the child’s father and mother and those who were with him, and went in where the child was. 41He took her by the hand and said to her, “Talitha cum,” which means, “Little girl, get up!” 42And immediately the girl got up and began to walk about (she was twelve years of age). At this they were overcome with amazement. 43He strictly ordered them that no one should know this, and told them to give her something to eat.

I’ve kept a diary or journal, off and on, for most of my life. I got my first diary as a birthday present when I turned 7 and have gone through it and probably 25 more journals in the many years since then. On those handwritten pages, I spilled out my heart and my secrets… but let’s be honest, it was mostly about my crushes. For those of you who’ve kept a journal, have you ever gone back to read your old entries? What was that like? If you’re anything like me, it can be a cringe-worthy experience that you don’t want to dwell on any longer than necessary.

I recently saw a documentary, Mortified Nation, that showed me I’m not alone in the obsessive crushes, the naïve fantasies, or the other embarrassing aspects of my high school experience. Apparently there are venues across the country where people show up to read from their teenage selves’ diaries—out loud—to an audience. Anyone who has ever had a diary—or, really, anyone who has ever been a teenager—can probably imagine why these shows go by the name, “Mortified.” It sounds absolutely insane. Your teenage years included more than enough embarrassing moments on their own… why in the world would you want to relive them in front of strangers?

The surprising truth, though, is that instead of feeling more embarrassed, participants in these shows actually feel much better after reading their diaries out loud. Because, for the first time in their lives, they can show their most vulnerable, honest, true self and be accepted in spite of—even because of—exactly who they are, quirks and all. And it turns out that those feelings we’ve all had, where we feel so different, so alone, so misunderstood, and think we have no one we can share that with… those are probably the most relatable, universal feelings of all!

Now, teenagers tend to be a little extreme in their emotions and the way they react to them, and we’ve all been there. But the thing is that even as adults, we are not immune to these feelings of not belonging—even if we sometimes think we are or wish we were. It’s true that our wish to belong doesn’t tend to manifest itself in quite the same ways anymore, but we still have those times when we desperately want to fit in. Acceptance and belonging are human needs as much as food and shelter, but too often there are doubts or external reasons standing in the way. Apart from maybe journaling, what are we to do when we’re feeling lost, excluded, hurt, or ashamed?

In our Bible passage today from Mark 5, we see a woman who feels all of these things and more. Like so many women in the Scriptures, she goes unnamed and is often referred to as the Woman with the Flow of Blood or the Hemorrhaging Woman. We call her this because she is described in the text as having suffered from bleeding for the last 12 years. She did everything she could and spent all of her money seeking out medical treatment from all the doctors she could find, but her bleeding only grew worse. So at this stage in her life, she’s been bleeding for over a decade, is still sick and in pain, and doesn’t have a penny to her name.

We don’t know the exact medical cause of this woman’s bleeding, but to Jews at the time it was seen as equivalent to extended menstruation. And therefore, for the entire duration of the bleeding, the woman would be considered ritually unclean by Jewish law. A ritually unclean person could not touch a ritually clean person without contaminating that person and making them unclean as well. So it was common practice for menstruating women to seclude themselves completely until their bleeding stopped. But what if the bleeding lasted for 12 years instead of a few days? It is likely that this woman had not felt human touch or had meaningful interactions with anyone for 12 whole years! Can you even imagine? If she had family or friends, they wouldn’t be able to visit her without contaminating themselves, and they probably eventually gave up on her after she was still unclean so many years later. The isolation she must have felt is staggering.

Understandably, then, this woman was desperate. Desperate to belong again. Since all of her social and financial problems stemmed from her medical condition, it makes sense that she would focus her energy on finding physical healing. It was all she could think of, so she spent everything she had trying every doctor in town. When that didn’t work, though, she stopped playing by the rules and did something crazy. Audacious. Rude. In a culture where any touch, even brushing against someone by accident, held the power to spread her ritual uncleanness, she did the unthinkable: she joined a jostling crowd. Even trying her hardest, it would be impossible for her to avoid touching the people around her and thus contaminating them according to the purity laws. But she did it anyway—all for the chance that she could get close to Jesus. She wanted nothing more than just to get to touch the hem of his robes, for she believed that even that simple touch would heal her ailment and allow her to live a normal life.

You see, she had heard about this teacher from Nazareth. She heard of this Jesus, a man who brought healing wherever he went. Despite not having seen or met Jesus before, this woman has the faith, or perhaps the desperation, to believe fully in his healing power and to do everything necessary to get just a small share of that power. What the woman doesn’t know is that, at this very moment, Jesus is on his way to heal someone else: the daughter of a synagogue leader named Jairus.

Although both are in need of healing, the contrasts between the bleeding woman and Jairus’ daughter are striking. One is old and weak, the other young and at the prime of her life. Jairus’ daughter is the precious only child of an elite leader in the synagogue. She lives in a house with servants, part of a highly respected and well-off family. She is so dearly loved by her father that he swallows the pride of his high status and falls at the feet of a lowly traveling preacher in order to beg Jesus to help his daughter. The woman is poor, alone, and an outcast, with no family and no one who will advocate on her behalf. Jairus’ daughter is gravely ill, with the threat of death at any moment. While certainly ill herself, the woman’s condition is not life-threatening. And most striking of all, Jairus’ daughter is 12 years old, at the age to begin menstruation and gain the ability to produce life through childbearing—something that the other woman’s constant bleeding has made her unable to do for 12 years. This girl’s entire lifetime, filled with comfort and love and hope, has been the same 12 years that were for the bleeding woman full of pain and isolation and despair.

If you were in Jesus’ place, with these two individuals in need of healing, who would you prioritize? The young, vibrant, respected, and well-off girl who will die without immediate attention? Or the poor, haggard woman no one knows, who may be in pain but will certainly survive another hour, week, or month without treatment? The obvious answer, by any worldly measure, is to treat the girl first. Her need is more urgent. Plus, her father came the “right,” respectable way to ask Jesus for help. The bleeding woman didn’t get in line or ask politely; she spread her uncleanness to the people around her and came up from behind to take the healing for herself by reaching out to touch Jesus’ cloak.

But, in typical Jesus fashion, he does the unexpected and heals the woman first. To be fair, the healing was a surprise to him as much as anyone, as he felt the power surge out of him through the woman’s fingertips. Realizing this, he could easily have continued on his way to Jairus’ house without pause, glad that yet another person had been healed along the way but intent on completing his mission to heal the dying girl. Yet this is not what he does. I believe it is because Jesus knows the depth of this woman’s suffering—the physical bleeding was only the tip of the iceberg, as much as it may have consumed her thoughts, and she is emotionally wounded from her many years as an outcast. She may have been intent only on obtaining physical healing, but Jesus sees the hurts under the surface that go much deeper. He stops immediately and asks, “Who touched me?” It sounds almost accusatory at first, but then we see that what he really wants is to meet this woman face-to-face so that she might be spiritually and emotionally, not just physically, healed.

