“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.



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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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The Teacher in Me

So, just to keep you in the loop, I graduated from seminary in May.  (Yay!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!  Can you tell that makes me happy?)  And, like a surprising number of my classmates, I decided that the next stage in my life was to go back to school–again.

At this point, I am approaching the end of my first month as a student in a 2-year graduate teacher licensure program.  I’ll have 3 semesters of coursework (so 2 2/3 semesters to go!), followed by one semester of full-time student teaching, and then I will be a real, live teacher!  My content area is English as a Second Language, and I should come out of this program with a K-12 ESL license.

I couldn’t be more excited for this stage in my education.  I’ve wanted to be a teacher literally as long as I can remember.  Back when I was little, I used to play school with my sister, who graciously agreed to be the student(s) every single time so that I could always be the teacher.  As for why I went to seminary at all, then, or why I didn’t major in education in the first place… well, it’s complicated.  As much as I’ve always wanted to teach, I’ve also had a deep desire to learn more about God and religion, and I spent the last 7 years delving deep into that.  I wouldn’t trade it for the world, either.  If I hadn’t gone to seminary, I would never have felt my call to the ministry of deacon, and that is now a firm part of who I am.  See my previous post for details. 🙂

But anyway, teaching is just who I am.  After I preached last month, I was told by several people who heard it, “Wow, you were really teaching up there!”  And I guess I was, even though I didn’t think about it as teaching (which is maybe silly).  I’ve had the joy and privilege to get to teach in a number of settings in the last few years, from teaching children’s Sunday School, to leading lessons with my adult ESL students last year, to a few different team-teaching lessons I did with classmates in seminary.  I’ve always enjoyed those opportunities.  I get so into it that I overdo it at times, but I’ve always gotten lots of positive feedback from my professors and fellow students.  But this week, I had to take it to a new level.  This time, I had to teach lessons in a graduate-level program that trains teachers.  Where all the professors are–you guessed it–professional educators whose job is to train future educators.  No pressure, right?

Due to the unpredictability of course syllabi, I ended up on the docket to do a group teaching session on Tuesday night (yesterday) for one class and lead a different class on Wednesday afternoon (today).  Our group didn’t even find out about the Tuesday one until 2 weeks prior, with the news that we had to have a lesson plan turned in 1 week before the teaching date.  Yikes!  We scrambled to do our research (since the topic we were assigned was one we knew practically nothing about beforehand–Somali Americans in MN Schools) and to put together a plan.  As stressful and busy as it was, I found myself loving the process anyway.  Seriously, I get such a rush from the challenge of organizing and strategizing a lesson.  And, in the midst of the group planning, I had to figure out how I was going to present on the 3 chapters assigned in my other class for the week.  Needless to say, my husband didn’t see as much of me as he normally would these last couple weeks.

But… it was so worth it!  Our group teaching session last night went really well overall.  There was definitely some room for improvement, and the feedback was very helpful in giving use ideas of better ways to approach things in the future.  But in the process of preparing and delivering this lesson, I learned a ton about Somali culture and history, met a really cool Somali guy (our guest speaker, who is another student at the university), and discovered a really great Somali hip-hop artist.  (Have you heard of K’naan?  He’s awesome.)  And we got good feedback from both the professor and the class.  Yay!  An actual educator-of-educators thinks my teaching is good!!!

When I led class this afternoon, things went even better than last night.  In all the times I’ve taught lessons (of various types), I don’t think I’ve ever had one go this smoothly.  The format of the lesson was perfect for the setting, people were really engaged in the discussion questions, we had fun doing an activity I came up with, people really liked the visuals I put in my PowerPoint, and it was just amazing.  I felt so comfortable doing it, too, even though there were a couple minor technological glitches that I had to work around.  (Why does that happen EVERY time!?!)  The one bad thing about my lesson is also kind of the best thing of all.  I went considerably over the time limit… like WAY over, to the point that I took up basically the entire class period instead of just half of it.  But what’s so incredible about it is that the professor thought I was doing such a good job that she never made any efforts to cut me off.  She saw that people were really engaged in the lesson, and she felt satisfied that the lesson I had prepared was covering all of the things she needed to get covered this week, so she just let me keep going.  It feels unreal.  Just like I find lesson-planning to be a really exciting/challenging task that gives me a rush, the teaching moment itself gives me a huge rush.  After that lesson this afternoon, I came out of it feeling like, “Wow.  I’m really a teacher!  I did it!”  The thing I’ve wanted to do my whole life, the thing that I love to do, and now I’m doing it!  I just had to write a blog post about it, because I’m so excited to be doing what I was made to do.  It feels so GOOD!

