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Archive for September, 2013

The following sermon was preached at Bethel Lutheran Church of St. Louis on September 29, 2013.  This message is based on the the festival of St. Michael and All Saints; Daniel 10:10–14; 12:1–3, Revelation 12:7-12, and Luke 10:17-20.

Angest-michael-slaying-the-dragonls and dragons and snakes, oh my!

A first look at today’s lessons, the former children’s librarian in me thought for a moment that I had put down my Bible and picked up the latest best seller in the teen fiction department.

This morning our scripture is flooded with imagery that can surely be described as fantastical.  Satan falling from the sky like lightening.  The dust of the earth awakening.  Jesus telling his disciples to tread on snakes and scorpions.   Angel’s fighting dragons for the cosmic redemption of the world.

This is the stuff summer blockbusters are made of.  Someone call J.J. Abrams or Joss Whedon so we can get the studio booked for next season’s box office hit.

As engaging as these texts are, I must admit that I struggled a bit to make sense of their meaning.  Yes, I understand that liturgically we celebrate Michael and All Angels a few weeks before All Saints Day so that we can help make a clear distinction between the two honored beings.  Angels are mighty and celestial beings who fight against evil, protect God’s people and serve as God’s messengers.  Saints are people who through the grace found in Christ are equipped to follow God’s message and strive for peace and justice.

Angels aide and protect the saints.  Angel’s speak to saints to help them understand the mystery of God, such as when the angel’s spoke to the women outside of Jesus’ tomb.  We continue to connect with these beings each week at the table when we “with all the choirs of angels, with the church on earth and the hosts of heaven[i]” praise God’s name and join their never ending hymn of “Holy, holy, holy…”

The knowledge of why we celebrate this feast day and where the angels fall in our weekly liturgy is all well and good, but that information aside, we are still left with texts filled with angels and dragons and snakes.  Oh my.

After chewing on these lessons for a few days, I went home and did what I always do when I am feeling a bit overwhelmed and want to get a break from reality.  I watched Die Hard.

An action flick kind of girl, I have watched the Die Hard and Jason Bourne series more times in my life then a person should ever watch any amount of movies, ever.  There is something really relaxing to see a fairly unremarkable guy take down the system of oppression that is before them.  Add to it that these characters are just off-colored and imperfect enough to be relatable, and suddenly I can see myself in their struggles as they take down the bad guys.

I love that it is clear that these characters don’t want to be fighting the battle they are in, but are so overcome with a sense of justice they do it anyways.  Time after time they get knocked down, yet somehow they get back on their feet to go after that evil that is just beyond their grasp.  While that evil is usually personified in some great character played by Alan Rickman or Javier Bardem, the evil they are fighting is systemic.  The dragons they face are greed, corporate abuse, irresponsible fiscal behavior, overzealous governments.

The hope these movies bring is almost apocalyptic.  They keep hope alive thatLionsDen the little man can make the difference and that a new world order is just around the bend.  They are the hope that we are only a few car chases away from the end of systemic evil.  It is the hope that the earth shall awaken to a new day where righteousness is the brightness shining in the sky.

The apocalyptic promise of hope where good reigns victorious over evil is at the heart of our passage from Daniel.  This book was written in the midst of a great period of systemic injustice – the reign of Antiochus IV.  He was a successor of Alexander the Great who decided that the countdown to ignite the age of Hellenism had begun,[ii] forcing faithful Judeans to abandon their beliefs for fear of persecution.  The first half of the book of Daniel is a character building narrative of Daniel and his companions standing against this political regime, being heroes of faith against lion’s dens and fire pits.

The second half of this book takes a hard swing to apocalyptic prophesy, where the angel Gabriel helps Daniel understand the certain downfall of this unjust system.  By the time we reach Daniel in today’s lesson, our hero had already gone on an epic journey, one that could easily fill a few screen plays.