At his question, the woman comes forward to kneel at Jesus’ feet, trembling with the fear of knowing she has wrongfully burdened Jesus with her ritual uncleanness. But something, perhaps the expression of genuine care in Jesus’ eyes, perhaps her long years of having no one to share a simple conversation with, makes her pour her heart out to him. She tells him her whole sad story, like he is the non-judgmental diary she never had. He listens patiently—more concerned with getting to know this woman than he is to continue his journey—and when she is finished, he does something more meaningful even than her physical healing. He says to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease” (v. 34). This woman with no family to speak of, no friends, no supporters, no advocates, and no money has now been declared a Daughter in the kingdom of God. She is as beloved to Jesus as the young girl is to Jairus. No longer the outcast with no one to support her, the woman has been welcomed into a family where she can finally belong and be loved.

What started with a simple touch, a stolen moment of connection, has turned into a relationship. In her desperation, the woman comes seeking an end to her illness but receives a healing that transforms not only her body but also her spirit. Where others looked and saw despair, Jesus sees the potential for new life. Where others looked past her as a faceless body in the crowd, Jesus looks into her eyes and sees a child of God. In their conversation that day, the woman is moved from despair to hope, from being a nobody to being a somebody. By giving her that brief touch, that listening ear, and the loving name of “Daughter,” Jesus has given the woman a whole new life. No, she was not about to die like Jairus’ daughter, but her life had lost all joy and all but the last glimmer of hope. Jesus restores that life that used to be—and more. In her newly healed body and her newly bestowed identity as “Daughter,” the woman can indeed go in peace to live a life of meaning and joy.

But what of Jairus’ daughter, who was so close to death? In the midst of Jesus’ conversation with the woman, messengers come with the news that the girl has already died. Jairus must have been heartbroken, and probably furious with Jesus for having stopped for so long to talk with this woman. What is Jesus to do now that he has failed? How can he respond when death has already taken claim on Jairus’ daughter’s life?

If he were anyone but God, he could do nothing. But Jesus is God—the God whose distinguishing characteristic is resurrection. The God whose love and power overflow so much that God brings life and hope out of the deepest brokenness and despair. Later, Jesus himself will suffer death on the cross and rise, resurrected, to demonstrate God’s ultimate victory over death. But on this day, when confronted with the premature death of a 12-year-old girl, he gives us a foretaste of that life-giving power. At the news that Jairus’ daughter has died, he responds, “Do not fear; only believe.” Another translation reads, “Don’t give up. Trust me.” Indeed, so often we find ourselves in predicaments where we see no way forward. Our calculations and reasoning tell us that hope is gone. But hope is never gone when we have a resurrecting God on our side.

In spite of the news of the girl’s death, Jesus perseveres. He goes to her, rebuking the paid mourners outside her house as he tells them that she is only sleeping. He approaches the bed of this dead child, and reaches out his hand to hers. Like in the case of the bleeding woman, one touch is enough. Suddenly alive and well, the girl stands up and walks around. The text doesn’t say this, but I imagine that she walked straight into the waiting arms of her parents to embrace each other in gratitude and joy. Life is restored once again.

In the stories of Jairus’ daughter and the bleeding woman, both healed and restored out of despair to new life, we see the resurrection power of our God on display. For the girl, her needs were solely physical; once she was healed, she could go back to being the beloved daughter of her well-off parents. For the woman, despite the magnitude and diversity of her needs, Jesus touched them all and gave her the chance to experience the abundance that life has to offer.

In our world today we see people in need, near and far. The needs are not always visible, as the bleeding woman’s story demonstrates, but they are all around us. In our community, nation, and world are people who need a healing touch. Some suffer from physical or mental ailments or the pain of grief, some have emotional wounds, and some long for a day when they don’t have to worry about how to afford their next meal.

It often takes an interruption to make visible the pain already around us. We’re so good at hiding it from everyone except perhaps our own diaries. Or we’re so concerned with our own struggles that we can’t see the suffering of the people we meet. Even for Jesus, the bleeding woman’s tragic situation would’ve gone unseen and unaddressed if it hadn’t been for her decision to interrupt his journey with a desperate touch.

I can’t help but feel as a United Methodist that the shooting at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston last week was that kind of an interruption for us. The AME denomination is part of our Methodist family and heritage, started by black Methodists in 1816 due to exclusionary practices by our predecessor Methodist Episcopal Church. It is but one of many sad examples of racism in our history as a denomination and as a country. Thankfully, violent extremists like this shooter are relatively rare. However, they are just a symptom of a larger and ever-present problem. Our cultural heritage of racial inequality has not yet left us, and people of color suffer every single day because of it in ways large and small. Here in South Dakota where our population is less diverse, that suffering can be harder to see. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. We live in a country where policies, systems, and attitudes produce unequal opportunities for and disproportionate aggression against our African American brothers and sisters—a huge portion of whom are part of our Christian family and need our loving support.

As I was reflecting on the story of the bleeding woman this past week, I believe it has two lessons for us today. First of all, in Jesus we have a savior whose healing power is deep—not limited by time constraints, feasibility, or eligibility. We see in this story how attentively and patiently he cares for this most unlikely recipient, healing and restoring her beyond her wildest hope. If he shows so much compassion for someone who comes from behind to steal his blessing without permission, we can rest assured that he will extend us grace when we but reach out to receive it, no matter how unworthy we feel.

Second, we see that sometimes the most important thing needed is a shoulder to lean on. Yes, the woman in the story needed to stop bleeding, but what she needed even more than that was the knowledge that she mattered to someone. You and I can, and should, do everything within our power to offer healing and hope to people in need, but we won’t be able to heal every ailment. Sometimes, the only thing we can do is listen, and care. And as powerless as that might make you feel, it makes a tremendous difference.

Like the woman who went from being an unloved nobody to a welcomed member of the family, like the people from “Mortified” who felt relieved after having read their embarrassing diary entries out loud to a crowd, people who are in pain can find enormous comfort in knowing they are not alone. So in those times when we wish we had Jesus’ miraculous healing power but don’t, we can still do something. We can offer our shoulders, our hands, our eyes, and our ears to those who feel like no one cares that they’re suffering. There are many people who need to feel that love and support—from as close as our family members or pews to as far as the other side of the globe—and it is our calling as followers of Christ to be those shoulders, hands, eyes, and ears to them.

And after the interruption of the tragedy in Charleston last week, we can see more clearly the pain being felt by our fellow Americans. And now that we see it, we must also reach out our hands to the black community. Like the bleeding woman, they have been in pain for years and years, with no one to listen to their cries and show them that they matter. Now, as we grieve alongside our black brothers and sisters for those nine precious lives that were lost at Mother Emanuel Church, we must do so with our eyes and ears open so that we can be a part of a greater healing. A national deliverance from racism that can only begin through our willingness to listen and to hear. To let our fellow Americans of color know that their lives do matter to us, that their grief is our grief. And that together we can move forward in the audacious and unending hope that comes only through our God of resurrection. Amen.