My friend Liz is always blogging about following your bliss, doing what you’re passionate about, and there is no doubt in my mind that teaching is what I need to do.  These experiences in the last couple days have affirmed for me, once again, that this is not just a fluke.  It’s what I am.  A teacher.

When I was talking with my new Somali friend (well, acquaintance is probably more accurate, but he’s an awesome guy and I wish he were my friend), he said something that I found to be extremely moving.  When I told him that I want to become an ESL teacher, he (who, as an immigrant teenager, took ESL in school) told me, “You will make such a big difference in people’s lives.”

And that is what I want to do!!  So much!  I don’t just follow this passion for teaching because I like doing it or because I’m good at it.  I do it because it means something.  It’s fulfilling for me because I know it’s not about me.  It’s the way I can make the most difference in the lives of other people.  Immigrant children and children of immigrants have so many hurdles in their lives, that it’s the least I can do to help them learn the language of their new home country.  I can only hope that my love for them and my passion to see them succeed can help them to have the confidence and the skills to go out and follow their own passions.

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Good Grapes and Rotten Grapes

It’s been a while since I’ve written anything I felt like posting here, but now is the time! 🙂 As odd as it is for a seminary graduate to be in this situation, today was actually the first time I’ve ever preached in front of a congregation (as opposed to in front of fellow seminarians).  I was a little nervous, but things ended up going really well.  So, if you’re interested, you can get a taste of my most recent theological reflections.  You don’t quite get the full effect just reading it, especially outside the context of the rest of the service–the hymns and prayers tied in really nicely–but I hope you’ll find this as edifying to read as I found it to write.  The texts I preached on were Isaiah 5:1-7, Psalm 80, and Luke 12:49-56.

I don’t know about you, but when I first read the Gospel lesson for today, I didn’t know what to make of it.  The passage picks up shortly after the one we read last week about being prepared for the thief or the master to return.  Jesus is still journeying toward Jerusalem, where he will eventually be killed, and is still teaching his disciples.  But the lesson we hear in this teaching is disconcerting.  Here we have Jesus—the Son of God—the Prince of Peace—the same Jesus who is famous for tenderly caring for the least, the last and the lost—and he’s telling his disciples about how he wants the earth to burn, and how he came not to bring peace but rather division.  That he wants to divide parents against their children and children against their parents.  What is this??  It makes Jesus sound more like a comic book super-villain than the Savior of the world.  But Jesus isn’t like that, right!?!  So why would he say such things?

I think a good place to start in trying to answer that question is to get some background.  After all, Jesus did not exist in a vacuum with no cultural context.  He lived in a specific time, in a specific place, and as a member of a specific group of people.  As a first-century Palestinian Jew, Jesus grew up immersed in the traditions and customs of the Jewish people.  Studying Scripture, which in Jesus’ time meant the Old Testament, made up a huge portion of his life.  So all of his teachings are deeply rooted in the traditions and spirituality of the Old Testament.

As it so happens, we also read a couple of Old Testament passages today.  These specific passages may or may not have been in Jesus’ mind at this particular moment, when he spoke of bringing fire to the earth, but they do shed light on his teaching.  As a rabbi, a Bible scholar of his day, he would certainly have been familiar with them, and they would have helped to form the understandings out of which teachings, such as this one, arose.

