The 17th Sunday after Pentecost
September 16, 2018
Pastor Ed Foster
One sunny Nebraska afternoon my friend Richard told me, nothing that counts comes easy. Richard was a retired Air Force pilot who had flown during the Korean War and after his retirement he started working on computers and set up the very first computer system at Belleview College, and those were the days when all of the program was on little punch cards.
He was a master gardener. And that day Richard was messing with his roses. He had some rose bushes there at the church that he was determined he was going to make perfect. And they were not cooperating. He had found special food that he thought would make them grow just the way he wanted them to and he had pruned them, he had staked them and tied them, he had even set up panels so that they would only get light from the direction that he wanted and they still werenít growing just the way he thought they should. So, I commented on his determination and his stick-to-itiveness and he said, nothing that counts comes easy.
To be sure he had had plenty of examples in life. Flying a bomber in Korea in those days when it wasnít all that sure that the plane was going to stay up on itsí own, much less with people shooting at it. And all of those years learning computers as the world was learning about computers, and even in those last years, Dick was raising his granddaughterís stepson because he was the only person that realized that everything that counts is difficult, nothing that counts comes easy.
You would think that being a Christian would be the easiest thing in the world. Jesus comes and he offers us love and grace, what could be easier than receiving the love and grace of God? And yes, indeed Jesus does point out all of the places where we fall short of Godís glory and Godís desires and wishes for us. But he also forgives us of those sins. Indeed, Jesus gives us Godís grace and Godís love, gives us eternal life. What could be easier than being a follower, a disciple of Jesus?
Of course, by this point in the Gospel, the disciples were indeed figuring out who Jesus was and they decided, oh man, weíre on easy street now, here is the Messiah, the one weíve been waiting for. When Jesus started to describe what that really meant, Peter pulled him aside and rebuked him.
Jesus says, those who want to follow him, must take up their cross and deny themselves. Well, that doesnít sound so easy at all, does it? Indeed, to follow Jesus is to give up all of those earthly, selfish desires and to take on the will and the mind of Christ himself. It is to give up our lives so that we can see that new life. Not so easy after all, is it?
We live in a world that is filled with things and people telling us that what we really need to do is to hold on to our lives, to put ourselves first, to fight for the people who think like us, or look like us, or act like us. That we should cling to ourselves and to our lives as tightly as we can. And Jesus says if we want real life we must take up our cross, deny ourselves and follow him.
Now to be sure in Jesus day that was quite literally the case, wasnít it? To follow Jesus did indeed mean risking oneís life and his disciples, at least according to tradition, all of them were martyred for their faith and surely still today in plenty of places around the world, to be a follower of Jesus does indeed mean not only risking your life, but sometimes giving it.
Luckily, I guess, that isnít something that we yet have experienced here. But Iím not sure if that doesnít make it all the more difficult. For indeed, everything counts or if something counts, itís not easy, and since our crosses are not quite so obvious, maybe it is easier for us to dismiss them? And indeed, if we live our lives and as we follow Jesus, it wonít be easy. We will be called to put God and our neighbor first and to let go of ourselves. We will be called to follow Christ into places that we ourselves would never want to go. We will be called to deny ourselves to follow him.
Nothing that counts is easy, but indeed, thatís why this is so hard because it truly does count. For what it is that we are conceding is the very essence of life itself, the eternal life that God has promised us. Amen.
The 16th Sunday after Pentecost
Sunday, September 9, 2018
Pastor Ed Foster
Well, itís that Sunday again, I keep hoping that somehow or another I will figure out a way to skip this lesson, itís the Sunday of the Syrophoenician woman. What do we say about this woman? The Jesus in this story does not sound like the Jesus we were taught growing up. This Jesus doesnít act like the Jesus that we have come to know and to love. This Jesus doesnít even act like the Jesus who will in just a few short chapters be dying on a cross for the whole world. This Jesus is hard.
You all remember where we had come from. Jesus has become rather famous. So famous that he and his disciples are being bugged from the moment the sun comes up in the morning till way after it goes down at night and they want a vacation, they want a break. So, they get in a boat and they go across the Sea of Galilee but that doesnít help. They get to the other side of the Sea of Galilee and the crowd has beat them there. Jesus does a few miracles and back across the Sea of Galilee they go and still the people come and they search him out, so now they are trying it again.