Artwork by Sharon Geiser, from scholia.net

Artwork by Sharon Geiser, from scholia.net

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“Who is My Neighbor?” sermon

This weekend, I had the privilege of planning and leading a Saturday Bible study and Sunday worship service focused on immigrants and refugees. Since I seem to be preaching just once or twice a year, I thought I’d share my sermon here for those who are interested. The text for the sermon is the famous story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37).

If you’d prefer to watch the video version, you can do that here (start at 3:20 to skip the pastor’s video greeting). Or you can read the text version below.

I don’t normally open sermons with a joke, but I’m going to try one this time, so bear with me. Three women were interviewing with NASA for the chance to travel to another planet. The interviewers called in the first candidate, a brunette, and asked her which planet she would like to go to and why. After pondering for a moment, the brunette said she would choose Mars because she wanted to explore the possibility of extraterrestrial life on another planet. When it came time for the next candidate, a redhead, to be interviewed, they asked her the same question: “Which planet would you like to go to and why?” After a short pause, the redhead answered that she would like to travel to Saturn because she’d always been fascinated by its rings and wanted to study their chemical makeup. When her interview was over, the interviewers called in the third and final candidate, a woman with black hair. When they asked the black-haired woman which planet she wanted to go to, she thought for a minute before saying, “The sun!” Stunned, the interviewers replied, “Why would you want to go there? You’d burn to death!” Shaking her head at them, the black-haired woman answered, “No problem. I’d go at night!”

Now, this joke has nothing to do with refugees and—at least as far as I can see—no real lesson to teach us about God. However, it does give us a little taste of what it might have been like to be one of the original listeners hearing Jesus tell the parable of the Good Samaritan from our text this morning. As you were listening to me tell the joke, who did you expect the third candidate to be? Most likely, you assumed that she would be a blonde, since we’re used to hearing jokes about a blonde, a brunette, and a redhead. And the original form of the joke was indeed written featuring a blonde. I would imagine it startled you a little bit when you heard that the third woman actually had black hair, since that’s not a typical joke character. When you’re expecting something formulaic, like a blonde joke, and the formula gets changed, you notice. And I think Jesus intentionally used this fact to get his listeners’ attention in our passage for today.

Because that’s how listeners would’ve felt when they heard Jesus telling the story of the Good Samaritan. You see, it was customary in Jewish storytelling of that time to tell somewhat formulaic stories, in which you would have 3 characters: a priest, a Levite, and an ordinary Israelite. Priests and Levites were the elite of Jewish society with their high-ranking jobs at the temple, so non-elite ordinary Israelites would naturally express occasional jealousy or resentment towards them through jokes and stories. The endings of these stories would always show the ordinary Israelite in a good light at the expense of the priest and Levite, letting the non-elite listeners feel good about themselves.

As the story of the Good Samaritan begins, it seems to perfectly fit the pattern of these stories. We hear of the plight of an unnamed man who is accosted by robbers along the road. Not only do the robbers steal everything the man has, but they take all of his clothes and beat him nearly to death. When they leave, he is lying naked and injured on the side of the road, with no one there to help him. But then a priest comes along—a religious professional—someone who can tend to this man’s wounds and keep him from bleeding to death. Except that the priest crosses to the other side of the road to avoid going near the injured man. And then another religious professional—a Levite—walks by. Again, our hopes are raised that maybe the man will get help, only to see once again that the passerby chooses to ignore the man’s situation and walk by on the other side of the road. By this point in the story, Israelite listeners would’ve been able to predict how the story would end. After the self-absorbed religious elites walked by without offering aid to this man, an ordinary Israelite would come, see the man in trouble, and choose to help him. Or at least, that’s what they thought would happen.

Instead, though, it is not an ordinary Israelite who saves the day. In fact, it is the least likely person an Israelite could have expected: a Samaritan. It’s hard for us to fully comprehend how much Jews and Samaritans hated each other at that time, since this famous story of the Good Samaritan has prompted countless churches, charities, and hospitals to include “Samaritan” in their name. We think of being a good person as synonymous with being a Good Samaritan. But in Jesus’ time, this couldn’t be further from the truth. Jews and Samaritans were bitter rivals to the point of being enemies. The people known as Samaritans were actually originally Jews themselves—they were the residents of the northern kingdom of Israel when the formerly united monarchy split into separate northern and southern kingdoms. After the split, these two groups grew further apart, with the Jews in the south blaming the northerners for all the bad things that happened to them. Because of this longstanding hostility, it was common for Jews in Jesus’ day to refuse to even speak to Samaritans, let alone touch them. They were seen as dirty at best, or malicious at worst.

And yet, here it is a Samaritan—not a Jew—who comes to the aid of this injured man. It is a foreigner, an outsider, an enemy, who has the compassion to help someone he does not know. While the injured man is unidentified in the story, the fact that he is traveling on the Jericho road makes it highly likely that he is a Jew. Under normal circumstances—that is, had he not been beaten unconscious—this man would probably have avoided all contact with Samaritans. But here he is, in his time of greatest need, and this Samaritan traveler, though aware of their differences, decides to give of his time and his resources anyway to provide the aid the injured man needs.

The fact that the hero in this story is a Samaritan rather than an Israelite is the most conspicuous way in which Jesus subverts expectations in this passage, but it is not the only one. Jesus is famous for his overturning of societal expectations, and this passage is full of examples. In fact, the entire story of the Good Samaritan is itself a reversal. The very beginning of this passage shows Jesus being confronted by a lawyer or legal expert—that is, a man well-versed in the Hebrew Scriptures. The lawyer wants to test Jesus; he wants to trick Jesus into making some mistake, thereby proving his own superiority. But unfortunately for this lawyer, Jesus cannot be tricked so easily. Jesus parries each of the lawyer’s questions with a question of his own, not allowing the lawyer any chance to “win” the confrontation.

So after Jesus has agreed with the lawyer’s assertion that the core of the Law is to love God with your whole heart, soul, mind, and strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself, the lawyer makes one last attempt to stump Jesus. He asks, “And who is my neighbor?” While the lawyer’s motives to ask it are questionable, this is actually a reasonable question. After all, it’s impossible for us to personally love or help every single person in the world, so we have to draw the line somewhere, right? Are our neighbors just the people in our families? On our street? In our city? In our state? In our country? What about fellow Christians in other countries? Or what about children dying of malnutrition and preventable diseases in other countries? The list could go on forever, and it’s a difficult question to answer. The lawyer knows this, and he is expecting this question to provide the verbal victory he so desperately desires.

But again, the lawyer does not get what he wants. Jesus answers the question of “Who is my neighbor?” using a story. And not only does he answer through a story, but the story actually changes the question. You see, even though the story is named after the unlikely hero, the Good Samaritan, it is not actually a story about the Samaritan at all. It is a story about the victim. The whole story is told from the perspective of the injured man, even though we don’t know his name. In choosing to structure the story this way, Jesus is making a statement about what it means to be a neighbor.