The first reading today, from Isaiah, is a strange one.  It starts off idyllic and beautiful—it is the love song a man sings to his cherished vineyard.  He plants the vineyard on a fertile hillside, toiling over the soil to remove the rocks.  He plants good seeds, builds walls and a watchtower to protect the vineyard from thieves or animals, and waits for the vines to grow fruit.  But when the fruit comes, it’s no good!  Despite his diligent effort, the man finds his beloved vines producing rotten fruit!  Now furious, the man no longer sings of his love.  Instead, he promises to destroy the vineyard:  to tear down its walls, stop pruning and hoeing it, and let it dry up.  It is only at this point that the author reveals who this vineyard owner is.  The owner is God, and the vineyard is God’s people.  God brings destruction upon the people for corrupting God’s good plan, yielding violence instead of justice and suffering instead of righteousness.  The Hebrew text for verse 7 emphasizes just how much the people’s sin is a perversion of what should have been good.  Where God expects justice (in Hebrew, mishpat), God finds bloodshed (in Hebrew, mispah).  Where God expects righteousness (tsedakah), there is instead a cry of distress (tse’akah).  Just as switching one or two letters changes these words from signifying something good to meaning something terrible, the people have been corrupted such that the good seed and good soil from which they came grows into fruit that is utterly rotten.

And this is why Jesus said all those things about bringing fire to the earth and causing division.  The people in Jesus’ day bore just as much rotten fruit as did the Israelites in Isaiah’s time.  Likewise, we ourselves bear plenty of rotten fruit.  God created human beings for justice and righteousness.  Like a patient gardener, God gives us the very best soil and the very best seeds.  Out of love for us, God tills the ground, waters the seeds, and protects them from harm.  God gives us the time, the room, and the guidance for justice and righteousness to flourish.  And yet, somehow, the rottenness seeps in.  Instead of growing up to do justice and to love righteousness, we continue to fall short.  The world is not just if children die of hunger each day while others eat until they are full and throw away the scraps.  This is rotten fruit.  The world is not just if people are beaten and killed for standing up for their beliefs.  This is rotten fruit.  The world is not just if those who are bullied, abused, oppressed, and tortured do not receive protection and care.  This is rotten fruit!  The vineyard of God should be a place where all are cared for, all have food and water, and all have a safe place to live.  When this good fruit of justice and righteousness is supplanted by the rotten fruit we can plainly see littered across our world, it’s no wonder that God gets angry.

And it’s not like poverty, world hunger, war, and domestic violence are the only injustices that plague our world.  As hard as we may try to live righteously, each one of us makes mistakes.  We fall victim to the temptations of society:  selfishness, greed, jealousy, vengeance, gossip, and countless others.  We may not be stealing food from the hungry, but what if our penny-pinching buying practices unintentionally rob someone else of their livelihood?  We may not be physically abusing anyone, but what if our silence allows abuses to continue that would otherwise be prevented?  We don’t mean to hurt anyone, but what if our offers of gifts or hospitality to some make others feel rejected and excluded?  The world is made up of broken systems, in which the good fruit can’t stop the rot from spreading.  We have all made our fair share of bad decisions—sins that we knew we shouldn’t do but couldn’t resist doing anyway.  Those are rotten fruit, to be sure.  But they are not the only rotten things corrupting God’s vineyard.  So much of the injustice in the world is caused not by people sinning knowingly, but by people who don’t understand the full consequences of their actions—usually because the institutions and systems in which they are operating are themselves so broken.  As my seminary ethics professor likes to say, the world is full of people “doing good things badly.”  Rottenness abounds, tainting the good in every fruit it touches, until the entire yield is rotted through.

And what is a good gardener to do with such a mess?  Once a piece of fruit goes bad, there’s no going back.  No one wants to eat a soggy, moldy grape.  God, the vineyard owner, knows this.  The rotten fruit has to go.  Violence and bloodshed are not okay.  Preventable suffering must be stopped.  God will not tolerate the rotten fruit of injustice when the vines were meant to bear the good fruit of righteousness.  The reason Jesus calls for fire to descend upon the earth is the same reason the vineyard owner knocks down the vineyard’s walls and uproots its vines.  The evil, rotten fruit of injustice must be destroyed.

