Monday, August 26, 2013

The blood of Jesus

Hebrews 12:18-29, Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost C, August 25, 2013

            Grace and peace be unto you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen.
            The blood running through our arteries and veins is such a beautiful, powerful life source. This organ runs through us, bringing life-giving oxygen and nutrients to every part of our body. Our blood even takes away our waste. Our cells can function because our blood enables them to do so.
            It is because blood is such a vital part of our bodies that some cultures think that blood is sacred. Even in the Bible, blood is considered life, which is why we are not supposed to eat the blood of animals. And yet, just as blood is so life-giving, blood can also take life away. For if blood stops flowing through the body, then life ends.
The body is naturally equipped to repair itself. When minor cuts or injuries cause bleeding, the blood clots to begin the healing process. Yet, when blood clots where it is not supposed to, either in the brain, heart, or lung, it can cause strokes, heart attacks, or death.
            Blood has been on my mind a lot this week. As my dad slowly begins to heal from his blood clots, I worry about him. I also began to grieve anew for my cousin and uncle who died from pulmonary embolisms. You see, a genetic blood clotting disorder runs through our family bloodline. So, you can imagine, when I heard last Saturday night that my father had a pulmonary embolism, I was scared.
            In my family, pulmonary embolism equates to death, yet my father survived. Why did my father survive yet my cousin and uncle died? I do not know. Maybe this is part of God’s plan; maybe my Dad was just lucky. Either way, my Dad has a long road ahead of him as his clots continue to dissolve.
            With the power of blood on my mind this week, I was struck by verse 24 of the second lesson: “and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.” (NRSV) Here, Jesus’ spilled blood from the cross is compared to the blood of Abel spilled in a field.
            Think back with me to Genesis chapter 4 and recall the story of Cain and Abel: These brothers are the sons of Adam and Eve. After Adam and Eve eat of the fruit of the tree in the center of the garden, they were expelled from Eden. From that day on, their lives were more difficult because of it.
            When Cain and Abel were old enough, their parents certainly told them stories about how wonderful Eden was, and how they threw it away with a foolish bite of fruit. Now, grown up, Cain has chosen to be a farmer, and Abel a sheepherder. When the time came for them to offer a sacrifice of gratitude to the Lord, Cain offered of his grain and Abel offered a fattened lamb.
For some reason, the Lord preferred the lamb, and Cain was extremely jealous. So jealous in fact, that he brought Abel into his field and killed him. The Lord, angry at Cain for killing his brother, tells him, “What have you done? Listen; your brother's blood is crying out to me from the ground!” (Gen. 4:10, NRSV)
The blood of Abel cried out to the Lord for justice and judgment, and the Lord responded in kind. The Lord punished Cain to a life of hard labor. Marking him so that no one would kill him, the Lord forced Cain to live out his days always reflecting on the blood that he spilled. This second sin may have been worse than the first.
Our second lesson from the book of Hebrews upholds another one’s spilled blood – Jesus. Abel was tricked into his death, yet Jesus knew exactly what he was doing. Jesus willingly carried his cross to the point of death, offering his life in our place. The blood that he spilled was sacred and life-giving in a way that ours is not. Our blood sustains us physically in the short run, but Jesus’ blood sustains our spirit forever. We have life because Jesus gave up his.
Jesus’ blood also cried out to the Lord. But instead of crying out for judgment, Jesus’ blood cried out for forgiveness and redemption. Jesus’ blood willingly given overturned Abel’s blood spilled by deceit and greed. Said another way, the blood of sin is purified by the blood of sacrifice. Indeed, Jesus’ blood purifies all of us, not just Abel.
Jesus’ death and consequent gift of life created a new covenant between God and God’s people. Jesus is the mediator of this, but not in the way that we think of a mediator. Jesus didn’t have God and humanity sit at opposite ends of a conference table to have us hash out an unwilling compromise. No. Jesus is the middleman, sharing with us the covenant that God freely gives.
We have heard about covenants in the Old Testament. God promises to Noah never to destroy the earth again. God promises to Abraham land, fame, and a child who will bring uncountable descendants. God promises to David that there will always be a king on the throne of Israel. All of these covenants, although broad sweeping, only related to life on earth. The Lord made grand promises that continue to today, but none of the covenants from the Old Testament even mention life everlasting.
This is why this covenant Jesus mediated is so wonderful. Because Jesus spilled his blood, we might have life eternal. We will live past our earthly days because of Jesus. Jesus frees us from the bonds of sin so that we might be able to serve the Lord through worship, word, and deed. Every time that we receive communion, we can remember how Jesus’ spilled blood gives us life. Every time that we leave this building, we leave renewed, empowered, and enlivened again to share the love of God with the world.