When you ask the question, “Who is my neighbor?”, Jesus is saying that it shouldn’t be about learning which person in need you should help. The better question to ask, as Jesus asks at the end of our story, is “Which of these potential helpers was a neighbor?” In other words, neighbors are people who show mercy. People who help those in need. The real neighbor is the one who offers help, not the one who needs the help. The identity of the person in need is actually completely irrelevant, as we can see in the fact that Jesus gives no identifying details for the injured man in the story. So we should not be asking ourselves which people are deserving of our help; we should be asking ourselves how we can be neighbors to anyone and everyone who is in need of our care.

The beauty in this perspective is twofold. First of all, it tears down the boundaries we human beings like to place around ourselves. It doesn’t allow us to draw a line between “us” and “them” that excludes some people from being included among our neighbors. As we can see in the fact that the person in need and the neighborly caregiver in this story come from opposing groups, human categories do not matter when it comes to neighborly love. Instead, the God whom Jesus shows us is a God of all people, who has compassion on every single person and shows mercy to everyone in need. The God whose love we share with our neighbors is too great, and too overflowing with love, to let imperfect human categories like nationality or ethnicity stand in the way of compassion.

The second reason I see so much beauty in this perspective is this: it encourages us not to distinguish so much between the server and the one being served. If a neighbor is a person who shows mercy, then loving our neighbors means showing mercy to those who themselves also show mercy. Neighbors are not passive recipients of other people’s help. Neighbors are people who care for one another out of their own unique skills and resources. Neighborly love is reciprocal. As we see at the beginning of this passage, love of God and love of neighbor are intertwined. The two core commandments of the Law are to love God and love our neighbors. So our love for our neighbors is a reflection of the love of God. Our very capacity to love and show mercy comes from God, and we should not use our acts of compassion to feel superior. Rather, seeing one another as neighbors helps us to recognize the gifts and mercy that all of us can contribute. Sometimes we’re the ones offering aid, but sometimes we’re the ones in need of aid. Together with our neighbors, we can share in the mercy of God, spreading God’s love to every place in which it is needed.

So on the one hand, Jesus’ reversal of the question from “Who is my neighbor?” to, essentially, “How can I be a neighbor?” reframes the conversation about neighborly love in a way that helps us better realize our own potential as neighbors. But on the other hand, the difficulty is that he never actually answers the lawyer’s question. We still have no concrete answer as to which people in need we should help and which we can pass by. The story of the Good Samaritan teaches us to love our neighbors by showing mercy to anyone in need, no matter who they are. But this leaves us with the tough decision of trying to discern how we should best use our own gifts, talents, and resources to reach out to those in need—since there are far more people in need, and far more kinds of needs in the world, than any one person or even one congregation can address. And that’s okay. He doesn’t say so in the passage, but I believe that Jesus is leaving this command open to some interpretation. That is, love of neighbor will look different for each person. We each have different gifts to offer, and we’re each filled with passions for different types of ministries. Through study, prayer, worship, and Christian community, we can discover ways to direct our gifts and passions toward the most appropriate ministries, seeking to spread mercy and love to those whom each one of us is best suited to reach. Our individual ways of loving our neighbors will differ, but we all share in the fact that God’s love inspires us to be neighbors who show mercy to those in need of help.

And this brings us to the issue of refugees and immigrants. As I’ve already suggested, if you have your eyes open for it, you will find people in need of compassion everywhere you look. But I want to specifically lift up refugees and immigrants today because they are people who are too often overlooked. The fact that many of them arrive speaking little to no English means that native-born Americans like most of us rarely interact with them. Add to that the fact that they have different customs, eat different food, dress and look different, and sometimes live in isolated neighborhoods, and we have entire groups of potential neighbors that we neither know nor really care about.

In our Bible Study yesterday, we explored some of the Bible’s teachings about immigrants and refugees. We learned that some of the most famous Bible characters were themselves immigrants and refugees, including Abraham, Moses, and even Jesus. We learned that God specifically commands the Hebrew people to treat immigrants well, to welcome strangers, and not to oppress foreigners. In Jesus’ famous parable of the sheep and the goats, we saw that welcoming the stranger is listed alongside feeding the hungry, caring for the sick, and clothing the naked as a way of reaching out to Jesus himself in the form of the “least of these.” While reaching out to refugees and immigrants is not the only way to love our neighbors, it is clear from the Biblical witness that it is one we must not ignore.

In case you’re wondering, an immigrant is someone who moves to another country to seek a better life. Many of us, including myself, are descended from immigrants who arrived here many years ago. A refugee is like an immigrant, except that refugees are forced to leave their home country due to persecution. While most immigrants can take some time to plan their trip, refugees often have to flee their homes with no advance notice. Immigrants can—at least in theory—return to their country of origin to visit or even move back, but refugees face persecution and likely death if they attempt to return home. Immigrants’ and refugees’ journeys to this country differ, but both groups of people face enormous challenges as they attempt to pay for the journey, learn English, adjust to American society, find housing, and look for work.

The plight of the injured man in the story of the Good Samaritan is reminiscent of the plight of a refugee. This man is simply living his life, going about his business as he walks along the road in the middle of the day. All of a sudden, though, the man finds himself targeted by a group of people who attack and rob him. In short minutes, the man has gone from a productive member of society to someone whose life is in danger and who desperately needs help.

Similarly, the people we know of as refugees don’t start out as refugees. They used to be ordinary people, living their lives in countries they loved and considered their home. But then something changed. Oftentimes, it was a civil war that brought about violence and created divisions among people who used to coexist peacefully. Neighbors started to fight neighbors, and identities that didn’t used to matter—like what ethnic group or religion a person belonged to—suddenly were a matter of life and death. Members of certain ethnic groups, religions, or political parties were no longer safe in their own country and had to flee. Wars like this have produced refugees from many different countries including Somalia, Rwanda, and Laos. In other cases, the persecution was less overt but no less significant. I’ve worked with large numbers of Bhutanese Nepali refugees in Chicago and Sioux Falls who were forced out of their home country of Bhutan when the government suddenly refused to recognize their citizenship and civil rights simply because they have Nepali ancestry.

Once they’ve escaped the borders of their home country, refugees often spend years, or decades, in refugee camps in neighboring countries. There, they subsist largely on food rations, living in crowded and dismal conditions, since they’re not allowed to leave the fenced-in camps to find work. In rare circumstances, the crisis that caused them to flee subsides and they may return home. But in many cases, refugees stay in the camps indefinitely or are eventually resettled in a new country altogether, like the United States.

While resettlement in the U.S. offers work and education opportunities far beyond those of refugee camps, it is still a grueling process. Refugees undergo a long and intense series of interviews, must take out loans to pay for their plane tickets to America, and find themselves placed in a country whose language, customs, infrastructure, and climate are infinitely different from anything they’ve experienced before. They may not be physically injured like the man in our passage, but the task of adjusting to this new country is too great for them to accomplish without the support of others.