Daniel had seen the vision of the four creatures destroying one another – creatures representing Alexander the Great’s empire battling against the Babylonians, Medians and the Persians.  As the symbols of these kingdoms destroy one another, suddenly hope appears.  Known as the Ancient One and the Son of Man, this Being of victorious hope takes the throne and puts a stop to the warfare, violence and pain rooted in systems of injustice.

Daniel’s vision continues, time and time again showing different and various systems of oppression.  Each time the Ancient One appears, providing the victorious hope that can only come from the Son of Man.

It is here that we meet Daniel this morning.  The vision he is witnessing has left him as beaten and exhausted as the most choreographed of battle scenes.  This prophesy is overwhelming, demanding a faith that could crumple even the strongest of spirits.  The change that Gabriel promises is almost too much hope to bear, literally crumpling Daniel to the ground.

Who among us has not been crumpled by the evils in the world that make it hard to hold onto our faith?  It is not hard to imagine that each of us has had a moment when the strength of our spirit began to crumple.

We have seen the systems daniel-and-arangel-gabrielof evil around us.  We have experience persecution because of our race, our gender, our sexuality.  We have felt the pain as our own bodies have turned against us in illness, and have mourned the loss of our former health and agility.  We have seen selfless people struggle and selfish people flourish.  Our marriages have suffered infidelities of body and spirit and our single selves have ached for that illusive other half.  We cry out when war is conducted in our name, and weep with the loss of innocent life.

We are no stranger to the dragon that lurks right around the bend.  We know the systemic evil that lives in this world.  We crave to see if fall from the sky like lightening.  It is hard to find the victory when the weight of evil surrounds us, and even harder when we recognize our role in it.  Each of us has had moments when the possibility of hope knocks us to the ground.

“But then a hand touched me and roused me to my hands and knees.  He said to me, ‘Daniel, greatly beloved, pay attention to the words that I am going to speak to you.’”[iii]  Hope lives.

The victorious hope found in the Ancient One, the Son of Man, our Jesus Christ lives.  Hope lives.  The grace found in Jesus is not limited by the powers of evil.  It is not limited by persecutors, illnesses, or complicated relationships.

When the brokenness of our humanity would limit us from being in intimate relationship with God, Jesus grants forgiveness.  When the stations of our life would prevent us from rectifying systems of oppression, Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit overcomes that limit and equips us in our baptismal vocation to strive for peace and justice.  When our hearts are empty and the well of our spirit has run dry, Jesus crosses that limit and fills us with his physical presence of the bread and wine found in Holy Communion.

We can trust that the victory in Jesus cannot be limited because even the cross was not a limit to Jesus.  Only through the grace of Christ can an instrument of death be the avenue to resurrection.

Greatly beloved, the angels beckon us to pay attention.  We are living in the midst of victory, in an apocalyptic world where the grace of Christ equips us to face the systems of oppression with faith and hope.   Where the evils of this world would cause us to stumble, the hand of Christ remains outstretched before us, and lifts us to the promise of the victory realized and the victory yet to come.

Amen.


[i] “Holy Communion, Setting 1,” in Evangelical Lutheran Worship: Leader’s Desk Edition (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress, 2006), 166-209.

[ii] Daniel Patte, Global Bible Commentary (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2004), page 253

[iii] Daniel 10:10 – 11

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The following sermon was preached at Bethel Lutheran Church in St. Louis on September 1, 2013.  This message was based on Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16 and Luke 14:1,7-14.

This past January I had the great privilege of going to India to learn about world religions in a pluralistic country.  To say that India was a bit of a culture shock for 16 US seminary students would be as understated as saying that water is wet.  Between the lasting impacts of the Hindu caste system, the overt religiosity, the population and the pollution, it was as if we had entered another world.

One day, my class went to meet with a Muslim woman named Najma to learn how the secularization of the Hindu caste system impacted the experience of Islamic women.