Now they go to a totally different country, to the land of Tyre. And Jesus goes and finds a place to stay and says, donít tell anybody that I am here. But still it doesnít work. A woman hears that he is here, a foreign woman, she speaks Greek, sheís not even from Tyre, sheís from father away than that. The Syrophoenician woman comes and she begs Jesus to heal her daughter who has been afflicted with an evil spirit. And Jesus looked at the woman and tries to dismiss her and calls her and her daughter dogs.
What do you make of that? That does not sound like the Jesus that I was taught about in grade school and in Sunday school. Every year when this comes up I go searching hoping that someone will have come up with a great explanation, an interpretation of this text that makes it easy to hear and explain and understand.
How about this one? The word that Jesus used for the woman and her daughter really isnít the word ďdogsĒ Ö what he said was ďpuppiesĒ Ö so thatís a term of endearment, not any kind of a slam. Really? I donít think so.
How about this one? Jesus only said that the children must be fed first isnít trying to put her off, but just asking her to wait. Well that doesnít really answer the question of why does Jesus call them dogs and if my child was suffering like that Iím not sure I would find being put off until he got done with the Jews all that helpful either.
Now, this one has been around for a long time and I wish that I could believe this was the right one. Jesus knew what was going on from the beginning. He knew what he was going to do, but he set this up so that the disciples could learn a lesson. He knew that the woman would come and he would call her a name and she wouldnít even resist it, she would just show faith, then his disciples would learn that everyone is welcome and they would treat everyone that way, too.
Now, I did read a new one this year and that is Jesus was having a bad day. That Jesus was tired, probably hungry and tired of all these people bugging him all the time and for goodness sakeís Jesus is both God and human, and this is an example of Jesusí humanity. Now, I donít completely dislike that one, except Iím not sure what that lesson we get from that? Does that mean itís okay when we are having a bad day to call people names?
The best answer that I have been able to come up with yet, and yet, its kind of like the first or the last one, is that Jesus didnít until this point realize who his ministry was really to. How big it was, how far it extended. Jesus had grown up a Jew, living amongst Jews, hearing about how special the Jewish people were, and everyone he knew thought that those Gentiles were dogs and that it wasnít until Jesus saw the faith of this woman, that even after having been called names, still believed and trusted that he could save her daughter. That Jesus realized how far his ministry went, how big it really was.
Now, Pastor Bob and I argued about this one year. He didnít like that one and there are some difficulties with it. We like to think that Jesus is omniscient, that from the moment he was born he knew who he was and everything that was going to happen. And we like to think that God never changes Godís mind, that God is the same today as he was 10,000 years ago, and the same as he will be 10,000 years from now. But to be honest, I kind of liked this idea that God is affected by his relationship with us. That when God sees our faith, when God experiences our pain, that God is moved and God is affected by that.
I canít tell you which one of those interpretations is right. When we get to heaven this should be on our list of things to ask Jesus. ďJesus, why did you make the pit in the avocado so big, why did you let anyone ever bring a metric wrench to America, and what were you thinking when you called that a woman a dog?
But what Jesusí motivation was in the end probably doesnít matter, because what is the effect of what happens that day? From that moment on, everyone is loved. From that moment on, it doesnít matter where you are from, what you look like, what language you speak, what religion you grew up in, from that moment on everyone is welcomed to the grace and love and the power of God.
I know thatís kind of important for me. I am pretty sure I have no Jewish blood in me, and to be honest with you there have been plenty of times in life when I havenít felt like I really deserve what God had to offer, for I felt kind of like one of the dogs sniffing around at the edge of the table and to be sure there are plenty of folks who have been willing to tell me thatís exactly what I am. That I didnít grow up in the right place, or in the right denomination, that I donít believe the right set of rules or live by them. And yet, from this moment on, it doesnít matter. From this moment on, Jesus is the Jesus that we grew up hearing about. The Jesus that welcomes and loves Romans, Syrophoenicians, people living 2,000 years later in Salina, Kansas.
Of course, with that revelation is also the revelation that we, too, need to watch how we think about others. That we have to realize yes, indeed, it isnít where you were born, what color your skin is, whether you go to a Baptist Church or Lutheran Church or some other denomination, that Godís grace and Godís love is now for all of Godís children and indeed, from this moment on there are no dogs. Well, yes there are Ė they are four footed and furry, and even the dogs are welcomed to pick up the crumbs underneath Godís table.