As Christians, we are called to be neighbors to those around us, and that includes refugees and immigrants. We, as native-born Americans, are perfectly equipped to be a resource for people like these refugees who arrive in our country—and here in Mankato—needing support. We’re already experts in the English language and in American culture and society. We understand how to shop for groceries, how to navigate Mankato’s streets, and how the public school system works. As simple as these skills may sound at first, they are all completely new to most refugees. How will they learn these skills if no one bothers to teach them? There are already numerous organizations here in Mankato and around the country offering a variety of supports to refugees, from help with housing and basic food needs, to English classes, to guidance in the job search process. The major refugee-oriented organization here in Mankato is the Minnesota Council of Churches. One of their staff will be presenting to us this morning after our potluck. I hope you will stay for her presentation and think about ways that you might want to get connected to that organization. There are also pamphlets outside the sanctuary detailing several other ways you can reach out to the immigrants and refugees in the Mankato area, from becoming an English tutor to donating sewing supplies.

The refugees and immigrants in our communities represent the stranger Jesus calls us to welcome. They represent the injured man on the road, whom many elite people have passed by without a second glance. Whether it’s in a small act of giving a donation or a larger commitment like becoming a tutor or mentor of a refugee, we can all do our own small part in extending Christ-like hospitality to those around us whom society often excludes.

In all of this, though, let’s not forget why we care in the first place. Jesus teaches us to love our neighbors—to show mercy to those in need—irrespective of nationality, ethnicity, or any other category we might use to divide people. The fact is that we are all children of God, created in many colors, with many languages, and with a beautiful diversity of cultures. When we decide to act in love as neighbors to immigrants and refugees, we are not only following in the footsteps of the Good Samaritan. We are also opening ourselves up to the mutual relationships that come from becoming true neighbors with the people around us. We can use our gifts and resources to provide much-needed aid to our newly arrived neighbors, but in the process we help to build new relationships that bless us as well.

In my year of working in an adult ESL classroom with refugees and immigrants, my refugee students inspired me daily with their work ethic, their deep love of family, and their joyful generosity to one another and to myself. It is my hope and prayer that the Hilltop family can grow to include our brothers and sisters of other nationalities and backgrounds. We are all God’s children, diverse yet all beloved. If we can reach out in love, acceptance, and friendship to those who are different from us, I firmly believe that we will experience joys and wonders—as well as struggles—that will help us to grow as people, as neighbors, and as followers of Christ. May we be moved by God’s love in our hearts to see Christ’s face in our neighbors, and to live out his call to show mercy to all those in need.

Amen.

 

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Catholic Spirit (contemporary version of John Wesley’s 1750 sermon)

Preface: I wrote this sermon for a (fantastic) seminary class focusing on early Methodism in which we traveled to Philadelphia in the summer of 2012. I’m posting it here now because a.) this message is ALWAYS relevant and b.) my church has been studying Wesley’s original version of the sermon and I thought they might appreciate a more contemporary retelling of it.

Biblical Text: Jehu departed from there and encountered Rechab’s son Jehonadab. Jehu greeted him, and asked, “Are you as committed to me as I am to you?” Jehonadab replied, “Yes, I am.” “If so,” said Jehu, “then give me your hand.” So Jehonadab put out his hand and Jehu pulled him up into the chariot. (2 Kings 10:15, CEB)

This week we’ve all been blessed to be surrounded by fellow Methodists and immersed in Wesley’s theology. We’ve been in a happy Wesleyan bubble, without having to think too much about other Christian denominations or groups. And that’s nice. But chances are, you’ll have to face some non-Wesleyans at some point during your life and ministry. And you might even have to deal with people who believe in Predestination! Whether they’re Predestinarians or not, the fact is that the world is full of a lot of different kinds of Christians, and we don’t always get along so well. An outside observer might see some of our conflicts and assume we were mortal enemies, with the way we sometimes talk to—and about—each other.

Enemies. Hmm… I feel like Jesus said something important about enemies. Right… he said that we are to “Love our enemies.” Whoops.

It seems that this particular exhortation is, to put it mildly, difficult. I can’t speak for everyone, but personally, I have a hard time loving my enemies. Especially if they’re my ideological or theological opponents. I guess it’s a result of being a religious person: I take my beliefs seriously. So, naturally, I hate to see them threatened—even if the threat is all in my imagination. And I am so distracted by some of these differences in opinion that I forget that the person I disagree with is a fellow disciple of Jesus Christ. Or, even worse, I forget that the other person is a child of God.

My guess is that you might also struggle with this kind of feeling at times. It’s a problem Christians have been having as long as anyone can remember. Different individuals, sects, churches, and denominations butting heads as if there’s nothing more pressing in the entire world than proving each other’s beliefs to be wrong. Why is it that we Christians, the ones who are called to love all people—even our enemies—can’t even love one another? Are we not called to be one body in Christ? How can we get past our differences in order to strengthen, rather than tear apart, this precious body?

Well, to start with, we all could use a little reality check. It turns out that we’re all fallible. (No way!) As convinced as we might be that all of our opinions are correct, I promise you that they’re not. We don’t all believe exactly the same things. We all have different life experiences and different ways of processing information, so we come to different conclusions. We just can’t all be right, all the time. Each of us is most likely correct in most of our opinions, but not all of them. The problem is that we don’t know which ones are wrong. That’s just life. And that’s okay. We’re all in the same boat. It’s okay as long as we remember that this is the boat we’re in. We’re a bunch of fallible people, all doing our best to know God as well as we can. We have yet to reach perfection. So we should give each other the same room for intellectual freedom that we want for ourselves. Diversity of opinions is inevitable, so the question becomes, how can we deal with that diversity?

One way to deal with it is to insulate ourselves from one another and avoid those people whose beliefs differ from our own. That way, we can do things the way we like. We can propagate the theology we like. We can worship in the style we like. The problem, though, is that the more we only spend time with people like us, the more we start to look down on the people who aren’t in our group. Even if it’s subconscious and unintentional. We get so used to one view of the world, and never get challenged in it, that we lose touch with reality. We forget that we’re fallible! We obviously don’t forget that other people are fallible, but in this type of separatist Christianity, we start to view every single one of our beliefs as absolute, unquestionable truth. Even though our beliefs are always questionable. While we’re on this earth, “we know in part” (1 Cor 13:9, 12) as Paul reminds us. We will not know fully until the New Creation.

But, even so, what we do believe in this life is not meaningless. We shouldn’t head straight for the opposite extreme and just give up on believing anything. Our beliefs about God shape our relationship with God and others. They shape our faith. They shape how we see our place in the world around us. We can still believe what we believe, but we must always temper it with the knowledge that we might be wrong. And here, we find some middle ground.

The conversation that Jehu has with Jehonadab in this verse from 2 Kings can provide a model for how this middle ground should look. In the story, Jehu meets a man named Jehonadab while traveling on a mission. Jehonadab is not a Hebrew like Jehu, but Jehu isn’t concerned with Jehonadab’s belief system. Instead, he simply asks, “Are you as committed to me as I am to you?” In other words, “Is your heart in the right place?” And when Jehonadab responds in the affirmative, Jehu says something truly worth remembering: “If so, then give me your hand.” He takes Jehonadab’s hand, and pulls him into the chariot. Despite the different beliefs these two men have, they can join hands and work together.