I13_Charminar1dTraveling in India is a bit complicated, for there are no address or street signs.  To find a new location, our driver would head to a general part of town, get out of the van, and ask for directions.  In a country where there are 800 national languages, it was complicated to find someone who spoke the same language as our driver.  Very often translating between multiple strangers on the street corner was essential to acquire the next set of directions.  For several hours, our motley crew of seminarians drove in a non-air-conditioned van under the glaring Indian sun from one spot to another, waiting for another set of directions.

Finally we reached Najma’s father’s house.  Narjam’s father saw that we were overheated and exhausted and quickly ushered us into his lavish living room.  He surrounded us with sandwiches, cakes, and treats.  At one point someone even ran out to the store to get us our preferred bottled water.

After our tummies were well fed and our thirst was quenched, Najma’s father turned to my professor and asked, “Who are you and why are you here?”

It turned out Najma didn’t live with her father.  Najma was waiting for us at a different house in a different part of town.  The correct directions to our appointment got lost in one of the several exchanges by our driver on the street.  Najma’s father had no idea his daughter was meeting with students from America. Yet he welcomed us into his home and extended lavish hospitality without knowing why we were there or what we were looking for.

I don’t know about you, but I can’t imagine that if a bus load of tourists pulled up to my front door, I would let them in my home, offering them food and drink, without first asking, “Who are you and why are you here?”  Talk about culture shock!

This morning as we peer into the dinner party of Jesus and the Pharisees, we may be experiencing our own level of culture shock where some information seems to be a bit lost in translation.

Today’s gospel opens, sharing that Jesus had arrived at a dinner party hosted by a Pharisee.[1]  Our lectionary skips several verses of Luke, fast-tracking us to heart of a passionate parable about banquet guests.

Aside from weddings and state dinners, it may be hard for us to imagine exactly what we are stumbling upon in this story.  We no longer live in a culture where someone would be openly disgraced by taking a seat that was above their societal station.  It can be challenging for us to fully relate to why this experience is such a big deal.

The missing verses give us some insight.  In them we learn that after Jesus arrives at the dinner party, he encounters a sick man who has an intestinal illness called dropsy.  Jesus takes one look at this man and cures him.  Like Pastor Boardman shared with us last week, it was scandalous to cure someone on the Sabbath.  Working on the Sabbath was in direct violation of religious law.  Just as the caste system in India expands beyond Hinduism into the secular world and societal customs, so did the Jewish laws affect both the secular and religious circles.  When Jesus heals the man, he stands in direct contrast to both the secular and religious normative, establishing a new precedent for glorifying God.

To say that the guests were not pleased would be another “water is wet” understatement.  This is the fourth time Jesus worked on the Sabbath in direct violation of all that was culturally appropriate.  Previously Jesus and his disciples picked grain, cured the man with the withered hand, and last week’s lesson of the woman who was bent over.

It is a south Indian custom to cover places and objects of honor with flowers and color.

It is a south Indian custom to cover places and objects of honor with flowers and color.

Jesus had initially been invited to this dinner party as an honored guest.   When Jesus cured the man with dropsy, the party goers had just about enough.  The guests needed to put Jesus back in his place, to shame Jesus for crossing the line.  They took the seats of honor in his place,[2] moving him to the back of the proverbial bus.

Instead of rebuking the guests for their behavior, Jesus responds nonviolently, both embodying and speaking of humility.  Honor is not something that one takes, it is something that is given.  Honor does not occur when we uplift ourselves.  One can only be lifted to a place of honor by another.

Through Jesus’ death and resurrection, our lives have been lifted to a place of honor and we have been extended the greatest gift of hospitality.  No longer will the stations of our life, the color of our skin, the gender of our bodies, or the brokenness of our mistakes prevent us from having a deep relationship with God.  When he was lifted on the cross, Christ uplifted us from the back of the bus, out of our caste systems, and past the Sabbath laws that would prevent us from experiencing God’s grace.