But…because there’s always a “but”… this is not the whole story.  God’s commitment to mercy is just as strong as God’s commitment to justice.  Our God is both just and forgiving.  And God, the creator of the universe, is so powerful that God’s judgment creates good out of evil.  Instead of returning evil for evil, God turns evil into good.  This is what it means to justify:  “to make just.”  In this way, justice and forgiveness can walk hand in hand, for God’s justice is restorative, not punitive.  So when God uproots the walls of the vineyard, it is not simply a lashing out in anger.  It is God taking action against the devastation that the rotten fruit has caused, and making room for new fruit to grow in its place.

In the Psalm for today, get a hint of this.  We see the Israelites pleading for God to restore them.  Again using the analogy of a vineyard, they talk about how their branches—once so strong and blessed—are now defiled as wild boars and insects trample them and eat their fruit.  The once-strong nation of Israel has been invaded.  The people suffer, weeping so much that they eat “bread made of tears” and are given “tears to drink.”  They cry out to God, saying, “Why have you torn down the walls and allowed us to be plundered?  You tilled the ground and planted us to be so great… what happened?”  But, in their hearts, they know.  They know that they have sinned.  In the glory of the success that God had given them, they grew arrogant.  They turned away from their God—their loving gardener.  They did things they knew to be wrong.  They bore the rotten fruit of injustice rather than the good fruit of righteousness.  And, as they sing this psalm, they know that God’s punishment is just.

But, they know something else, too.  They know that justice is not God’s only concern—that God’s true nature is to forgive.  So despite how abandoned they feel, despite their knowledge of their shortcomings, despite how hopeless their situation seems… they call out to God anyway:  “Restore us, O God!  Let your face shine, that we may be saved.”  In the midst of their suffering, this repentant people understands that God forgives.  God restores.  God justifies.  As rotten as their fruit has become, God will not abandon this vine forever.

How does justification work, though?  Well, it’s not easy.  Transforming bad fruit into good fruit requires some big changes.  When the system itself is unjust, surface changes alone won’t make the system just.  When the status quo is rotten fruit, then the status quo must be disrupted.  And what is good at disrupting?  Fire.

Which brings us back to the Luke passage.  Jesus doesn’t want to cast fire upon the earth to destroy the earth; the fire that Jesus is talking about is a purifying fire—a justifying fire.  The fire of the Holy Spirit.  Only when the rot-infected vines are burned away can new vines grow which will yield healthy, good fruit.  Yes, the fire brings division and upheaval, but this is only temporary, so that the end result is peace.  There can be no true peace when justice is missing.  So while it’s true that Jesus “came to bring division,” as he said, it is not true that he did not also come to bring peace.  He came to bring the kind of peace meant by the Hebrew word, shalom.  Shalom is not simply the absence of violence.  It is the presence of wholeness.  Relationships are restored, bellies are full, and children may rest safely and quietly in their own beds.  This is the kind of world Jesus came to bring… Unfortunately, the only way to get there requires a serious disruption of the rottenness in the world today.  We need that justifying fire.  Desperately.

We receive this justifying fire in our baptism, when the Holy Spirit is poured out like fire and purifies our hearts.  This purification is a promise—a first-fruit—of the continuing presence of God’s restorative, justifying presence in us throughout our lives.  It’s not that baptized Christians no longer sin; it’s that baptized Christians have been sealed with God’s promise to continue to justify them—over and over again—in the Holy Spirit, so that the fruit that they bear becomes less and less rotten, and more and more good.  This is why Jesus wants the fire to come:  because it’s the fire of baptism.  It’s the hope for new life out of the ashes.  Through the purifying fire and life-giving water of baptism, the old rotten vines are burned away so that the seeds of goodness can grow and be nourished.

So instead of fearing the fire of justification, we can embrace it.  We can open our hearts to the continuing transformation of the Holy Spirit so that fruit of righteousness and justice can grow in the place of the rotten fruit in our lives.  God loves us deeply, like the gardener loved his vineyard—so much that he poured his heart out tending to it and giving it all he could.  We are sinners, yes.  We have borne rotten fruit.  But our forgiving God not only still loves us, but goes so far as to transform that fruit to make it good.  In your baptism, God claimed you as God’s forever, which means that the Spirit of God will never stop transforming your life to be more just and bear more good fruit.