These two questions, “Is your heart in the right place?” and “If so, then give me your hand,” are the key to achieving Christian unity. They may not have been intended that way in the original context of the story, but they model the two steps necessary to our coming together despite our differences. The idea is not to dwell on our differences, but to pay attention to the things that truly matter. Opinions change, but God is constant. And after all, God is the reason we are Christians! God created and chose us. God dwells within us by the power of the Holy Spirit.

The body of Christ is not some human-made club to join if you fit a certain list of criteria. The body of Christ is much greater than any club. It encompasses every Christian, throughout time. The common criterion here is not a specific doctrine or way of worshipping. The common criterion is a relationship with God in Jesus Christ.

So instead of judging one another based on our own criteria of right doctrine or practice, we ought to emulate Jehu from the text. Don’t ask, “What is your theological stance?” Instead, ask, “Is your heart in the right place?” And as for what exactly that means, “Is your heart in the right place?” means:

  • Are you in relationship with God?
  • Do you believe in the Lord Jesus Christ?
  • Do you love God?
  • Do you love your neighbor, including your enemy?
  • Do you seek to show your love by your works?

These are the core aspects of being Christian, qualities that we all have in common. We may not be perfect at any of them, but these are the things that ought to distinguish us all as followers of Christ. We clearly disagree on other issues, from church structure to the definition of Trinity to what exactly happens during Communion. But what’s more important: that we all come to theological agreement, or that we work together as Christians to live out God’s will in the world? I’m convinced it’s the latter. It’s more important that we share the good news of Jesus Christ with those around us, and minister to the needs of the poor and downtrodden. That we build up young people who are strong in faith and committed to working for justice in the world. That we create a community of love and respect where people can feel the love of God reflected in their midst. This is the work of the church. This is what the body of Christ is called to do.

And to do that, we must put aside those doctrinal questions while we focus on the more pressing issue: Are we brothers and sisters in Christ? Do we share a love of God and love of neighbor? Are we followers of Jesus Christ?

Yes, my friends. We are. And so are countless others both inside and outside the United Methodist Church. The body of Christ is expansive, and therein lies its beauty and its strength. Beauty in its many forms of expression. And strength in its ability to connect all kinds of people together into one community. The people in the body of Christ don’t all believe or practice exactly the same things, but they have in common the most important thing—a God whose radiating love brings together diverse people into a beautiful mosaic.

So, once we have asked, “Is your heart in the right place?” and discovered that the other person is indeed a follower of Christ, there’s just one more thing to say: “Then give me your hand.” Let us work together, putting all differences of opinion aside. Let’s join hands, putting all labels aside. These differences don’t matter in light of Jesus Christ. More specifically, in light of who we are called to be as the Church of Jesus Christ. We’re called to spread the good news throughout the earth, to bring peace and healing to all people! How can we do that unless people of ALL kinds participate? We need each other. None of us can do this holy work alone.

Now. I realize that it’s easier said than done. Our differences will surely pop up now and then. Our specific beliefs will sometimes dictate how we approach ministry. Our worship preferences will make worshipping together more challenging. But as fellow members of the body of Christ, we can, and must, stay united anyway.

“Give me your hand,” doesn’t mean you have to change your beliefs. Nor does it mean the other person has to change their beliefs. “Give me your hand,” means that we all can trust God to work in and through one another despite our failings and our disagreement. Isn’t that what God has been doing all along, anyway? I seem to recall the phrase, “Prevenient Grace,” being thrown around here and there. God is the one who invited us, as flawed individuals, into the body of Christ, and God is the source of the love we have for one another. In times of difficulty, we need to turn to God in faith rather than turning to each other in anger.

Of course, sometimes our different opinions can really bother us. And that’s okay… as long as we don’t decide to take it into our own hands. We are called to love one another patiently, as God loves us. We can pray for one another and encourage one another in Christian discipleship, but we must not force other people to change. No one appreciates being forced to do anything. Just as God is not coercive in God’s transforming and perfecting work in our own lives, we must not be coercive in our interactions with our sisters and brothers in Christ. God isn’t done working in us, or in others. We are all in the same boat, remember? So if we approach others with love and humility, we make it easier for the Holy Spirit to work in all of us to bring us closer to perfection. If we do this, then we have what Wesley calls “catholic spirit.”

Rather than being indifference to what we believe or how we practice our faith, catholic spirit is a God-given gift of love that transcends human limitations. Catholic spirit is the overflowing of Christian love that goes beyond our own congregation or theological group and extends to all of humankind. Specifically, a person with catholic spirit looks upon all other Christians as brothers and sisters in Christ. This attitude is embodied by those questions we learned from Jehu in the scripture: “Is your heart in the right place?” followed by, “If so, then give me your hand.” And once we all join hands, who knows where God will take us.

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The Call You Can’t Resist

Sermon delivered on January 26, 2014  (Video version here)
Text:  Matthew 24:12-23

Exactly six years ago, when I was a sophomore at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, I was in my final week of a J-term internship at a church down in Florida.  As the culmination of my work there over the month of January, I got to preach the sermon that Sunday.  It was my very first time ever preaching.  The text assigned to that week in the Revised Common Lectionary, a three-year cycle of texts that many churches use to determine each week’s readings, was the story of the call of the disciples from Matthew 4.  At the time, I preached something about following God’s call even when you don’t know where it will lead.  I figured that my experience as a pastor’s kid, moving every 3 to 5 years growing up, gave me a pretty good idea of what this “following” business looked like.

But that was only the beginning.  Here I am, six years later—almost to the day—and I’m preaching on that same exact text from Matthew.  The lectionary cycle just happened to line up that way for me, and I’ll take that as a sign that my own story has something to do with this passage.

In this text, Jesus approaches two sets of brothers along the Sea of Galilee.  First, he comes to Simon and Andrew, who are busily casting their fishing nets into the sea.  Both of them are fishermen, so this is something they’ve done for long hours each day, day after day, for years.  They cast their nets, wait for fish, pull in the nets, collect the fish, mend the nets when they rip, and repeat.  And repeat.  And repeat.  They could do this half-asleep—and for all we know, they do sometimes.  Simon and Andrew have no idea that this ordinary day with its ordinary work is about to get turned upside-down.

Along comes Jesus.  As we read earlier in the text, he’s new to the area.  When he heard about John the Baptist’s recent arrest, he left his home in Nazareth and has just settled in Capernaum, a city on the Sea of Galilee.  Therefore, it is unlikely that Simon and Andrew, who live in Capernaum, have ever met or seen him before this moment.  In spite of this, though, Jesus approaches them and—out of nowhere—calls out to them.  “Come, follow me,” he says, “and I’ll show you how to fish for people” (v. 19).

