The 22nd Sunday after Pentecost
Sunday, October 21, 2018
Pastor Ed Foster
Striving to excel is a powerful part of our human psychology. There is something within most human beings that makes us strive to excel. Strive to be first, that makes us want to succeed and be successful. There is something in most of us that drives us to being great.
Of course, the easy place to point that out is with athletics. Almost every culture, as far back as we have records, have competed in athletic competition. See who could run the fastest, or jump the highest, see who was the most powerful and the most skillful. Indeed, from that day even until today there is something to be valued with excelling in athletic endeavors. Indeed, we even transfer that on to the teams that we root for. Iím feeling a little better about myself Ė the Huskers won yesterday. And indeed, we do, we so prize greatness and success that we identify with it in almost any part of our life that we can.
Now, of course, there are some of us who donít care much about athletics. We arenít very interested in football or basketball or track. But isnít it amazing how many places in our lives that we have found that have turned into competitions. Best reader. The Best Quilter. The person who comes to the most meetings or the one who has the best or the prettiest picture. Yes, isnít it amazing how much we care about how many ďlikesĒ we get on Facebook or Instagram.
Beginning of 6th grade I got a tremendous award. I was the only student in my grade school who made it through those first six years of school without missing a day. I was the only kid with perfect attendance. I had no idea that I had perfect attendance and I certainly hadnít sought that, but I can guarantee you there was nothing going to make me miss a day of 6th grade, so I could graduate from grade school with perfect attendance.
There is indeed something in us that drives us to succeed. I think it is part of our survival instinct that realization, that being better, stronger, faster, smarter, prettier, that those things will help us to succeed. And indeed, I think God make us this way on purpose. That drive to be great, to be better, to improve and to accomplish and succeed Ė it has served us and it has served society well. Can you imagine what the world would be like if we were born instead of with this desire to be great, instead, if we were all born with an inclination towards mediocrity, what kind of a world would we live in if everyone was just satisfied with ďgood enough.Ē
And yet, of course, like all of the good gifts that God gives us, we human beings find a way to turn them on their heads, donít we? Because, indeed, our competitiveness, our desire to be first and to succeed, to be great, comes with plenty of problems. Weíll go back to athletics. How many athletes have we seen whose desire to be great has caused them to cheat, to take performance enhancing drugs, to hit their competitor on the knee with a stick so they canít finish the skating tournament? How many times has that desire to be great caused us to hurt and belittle those around us? Indeed, that desire to be great sometimes brings out the very worst in us.
So, Jesus turns all that on its head and says to us, whoever wishes to become great among you, must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you, must be slave to all.
Indeed, it isnít how rich you are, or how smart you are, or how pretty you are, how fast you are, or how many days in a row youíve made it to school that makes someone great. The true greatness comes in how big a difference youíve made in the lives of the people around you. It is in how many smiles youíve given, how kind youíve been, it is in how much love you have shared and how much you have served those around you. True greatness isnít about all of those things that we seem to make so important, but in Godís kingdom and in reality, what makes someone great is how much they serve, how much they give. It is how much they love.
Imagine what a different world it would be if that really was how we measured greatness? If we celebrated the person who donated the most. If we wrote newspaper articles about the child that warmed the most hearts. How different would our world be if the way we measured ourselves and measured one another wasnít by how much money we had, but how much we used whatever money we did have to make a difference in the lives of the people around us?
And, of course, right now weíre all thinking to ourselves, yea, Pastor, thatís probably right, but isnít that kind of naÔve? I mean who is really going to pay attention to that stuff when we get out there in that real world where things are tough and hard and the only thing that really matters is how successful you are at taking care of yourself.
Iím going to suggest this morning that our Christian life is kind of a team sport. That it is okay, that it is even a good thing if we recognize in one another that true greatness. If we celebrate with one another and support one another in serving one another. That indeed, we praise one another for having the same passion for loving our neighbor as we have for making money or athletic pursuits.
Indeed, wouldnít it make a difference? Wouldnít it be easier to share what we had if we had some sense that the people around us thought that was a good thing? And I can almost guarantee you that if we praised one another for being nice and for being kind, that all of us would be a little nicer and a little kinder.