From this moment on, we are all Godís children. Amen.
The 15th Sunday after Pentecost
Sunday, September 2, 2018
Pastor Ed Foster
A popular movie called ďFootlooseĒ Ö any of you remember ďFootloose?Ē In the movie ďFootlooseĒ there is a small rural town, it could have been anywhere, and in that small town one of the pastors cited that dancing was evil. And so, he convinced the City Council to ban dancing in their town. But then showed up this young, handsome outsider, Kevin Bacon. And what did Kevin Bacon like to do more than anything else? He liked to dance. And so, the conflict began between Kevin Bacon and eventually all of the youth and all of those stodgy old people, especially the old preacher.
Of course, by the end of the movie we find out that the old preacherís son had died in a car accident on the way home from dancing. And by the end weíre all singing those songs that still play on the 80s oldie radio and everybody dances.
It wasnít a great movie, but the conflict is one that has raged amongst the religious since the very beginning. What is it that God wants from us and how is it that we live out our lives as people of God and how does that relate to all of those rules? And of course, those rules have been everywhere Ė whether it is no dancing or no playing cards or how long your hair can be if you are a guy or how short your skirt can be if you are a gal. Weíve had those rules since the very beginning.
For the disciples it was about this day washing their hands. You may have heard about the kosher laws. The Jewish people had a bunch of laws about how they should live their daily lives. What kinds of clothes they should wear, what kind of food they should eat, what days they should work, and what days they shouldnít. And one of those laws, one of those rules was about washing their hands.
Now it makes it sound here like it is just washing your hands. But there was a procedure to it all. It had to be the right kind of water. You had to say the right prayers and wipe your hands with the right kind of cloth and then you could eat.
Now, of course, to us outsiders it sounds kind of silly and even maybe kind of foolish, but the Jewish people understood that obeying those rules was their way of worshiping God. That everything they did in their daily life was a way to remember what God had done for them and to respond in thanks and in praise. So, their whole day was filled with opportunity to pray, opportunities to act out their love and their appreciation for God.
And, of course, that would have worked just great except they were humans, and as human beings we like to mess up lots of stuff, but one of the best things we like to mess up how we worship God. And, so, of course, even though in our first lesson today God warns them, donít add any, they did.
They started adding all kinds of new rules and laws. Sometimes it would be just an interpretation. But there would be 17 new things that you had to do make sure you washed your hands just correctly so that your whole day wasnít just a prayer to God, your whole day was regimented from the moment you woke up until the moment you went to sleep.
And, of course, once you have a set of rules then you have a standard by which you can judge one another, right? Jim Bob there he doesnít wash his hands right, I am better than him! And, so it became that how well you obeyed and observed the law was the standard by which we measure how good of a person you were, how holy you were, and if you were a horrible, miserable sinner.
But the worse thing about this, what James and Jesus points to us is that all of a sudden, the law became your religion. All of a sudden obeying the rules were no longer about expressing your love and your thanks to God, it became all that you thought you had to do. If I wash my hands correctly, it doesnít matter if I love God, if I go to the right sacrifices and give the right offerings, it doesnít matter if I am nice to my neighbor. If I obey the rules, that is all that God wants and thatís all it takes to be a righteous person.
So, is that still a problem today? Are we still human? Do we still use our understanding of what it is that God wants as a way to judge the righteousness and holiness of one another? Do we still think, huh, if I just obey the rules then Iím in? Do we think that being religious is more important than being faithful? Maybe sometimes, huh?
Jesus said that what we need more than obeying the rules, what we need more than washing our hands, is to wash our hearts. That that really is what God wants from us for us to love God and to love our neighbors and for us to be so filled with that love that it pours out of us and we donít even have to worry about the rules, that they just come naturally.
So, Jesus came to do just that, to wash our hearts and to fill us with such love and with such grace that that love and grace pours out from us, that we fill each day from the moment we get up until the moment we go to bed, with acts of love and kindness and generosity, acts of thanksgiving to God and acts of praise.
So, dance like youíve never danced before, eat bacon if that makes you happy. But love God and love your neighbor and let your hearts be washed with the love and grace of God. Then you are righteous and you are holy and you are living the law of God. Amen.