I don’t know about you, but if someone I didn’t know came up to me with such an odd proposition, I would most likely turn the other way and pretend I hadn’t heard.  Fish for people?  Why?  What does that even mean?  Also, who are you and why are you talking to me?

But that’s not what happens.  At all.  Instead of politely declining (or rudely declining) the offer, and instead of asking some clarifying questions before getting off the boat, Simon and Andrew drop everything and follow Jesus.  Immediately.  No questions asked!  It’s truly miraculous.  One could argue that this is Jesus’ very first miracle, at least in Matthew’s gospel.

But I, for one, still have questions.  Why did they follow so quickly?  Was it something Jesus said?  Or was it something about Jesus himself that was so irresistible?  Or was it something else?

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about these questions, and here’s what I think.  I think that they followed because they felt something in that moment that they had never felt before.  In the version of this story that appears in John, Jesus gives Simon a new name, Peter, the instant he meets him (John 1:42).  Even though this renaming does not appear explicitly in Matthew’s version of the event, I think it helps to explain what is happening.  At the beginning of the story, Simon and Andrew know who they are:  they’re Simon and Andrew, two fishermen.  It is a fine identity, and they are relatively content in their routines and labor.  But Jesus’ brief invitation to them changes everything.  He offers them the chance to be something other than fishermen—the chance to be fishers for people, the chance to be his disciples!  For Simon, this also involved a new name—Peter—but even for Andrew, this moment was the beginning of his own new identity.

I believe that this invitation, this call, was transformative.  These few brief words opened Simon and Andrew’s eyes to see a whole new life, a life in which they were no longer fisherman, but something more.  It’s not that being a fisherman was a bad thing or that they didn’t like it, but this new call offered them an identity that fit them better than they could have ever imagined.  It pulled together their life experiences in a way that spoke to them in their inmost being.  Deep inside, they knew—immediately—that this was right.  This was who they were.  And there was no use in resisting it, because it was exactly what they were meant to be.

I can’t say that I’ve had a call experience quite this dramatic, although I know that some people have.  But I have felt that pull inside of me that told me who I was, so powerfully that I just knew it was right.  I’ve had this experience twice, actually.

The first time was the summer after I graduated from college.  My husband and I were out to dinner with his parents one night at a Mexican restaurant in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.  We were both already enrolled at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary and would be starting there in September.  During dinner that night, I was talking about how I’ve always loved teaching but could never decide on what kind of a teacher I wanted to be.  I have always loved school and basically always wanted to teach whatever grade I was in at the time—up to and including college.  So that’s a lot of options—and that doesn’t even include deciding on which subject I wanted to teach.  Up to that point, I’d kind of assumed I would eventually fall into some kind of teaching position, but no one type of teaching in particular had ever quite felt like the right fit.

That night, though, one offhand comment from my mother-in-law opened my eyes to a whole new vision of my life.  As a music teacher, my mother-in-law has an insider view of the school system, and she mentioned that because of the growing immigrant population, there is a high demand for English as a Second Language teachers.  As soon as she said this, something clicked inside of me.   I had never considered teaching ESL before, probably because it wasn’t a type of class I ever had to take in my own schooling.  But now that the idea was in front of me, I knew it was where I needed to go.  Everything about it fit—my enjoyment of grammar, my preference for small-group teaching, my own experiences learning other languages, and the sense that I would be making a huge difference in my students’ lives.  As a bonus, an ESL teaching license in Minnesota is K through 12, so I don’t have to restrict myself to just one age group!

There was just one problem:  I didn’t have a teaching degree.  And, in fact, I was about to embark on a three-year seminary education that would also not get me a teaching degree.  Not that I wasn’t also excited about seminary, but an outsider looking at my intended career and current degree program would think I was crazy.  But something about seminary was too enticing for me to change my plans.  Even besides the logistics of what it would look like to withdraw from one program and apply for another, I could feel myself being drawn to seminary by the promise of growing closer to God and learning more about my faith.  Which, by the way, is a perfectly good reason to attend seminary.  In my experience, it was more than worth it!

So, I went on to seminary, trusting God that my time spent there would be worth it in terms of personal growth even though it had nothing to do with my intended career.  But then, as I was nearing the end of my first year there, I began to feel that deep pull inside me again.  People around me kept telling me that my call to teaching sounded like a deacon’s work.  I would brush off these comments, not really knowing what a deacon was and not wanting the pressure of anything to do with ordination.  During college, I had begun the candidacy process as an inquirer but had dropped out when it became clear to me that I did not have the passions or skill set to be an elder, that is, a pastor.  Ever since that time, I had been very adamant in my belief that I was going to remain a layperson, even if I was a seminary-educated layperson.

But the comments kept coming.  From multiple people…including Dr. Margaret Ann Crain, who is basically the expert on the United Methodist order of deacon.  It got harder and harder to ignore this feeling that maybe they were right, and I was wrong.  And the more I learned about deacons, the more my gut would tell me that this who I am.  A deacon.  I’m still not ordained, or even commissioned yet, but my own identity has already changed.  I now see myself as living out the call of deacon—someone who is called to bridge the church and the world.  Someone who is called to preach and teach God’s Word, and who works to lead and equip other Christians to use their own gifts to love and serve those around them.  And someone who has a special eye out for where the compassion of the church can be at work bringing God’s justice to the world.  My own particular call to deacon is through teaching ESL and being a bridge between the immigrant community and the church community.

As I was learning about the ministry of deacons, this identity of “deacon” branded itself onto me, and onto what I had previously seen as my calling to be an ESL teacher.  Now, these two identities, deacon and ESL teacher, have come together inside of me so powerfully that I can no longer see myself any differently—even though I haven’t technically become either of those yet.  Now that I’m done with seminary, I am taking the final step necessary to live out my call.  I am currently working on my ESL teaching license through the University here in Mankato.  By 2015, I should be both receiving my teaching license and getting commissioned as a deacon in the United Methodist Church.  Thanks be to God.

This change in my self-awareness and identity also changed how the world around me looked.  With this call, I have direction.  With this call, I see more clearly how my life relates to the lives of others.  With this call, my whole life is grounded in a relationship with God, my Creator.  My own experiences of feeling God call me and, essentially, rename me—first as “ESL teacher” and then as “deacon ESL teacher”—were incredibly transformative.

I believe that Peter and Andrew felt this, too.  Their brief interaction with Jesus alongside the Sea of Galilee radically changed how they saw the world.  Before, the only part of the world that concerned them was their own city of Capernaum and specifically the area along the lakeshore.  But now, Jesus invites them to see the world as God sees it—large, diverse, and full of potential.  Jesus calls them to leave the lakeshore behind and journey with him into the unknown.  The unknown is always a little bit scary, or at least uncomfortable.  But Peter and Andrew follow willingly.  Why?  Because what they don’t know—the details of where they’ll be going or what they’ll be doing—is vastly outweighed by what they do know.  And what they do know is this:  that, miraculously, this man Jesus knows them better than they know themselves and is offering to lead them forward into the life they were really meant to live.  Jesus is offering them a new life grounded in the transformational power of a relationship with him.