And there’s more!  Not only does the Holy Spirit’s justifying fire work in our own hearts and lives; it works in the wider world as well.  The Spirit convicts the rotten places in our institutions and systems, declaring their injustices to be evil, and breathing transformation so that good fruit may grow.  And as children of God, claimed at baptism, we too are empowered by the Holy Spirit to participate in God’s justifying work beyond our own homes and backyards.  Through prayer, through generosity, through advocacy, and through the willingness to step out of our comfort zones, we can take part in what God is doing to restore goodness to a world where rotten fruit is all too common.  Rot may be contagious, but so is the Holy Spirit.  As we open ourselves to receive the Spirit and allow God’s transformation in our own lives, the Spirit’s transformative power grows more and more.  It extends beyond us, beyond our neighborhoods, and out into the rest of the world.  The vineyard that produces fruits of justice and righteousness is not just a story; it is a promise.  The shalom of the kingdom of God is on its way.  Come, Holy Spirit, come!


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Some poetry to inspire

picture from here

In doing research for an exegesis paper on the songs of the Lukan nativity story, I ran across a really cool book called Let’s Be Revolting: A Study of the Magnificat, by Ann Bird and Stuart Burgess. It’s a short little book with some meditations on Mary’s famous hymn (found in Luke 1:46-55), but I liked it so much that I ordered myself a copy. Even though they’re not available in the U.S. and I had to get it shipped from England. It’s that good.

One thing I love about the book is that it contains a whole bunch of cool poems and prayers related to or inspired by the Magnificat. This is one of them, which I’ll share because I think it relates to my most recent blog posts regarding change and transformation. Enjoy!

Creed of Transformation

I believe in God

Who didn’t create the world as something finished

as a thing which has to remain the same forever

who doesn’t rule by eternal laws

which are irrevocable

nor by natural order of poor or rich

experts and uninformed

rulers and helpless.


I believe in God

who wants the conflict among the living

and the transformation of the existing

by our work

by our politics.

I believe in Jesus Christ

who was right when he

‘an individual who cannot do anything’

like ourselves

worked on the transformation of all things in existence

and perished doing it.

Looking at him I realize

how our intelligence is crippled

our fantasy suffocated

our efforts wasted

because we don’t live the way he lived.

Every day I fear

that he died in vain

because he is buried in our churches

because we have betrayed his revolution

in obedience and fear

of the authorities.


I believe in Jesus Christ

Who rises into our lives

in order that we may be freed

from prejudice and arrogance

from fear and hatred

and may carry forward his revolution

towards his kingdom.

I believe in the spirit

who came with Jesus into the world,

in the community of all nations

and in our responsibility

for what will become of our earth,

a valley of misery, starvation and violence

or the city of God.

I believe in just peace

which can be achieved in the possibility of a meaningful life

for all people

in the future of this world of God.

Dorothee Sölle

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Change is Good

As someone soon to be graduating from seminary, who hit her sanity quota of “enough” school about two years ago, I can attest that change is good. I am so excited to get to move on to the next stage of life. Graduation cannot come soon enough. It’s not that my time in seminary—and the 4 years of my college religion major prior to that—have not been good. I’ve learned and grown a LOT through both. But right now (and for the last year) I’ve been just itching to move on. A change is just what I need right now: change is good.

It’s really tempting to generalize sentiments like this, but the fact is that our opinions toward change are quite fickle. When things are going well, we don’t want change. But when things are a struggle, or boring, we want nothing more than change. Ironically, our attitude about change changes more often than almost anything else! Contrary to the title of this blog post, and to my feelings regarding graduation, my guess is that change is more often dreaded than eagerly anticipated. For most of us, most of the time, change is not

Change was the theme of the assigned readings we were given in one of my classes last week. The emphasis in these readings was not on individual changes, like the one I’m going through right now as I approach graduation, but on collective change. Organizations—whether churches, businesses, governments, or non-profits—are always experiencing changes. Very often, they try to resist change: they keep the system going as usual even though the world is changing around them. It is all too common for organizations to be ignorant (or in denial) of the changes happening around them. If asked, they would say they are not experiencing changes. Sometimes the effects of outside changes can be easily overlooked: a handful fewer attendees at worship, an employee leaving, or a slight budgetary change. But even small things like this are often signs of a bigger truth: change is inevitable. No matter how much we may love the current <insert anything here>, it will not stick around forever without having to change in some way. These days, it’s most obvious with technology, the way every new gadget gets replaced after a few months and is deemed worthless a few years later. (I experienced this personally a week ago when I replaced my 2006 laptop, with its soon-to-be-obsolete Windows XP operating system, with a new touch-screen laptop that runs Windows 8. Now that was a big change!) But other things change just as drastically. Personalities change. Relationships change. Understandings change. The weather changes—and, now, so does the climate.