The truth is this Ė you are already great. For you indeed serve one another and serve our community, to serve your family and to even serve the world. You share the things and your time, you share your love and compassion, and indeed, you are already great not because you are richer or faster or smarter than anyone else. You are already great because you love, because you care, and indeed, Christ encourages us to continue to pursue that dream. The greatness that makes the lives of those around us better, happier, the greatness that is life to the world. Just as Christ gave his life, just as he was great for us. Amen.
The 21st Sunday after Pentecost
October 14, 2018
Pastor Ed Foster
Many of the things that Jesus says are difficult. Some of the things he says are difficult to understand. When Jesus tells us that we should go and make friends with our dishonest wealth so that they can welcome us into our heavenly home, I have no idea what he is talking about. Iíve tried all kinds of stuff. Jesus is difficult sometimes.
And sometimes Jesus says things that are hard for us to hear even when we know they are right. And Jesus tells us to turn the other cheek and to love our neighbor, even to love our enemies, we really donít like that. We really wished that Jesus would tell us that itís okay to hate our enemies and to take vengeance on those who hurt us. But deep down I think most of us think that he is right.
But some of the hard things Jesus says I think we hear them and maybe even feel a little guilty about them and then as soon as we can, we forget them and go on by. Often, I think those things have to do with money and with wealth.
A few years ago, a fellow came to church a couple of weeks in a row and the second week I caught him before he escaped out the side door and welcomed him to the church and he said, Boy, Pastor I really like your church. The one I used to go to talked about money too much. The next Sunday we talked about stewardship. He never came back.
This lesson is one of those that I fear can be one of those that we hear and maybe feel a little guilty about and then put it behind us as quickly as we can because it is so hard.
A rich young man comes to Jesus. Rushes to see him. Runs and falls on his knees in front of him and asks him, Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life? And Jesus tells him, Follow the commandments. And he says, Well, I have. And then it says that Jesus looked at him and in Mark says, Jesus looked at him and he loved him. And he said to him, one thing is left. Go and sell all you have and give it to the poor and come, and follow me. And of course, the young man had many possessions, he was rich. So, he went away sad because he could not do this one thing that Jesus asked.
So, of course, we ask ourselves, hmm, is Jesus telling us to do that? Do we need to go and sell all that we have and give it to the poor to be able to get into heaven? Do we need to go and sell all our possessions? Do we feel a little guilty about that knowing good and well we arenít going to do it? And hopefully by the time we get to the door we wonít feel so bad anymore and we can go on with our life.
Well, we should point out a few things. One of those, of course, is that Jesus doesnít tell anybody else that. He doesnít say, all of your guys need to go and sell your stuff, too, because this is the new way to get into heaven, you have to be without possessions. And, of course, throughout history there have been folks who have read this verse and some of those the others like it, well, thatís exactly what Jesus meant, monasticism and those kinds of things came from that idea that possessions would keep us from heaven.
Jesus looked at the young man and he loved him. He saw in him the one thing that was separating him from God, the one thing that was separating him from his neighbor, and it was his stuff. And Jesus was right because the man went away grieving because he had many possessions.
At least one of the points of this story has to be Ė what is it that Jesus, in his love for you, sees just the one thing? What is the thing that is separating you from God, from your neighbor? What is it that is keeping you from being the follower that you are being called to be, that you want to be? What is the one thing that is separating and keeping you from the love of God?
And it may be, especially in our culture, possessions. Almost all of us, by the rest of the worldís standards, we are wealthy. We have not just enough stuff, we have more than enough stuff. Would we be willing to part with that stuff? When the preacher preaches too often about money Ė does it make us so mad that we go looking for another church? How many of your fellows have stuff in the garage that you really havenít used in years but you know you might use it again someday so you are hanging on to it? (We wonít talk about things like shoes and purses.)
A little boy I know heard a lesson I think in Sunday school about having so many possessions and how we should share them. So, this young man decided he was going to donate some of his toys to the poor. He was going to pack them up and take them to Goodwill.