We can also see this reflected in the core of Jesus’ message that he has begun to preach:  “Change your hearts and lives!  Here comes the kingdom of heaven!” (v. 17).  This is not a passive message.  Jesus is preaching a message of transformation.  Not only is our world being transformed—with God’s kingdom breaking in here on earth as it is in heaven—but we, too, can be transformed, through our relationship with God.  God is offering us that same transformative call that Jesus gave to the disciples by the lakeshore.  “Come, follow me.  Come with me and I will show you who you are truly meant to be.”

Last week, Fred talked about what it’s like to hear God’s voice.  When God speaks to us, it is weighty.  God speaks with authority.  Like Fred said, God is the author of our life, so God’s voice is like none other.  This weightiness, this authority, is what I was feeling inside me those times when I felt God’s call showing me who I am.  Jesus spoke with that same authority when he called Peter and Andrew away from their boat, leading them forward into a life of ministry together with him.  Whether they heard it in his words or his voice, or whether they—like me—felt it in their gut, they could tell that this Jesus was speaking with the authority of more than just a human voice; he was speaking with the voice of God.  And when you can hear that it is God’s voice that is calling you, it’s not a call you can resist.

Oh, but we try to resist.  I think that Peter and Andrew’s story still sounds a little too neat-and-tidy for most of us, with our messy and complicated lives.  After all, they did have Jesus Christ, in the flesh, standing in front of them.  For the rest of us, though, even when we hear the voice of God calling us, we try to resist.  As I mentioned in my own story, for a long time I adamantly refused to believe that I might be called to the order of deacon.  It was not the future I had planned or the future I wanted, so I did my best to push it aside.  I met lots of people at seminary who had felt called to ministry years and years earlier but kept pushing God aside and taking their lives in other directions.  But, try as we might, we could not resist forever.  I gave in after a few months, while some of my friends waited decades.  But God’s call did not stop nor weaken in that time.  It only grew stronger.  Because God knows us better than we know ourselves.  God knows us from our days in the womb, God knows us throughout our lives, and God knows our thoughts and feelings before we even sense them ourselves.  So when God speaks to you, whether it’s inside your heart or through the mouth of someone else, it’s to YOU.  With all your quirks, all your skills, all your questions, and all your experiences already taken into account.  And the name that God calls you, or the call God invites you into, will fit you better than you could have ever chosen on your own.

In some cases, your call will be to a particular job or career path, but that is not always true.  Just like God is too big to ever be fully described in human language, God’s call on our lives is too personal and too nuanced to fit into human categories of vocation.  Each person’s call is uniquely different, tailored specifically to that person’s passions, skills, and experiences.  I’ve already told you about my call to become a deacon ESL teacher.  Peter and Andrew were called to be Jesus’ disciples, spreading the message of the coming kingdom of God.  Your call is as personal as you are.  Some are called to parenting, some to other forms of caregiving and friendship, some to community leadership, some to artistic expression, and some to research and discovery.  The list goes on and on, with all our different calls coming together to create an infinitely complex and wonderfully beautiful tapestry.  It is through the interweaving of all of these amazing calls that the kingdom of God comes to life here on earth.  The reason our calls are so irresistible, when we hear them, is that they offer us an opportunity like none other.  Not only do they show us who we are meant to be, but they give us the chance to ourselves be a part of God’s work in the world.  No work could be more meaningful than actually getting to participate in the coming of the kingdom of God.  Talk about making a difference that will last!  But not only can we participate in this amazing work and experience God’s power firsthand; we each get to participate in our very own special way, as if we’re each a puzzle piece that no other piece can replace.

This is the good news of this passage from Matthew.  Jesus is calling every one of us into a new life that is more meaningful and more amazing than we can imagine!  It’s not a cookie-cutter life; it will look different for every one of us.  But what we all have in common is that Jesus is the one calling, and that God will be with us every step of the way.

If you already know you’ve heard Jesus’ call in your life, I’m so glad.  You may already be on that journey with Jesus into new life.  Or you may be hesitant, not yet ready to take the leap out of what you’re used to and into the unknown.  That reaction is natural and understandable.  However, playing it “safe” limits our possibilities.  We won’t get to experience the fullness of what the Holy Spirit can work in and through us until we take that step of faith.  Others of you may never have felt this call or may not know what kind of calling God has for you.  But this passage has some more good news:  it’s not up to us!  The call is from God.  We don’t have to try to create it ourselves.  In the story, Jesus is the initiator.  In fact, the disciples don’t say anything at all.  Jesus says to them, “Come, follow me,” and they come.  And it is the same for each of us.  Jesus is calling us into new and amazing lives of transformation.  His call is continuous and patient, waiting until we hear it and respond.  Often, we don’t realize our own calls without help from others.  While God sometimes speaks directly to our hearts, many times we hear the voice of God through the observations of those who are close to us.  Through prayer, study, and Christian community, we can come closer to understanding who God has called us to be.

Whether you have heard the call, aren’t sure if you’ve heard it, or know you haven’t heard it yet, take heart.  Just like the calls themselves are each totally unique, so is the timing.  We can’t predict when or how Jesus will come to us with this call, but we can trust that we are called.  This is the promise we receive in baptism, as we are initiated into God’s family and marked with a seal:  All Christians are called to the work of bringing forth the kingdom of God that Jesus preached—to love God with our whole being and to love our neighbors as ourselves.  We are all called to bring good news to the poor, justice to the oppressed, sight to the blind, and food to the hungry.  This is what the kingdom of God looks like.  If you’re not yet sure what your own specific call is, rest assured that if this is your path, you are already following Jesus.  You may not have heard the entirety of Jesus’ call, but God’s transformation in your life has already begun.

And when you do hear the call, it may not make for a radical change in what your daily life looks like—although it may.  When Jesus calls us, it opens up the possibility for a deeper relationship with God, which in turn lets us see the world around us with new eyes.  Our previous life is not tossed aside in the change, but it is transformed.  We begin to see how every step we’ve taken up to this point has formed us into who we are.  Into this unique person whom Jesus is calling with our own special name.

Six years ago, when I was preaching on this same text, I had absolutely no idea that I would be doing it again today.  By that point in my internship, I had discerned that I probably was not meant to be a pastor.  And yet, as I stand here today, that part of my journey was invaluable.  That internship and the many other experiences I have had leading up to now have all formed me into a person who does know her calling.  It was not at all what I expected, but that feeling in my gut comes back to me every time I stop to think about what I’m doing.  This is right.  And the peace and joy that come with that feeling are indescribable.  So while it’s true that I did know something about the business of following Jesus back when I preached my first sermon, there was so much more waiting for me that I could not have imagined.  And, I think I’ve learned enough about God in the process to know that I can’t predict what the next stage of my call will look like, either.  But I do know this:  it will be right.

So let us all listen anew for God’s voice as we await and rejoice in God’s call on our lives.  Thanks be to God.

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