Thankfully, we in the Christian tradition have reason to approach change with hope rather than fear. Granted, in some situations, hope is a natural result of the type of change taking place. But in many other situations, the current (or upcoming) changes cause people to fear. Even with its problems, the current state is one we know; its familiarity is comforting. With change underfoot, we have to learn to accept the unknown. One of the articles we read (“No Surprises Please: Engaging Natural Resistance” by Beverly A. Thompson and George B. Thompson, Jr.) described three common fears people have when facing change in a congregational setting:

  1. the fear that your status or influence will fade
  2. the fear that the new direction will not be fulfilling
  3. the fear that you won’t fit in once the changes happen (Thompson&Thompson, 102-103)

These fears are not unique to congregations. They come up in any setting in which we currently feel belonging and/or fulfillment.

This is where the Christian faith comes in. When it comes to the future, we’re not utterly blind. We know from Scripture, from our religious tradition, and from experience, that our God transforms. God works through changes to bring forth new life. In the beginning, God created the world. Ever since the beginning, God has been continually renewing Creation, working to transform it into its fullest potential. We’ve been reading Jürgen Moltmann’s book, The Spirit of Life, in my pneumatology class this semester, and its insights speak to this idea of change. One of the main points in the book is that, through the Holy Spirit, God creates and re-creates life. Where there is life, the Spirit draws it forward to increased fullness and wholeness. Where there is death, the Spirit births new life. As Christians, we look forward to the culmination of the New Creation: the time when God’s reign is fully established on earth, when there is peace and justice, and where all things find wholeness. God’s reign is already on its way, shining brightly through the dust and darkness of the world in every instance of love, justice, peace, and new life. When you believe in the Spirit’s continual transformation of the world from ways of death to ways of life, it’s much easier to see change as a good thing. Change opens up the pathway for new life. The pathway for transformation.

Another article (“Change: The Capacity of Life” by Margaret Wheatley) emphasized how, basically, life is change. We don’t need to fear it; it’s essential to life—to growth. Although she doesn’t express it in terms of the Holy Spirit, I believe her point is the same as mine:

  • “Surrounded by creativity expressed as unending diversity, living in a world proficient at change, which maintains its resiliency through change, I hope we can begin to work with these powers rather than seeking to control or deny them.” (Wheatley, 139, emphasis added)

Rather than fearing change and trying to avoid it, we can join in on the Spirit’s work of transformation and embrace change. Renewed by the vision we have of God’s transformative work in the world and the hope of the New Creation, we can step forward into the future. We’re not fortune-tellers, but we do know the ending ahead of time. New life.

Today’s world is so complex that there are no easy answers as to what the big-picture vision translates into on a smaller scale. Every organization must examine its own situation carefully, keeping in mind the web of relationships in which we all exist. The world itself is changing dramatically through globalization. What we do affects people both near and far, and what they do affects us. In response to these constantly changing dynamics, it is important to constantly assess where we are in relation to others. Those people who are most successful in navigating change while working for positive transformation are the ones who not only care about themselves and their own organization, but who also see the larger implications of their actions (“Connection and Complexity: The Challenge of the New Commons” by Sharon Parks Daloz). In order to embrace and participate in God’s transformative work, we can follow suit. God is bigger than we are, the world is bigger than we are, and God’s reign is bigger than we are. Any attempt to bring forth change that ignores our interrelatedness runs the risk of inhibiting, rather than enriching, life. The Holy Spirit has never been one to follow orders or be predictable. To participate in the Spirit’s work, we must think in new ways, cross boundaries, question fears, and embrace possibility. Without change, life turns into death. Only through change is New Life possible.

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