And so, he went through his things and made two piles. One pile of things I want to keep and one pile of things I want to give away. The keep pile was huge and the give-away pile was small. And when his parents came downstairs to pack up the things that he was going to give away the next day, there was three left in the give-away pile.
In our culture our possessions almost seem to own us, rather than us own them. We define ourselves by them. We compare ourselves to one another with them. We think that they give us security and we think they bring us happiness.
We have to have the right car, the right clothes and if you are at least my age or younger, you have to have the right cell phone.
What is it? What is that one thing that stands between you and God? It might not be stuff. It might be power. It might be prestige. It might be pride. It might be your love for this cause or for these people. What is it that causes you to say I would give up anything, but I wouldnít give up that?
What is it that is so big and so important, that it is like that camel, impossible for us, but not impossible for God? What is it? What is that one thing that stands between you and being a follower that you want to be and God is calling you to be? What is the one thing that is meaningful for you? Amen.
The 20th Sunday after Pentecost
Sunday, October 7, 2018
Pastor Ed Foster
Jim was a good man and a better church member. You can tell that Jim was a good man and a great church member because when he was asked he agreed to teach the Middle School Sunday school class. Donít get me wrong, I love teaching that age group. They are energetic and they see things more clearly than most people are willing to admit. If you donít know the answer to the questions, donít just make one up, they know when you do and if they ask you a question that you are uncomfortable with it best to just tell them the truth.
One day someone in Jimís Sunday school class asked him about divorce. And so, Jim he pulled out his Bible and looked at the comments at the bottom and leafed through until he found this passage in Mark. And they read the passage together and Jim said, Well, it sounds to me like Jesus says divorce is a sin.
When pastor got home that day, the phone was ringing. The parents of two of the children were on the phone, Pastor, why did Jim tell my children that I am a sinner?
I tell that story for two reasons. One is to remind myself that there is no one among us who has not been touched by divorce. That the words that Jesus says here are pertinent to everyone of us. We all have been touched by divorce. And the other is to point out that a first look at these verses seems to be clear cut and one sided and that they seem to tell us that divorce is not only a sin, but it is unacccepted.
But a second, or maybe a third look at these verses especially when we place them both in the context that they were written in and to the context of Jesusí ministry, maybe they arenít quite so clear cut after all.
Mark tells us that the Pharisees came to Jesus and asked him this question to test him. Jesus, is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife? And Jesus asks them, well, what does Moses say? What is written in the law? And they replied, Well, Moses says yes. A man may write out a certificate and divorce his wife.
Well, letís stop right there. Thereís Jesus saying, Moses was wrong, take that out of your Bibles. No. Does he say, Iím going to change that law, it is now no longer lawful for a man to divorce his wife? Jesus has the opportunity to say, this is wrong and he doesnít choose to do that. We leave this story and Jesus leaves the law unchanged. Divorce is possible. Divorce is lawful.
All of those folks who have throughout history used this text to say, it is now no longer acceptable, it is no longer lawful, you must leave the church if you are divorced have either read it to simply or have intentionally misread what is there.
The Pharisees came and they asked Jesus this question to test him. And of course, throughout the gospels the Pharisees and the Scribes are always coming to test Jesus. They are trying to get him to say something that will trip him up, something that will either get him in trouble with the legal authorities or that will turn the people against him. Jesus, is it okay to pay taxes to Caesar? Well, of course, both Caesar and the people had an interest in that question, and those interests were different. Now, the Pharisees come and ask Jesus, is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?
Now, it maybe they are hoping that Jesus will take up his cousin, John the Baptistís cause. You all remember John. John got in trouble for talking about divorce, in particular for talking about the divorce and remarriage of King Herod. And it was his opinion about the divorce and remarriage of King Herod that caused him to lose his head.
Jesus, is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife? You might note that it is not the pastoral question. They donít come to Jesus and say, Jesus, my wife is beating me, what should I do? They come and ask him this technical question, Jesus, is it lawful?
Well, thatís probably not really the question they were asking. Everyone agreed. Moses says it is lawful. The issue wasnít is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife, but in those days the question was when? And indeed, we have records of the arguments that were going on amongst the Jewish theologians, even back in Jesus day. And there were two camps.