Through Christ we have been lifted to a place of honor where we are empowered to tend the poor and lame, speak against oppression within our communities, and strive for peace and justice throughout the earth.

This is not something that we can do for ourselves.  It is something that has been done for us through Jesus Christ.  And it was done for us through the ultimate act of humility.

Jesus humbled God’s self and became fully human, sharing in our human experiences to be in intimate relationship with us.  Jesus our God incarnate was born in the humblest of settings, the most royal birth in the most ordinary of mangers.  Jesus completed the ultimate act of humility when he suffered and died upon the cross for the redemption and restoration of the world.  As he shared, “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”[3]

Jesus is exalted in resurrection because he lived and died in humility.  Through God’s inexplicable gift of hospitality, we have been resurrected in Christ and are emboldened to live a life in response to the place of honor we have been given.  We have been empowered to let mutual love continue,[4] so that we can fulfill Jesus’ guidance to invite all to the banquet of life – the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.[5]

For the past two years that I have lived in Chicago, I worked for a church in the Logan Square neighborhood.  At the start of the summer, St. Luke’s began hosting Community Dinners on Wednesdays in response to a local support shelter closing.  The goal for Community Dinners was to live into its name, providing an opportunity for the whole community to gather around the table.  Inviting both the well-fed and under-fed, the privileged and the impoverished, each week a local chef from a nearby restaurant prepared a gourmet styled meal from what was donated from the local food depository.  To help ensure that these meals were viewed as a symbol of hospitality instead of charity, food was served family style instead of through a cafeteria based line.

One Wednesday after Pastor Erik gave the blessing, he sat down next to a man without housing.  The man reached forward for the spoon, and with dirt under his nails and weeks’ worth of street smells on his skin, turned to Erik and said, “May I serve you, Pastor?”

Living a life of humility opens us to accept gifts of hospitality.  It is in our self-effacement that we receive generosity, and in our generosity we are able to live a modest life.  Humility opens our hearts to the banquet of life provided by Christ.

Najma's father's house.

Najma’s father’s house.

The hospitality found in Christ is as surprising as a stranger inviting 16 tourists into their home.  The hospitality found in Christ is as surprising as a man without a home wanting to serve the local pastor instead of be served himself.  In Christ, both the privileged and the impoverished are empowered to both serve and experience grace.

The bounty of our humble Jesus breaks through the barriers that would keep societal boundaries in their place.  Christ’s generosity broke through those barriers with his outstretched arms on the cross, uplifting all people to a place of honor.  The Spirit-filled waters of our baptism breaks through the barriers of our trespasses and mistakes, resurrecting us to new life.  Jesus continues to break through barriers at the table in the humble majesty of bread and wine.  We place our trust that the Holy Spirit will break through the barriers of conflict in Syria, guiding leaders to follow Jesus’ teaching of nonviolence.

Through the power of the Holy Spirit, Jesus humbly breaks through barriers with generous hospitality, sanctioning us to complete God’s work with our hands.  It was with the modesty of Christ that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and his followers marched onto Washington, changing the world with a bold message of hospitality where children of every race could be treated as one.

In continued humility, Christ works through our efforts here at Bethel to support each other with our Stephen Ministry program, to support our schools through our connection to the Lutheran High Schools and Lutheran Campus ministry, and to send support to our brothers and sisters in Africa.  Next week as we journey to Project COPE in celebration of the ELCA’s birthday, it will be Christ humbly working through our hands as we clean our neighborhood.

We have been given a place of honor through our exalted redeemer Jesus Christ.  As Jesus continues to humbly welcome all people to the banquet of life, let us sing praises for God’s never ending hospitality.


[1] Luke 14:1

[2] David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., Feasting On the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary.  Year C, Vol. 4 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010),  page 20

[3] Luke 14:11

[4] Hebrews 13:1

[5] Luke 14:13

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