There was one camp that said, yes, you can get divorced, but it has to be over something really big, something big like infidelity or attempted murder, that kind of thing. And then there was another school of thought that said, you just have to have a reason. You can have any reason. If your wife burnt the toast, and yes, it actually says that, thatís enough. If your wife burnt the toast, that is a good enough reason to be divorced.
And it is that argument that the Pharisees are trying to get Jesus into. Not, is it lawful to get divorced, the law was clear on that, but when. When is it lawful to dismiss your wife? Weíll come back to that in a minute, because, of course, it was men who divorced women, not the other way around.
Jesus was having none of that argument. It isnít about what is lawful. Moses already told us what is lawful. And it isnít about how big or how bad of an offense that the wife has committed. This isnít what God created marriage for.
God created marriage to be life-giving and to be lifelong. God created marriage to be a blessing, for two to become so tied to one another, so joined together that we can even talk about them about being one flesh. God created marriage to be a blessing where people receive the gifts of life and love, support and caring. God did not create marriage to be a theological or an intellectual toy by which we argue about whether burning the toast is bad enough a sin.
And indeed, God did create marriage to be a blessing. To be a union between people that gives them life, that fills them with the great gifts that God wants to share with his people. God created marriage to be a blessing.
But because of our hardness of heart, because of our sinfulness, because we are human beings, sometimes marriage ceases to be that. Sometimes marriages are broken, sometimes they become instead of places of life and love and grace, they become places of anger and resentment, of abuse and pain.
And yes, sometimes they become so broken that God does indeed give us a way to start again.
Jesus, is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife? Moses says, yes, and Jesus is not saying no.
Of course, the disciples ask about it when they get back to the room and Jesus does something very strange for that day. Not only does he say that it is not appropriate for the man to divorce his wife for all of those reasons, but then he turns it around and says, and the same is true for the woman.
And of course, in those days, no one had ever thought about a woman divorcing her husband. And the truth of the matter is divorce was not an equal sided thing in those days. If a woman was divorced her position in the world became the lowest of the low. She had no one to care for her. No means to make a living or to survive. Indeed, she was pushed to the very outer edge of society.
And Jesus turns this around and makes this not an issue any longer about just men divorcing their wives, but also about the wives divorcing their husbands, it is at least in some degree, about putting a limit on that destructive disparity between the power of men and women in Jesusí society.
Finally, I donít think it is an accident that the story about people bringing their little children to Jesus follows directly after this story. For indeed, the children in that generation were the least important, the least powerful, the least influential people in their society. And Jesus lifts up these children and says, be like them, have that kind of faith, have that kind of trust, love them and by implication love your family in the way that God intended.
I feel sorry for poor Jim. He didnít know what he was getting into when they asked him to teach a Sunday school class because indeed some of these questions canít be answered at first glance. Is it lawful for a man or a woman to divorce their spouse? Moses says yes. But that isnít what God created us for. God created us for life and for love, for families to be places filled with the great gifts that God has created for us. Sometimes marriages fail to do that. Thatís not what God intended. Amen.
The 19th Sunday after Pentecost
September 30, 2018
Pastor Ed Foster
It was a couple of summers ago that my brother-in-law, my niece and I went on our big bike trip. We rode our bicycles from Seattle to Portland, 200 miles in two days. Now there are people that ride their bicycles a lot farther than that, in fact there are some people who do the whole 200 miles in one day. But still for a 50-year- old man, it was a big trip.
On the second day we rode into the outskirts of Portland and as soon as we realized that we were in Portland, the group that I was with kind of got our 17th wind and we started going faster until someone looked at their odometer and said loudly enough that we all heard, oh, weíve still got 10 miles to go. Then the weight of the previous 190 miles hit us and we slowed way down.
But it was just about that time that we came across two little girls sitting on the side of the road with big signs and glasses full of water and they cheered us on and refreshed us with these glasses of water and you know those 10 miles didnít seem so far after that. Indeed, my perception of Portland is almost colored by those two little girls. Now they didnít do that because we were followers of Jesus, but I am certain that that act of kindness will be rewarded.
Todayís lesson is cautionary tale and indeed it is one of the saddest stories I think Iíve seen in the entire Bible. John comes to Jesus and he tells him we saw this guy and this guy was casting out demons in your name and we tried to make him stop.
Think about that for a minute. They came across someone who was casting out demons, who was setting people free from the terrible misery that being possessed by a demon brought with it. Curing people, healing people, giving them their life back and giving them back to their families and their friends and their communities. They came across someone doing something wonderful and they tried to make him stop because he wasnít following us.
Jesus told them, donít do that. Donít make him stop. No one who does in the power of my name will soon after be able to speak evil of me. And then he says something incredible. Those who arenít against us, are for us. And whoever gives you a drink of water because you carried the name of Christ will not lose their reward.
Of course, for the most part, we humans see that the other way, donít we? Weíre a lot like John. Those who arenít with us, they must be against us. Those who arenít in our camp, in our group, those who arenít like us or with us, they must be against us.
You see it all around us these days, we are a terribly fractured people, the divisions between us are everywhere. Yes, they are political, right and left, Democrat and Republican. But they are in almost every part of our lives we are divided by gender, we are divided by race, we are divided by generations, we are divided by where we are from whether we are rural or urban or suburban, we are fractured and we are divided and indeed we seem to believe that those who arenít with us, they must be against us.
It is certainly true in the church. For much of my life I think I have witnessed a lessening of those boundaries and of those positions. The Lutheran Church has been a part of a number of agreements where we have come together with other denominations and said yes, the things that we find most core, we agree on and those are really what matter. And yet, I think in the last few years, the divisions between churches have grown just along with all the other divisions.
Jesus cautions us to not believe those who are not with us are against us. Instead to believe those who are not against us are with us. Indeed, I think it might be inviting us to offer one another a bit of kindness, a cup of cold water.
In one of the towns that I have lived in my life they had a problem with not having enough housing for low-income people. It was a huge problem in that community, so big that the community was given a huge pile of money to deal with the problem. Hereís the money, go and provide low-income housing for your community.
Sounds great, right? Who wouldnít mind getting a big pile of money? But like so often happens, there were differing opinions on how best to do that. One group said, letís go out and build as much low-income housing as we can. Letís build big apartment complexes and let us go to the places where we can buy that land for the cheapest and build as many low-income units as we can possibly build.
Now they recognized in a minute that there are indeed problems with that. That putting a bunch of low-income housing into one community affects the whole rest of the community in ways that need to be addressed, but they were willing to do that.
There was another group of folks who said, you know, weíve seen what happens when you put a whole bunch of low-income housing in one place, and we donít think thatís the best way to do it. We think that we should use this money and we should build projects all over the community, scattered aside houses and we will put in one, two or four family units and we will spread them out all over the town. No, we wonít be able to build as many as the other group wants to, but these will provide a better life for folks and will give them a better opportunity to progress from this low-income housing so that the turn over will be greater and we wonít actually need as much.
Now the point of this is not to argue about which one of those is the better idea. Those two groups became entrenched. They became entrenched to the point that they started to hate one another. The things they said about one another, the accusations, one was racist, and the other was profiteering. And wouldnít you know before long churches got involved.
One of the leaders of one of the factions was a prominent member of one church and of course some of the folks from the other side they were members of other churches and it became not just a political issue, it became a religious issue.
And the debate and the fighting went so long that the grant was cut in half. And the saddest thing about it was everyone of those people, I believe, honestly and truly cared about getting people into homes. To providing low-income housing but they became so distrustful, so divided amongst themselves, that they decided that everyone who wasnít with us, is against us. And wouldnít it have been nice if some where someone along the way would have said, here, have a cup of cold water.
Jesus warns us to be careful, to be careful and not believe that those who are not with us, that they are not always against us. The issues that we are divided over are big and important issues, they matter. But they matter so much that we ought to be careful that we donít decide that everyone who isnít with us is against us. Indeed, most people are hoping and wanting the same things. It doesnít mean that we should change our minds, that we should minimize those differences. But it also means that we shouldnít stop those who are doing good things. That we shouldnít find those places where we can work together. Because those who arenít against us, they really are with us. Amen.