In Jesus’ blood spilled from the cross, we see a reflection of God’s love for us. In this life force of Jesus, we see how a world of sin, pain, and death was overturned. In the blood of Jesus, we hear a word of Gospel that speaks a better word than the blood of sin. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Monday, August 19, 2013

The Great Cloud of Witnesses

Hebrews 11:29-12:2, Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost C, August 18, 2013

            Grace and peace be unto you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen.

            Noah. Abraham. Joseph. Moses. Gideon. Samson. These are the heroes of our faith. These people blindly followed God’s vision no matter how outrageous it was. We have learned about these people since we were the youngest of children, and we have come to love them. These people fought bravely against enemies and led the Israelites into the land of milk and honey.

            But these aren’t the only heroes in the Bible. There are women like Rachel, Rahab, Tamar, and Ruth. There are lesser-known men like Enoch, Barak, and Jephthah. And heroes are in the New Testament too! Each of the Marys, Johns, and Peter are all inspirations to us today.  They stood by Jesus’ side during thick and thin, living into the gospel just as Jesus hoped they would.
            Throughout history, people have joined the “great cloud of witnesses” that the book of Hebrews describes so eloquently. Throughout time and space, people have prayed for God to guide them so that they may be beacons of God’s love. For some of them, that meant that they were called to ordinary lives like being nurses, secretaries, teachers, and farmers. Some have lost their lives because they stood up for political social causes. Others have lived into old age, continuing to preach the gospel through word and deed.

            One such model of faith from the early church is St. Marcella. Living in the fourth century, this woman was a great friend with St. Jerome, who once called her “The glory of all the saints.” Marcella was born into a wealthy Roman household, and she married into another wealthy family. Yet, after only seven months of marriage, her husband died.
Although men continued to court her after her time of grieving, she refused to remarry. Instead, she dedicated her life to chastity and charity. She prayed constantly, studied scripture, and visited shrines of the first Christian martyrs.  She donated much of her wealth, saying that she “preferred to store her money in the stomachs of the needy rather than hide it in a purse.”
In her faithful studies, Marcella learned of St. Antony who lived a monastic life. She was inspired, and she gathered likeminded women and created what might be the first convent. These widows and unmarried women also were wealthy, yet they too wanted to give to the poor. When Jerome visited Marcella and her self-made community, he compared these women to those who stood by Jesus. Marcella is a hero of our faith. (All Saints, p. 55)

These heroes of our faith are not always the leaders of the faith. Throughout the time of the Reformation, when Martin Luther was persecuted by the Catholic church, Lucas Cranach the Elder recorded this history through his artwork. He painted portraits of Martin Luther and his family and also painted Luther’s distinctive theology.
In Luther’s German translation of the Bible, published on the printing press, Cranach supplied all of the woodcuts displaying the most important biblical messages. Cranach’s triptych may be the most famous. On the right side of the painting is Martin Luther, standing on a balcony and pointing to the crucified Christ in the center. On the left hand side is the congregation.

Thus, Christ is always at the center – at the center of the sermon, at the center of the Gospel, and at the center of our worship experience. Christ crucified is why we have life, and Cranach displayed this for all in a prophetic way. Cranach’s paintings and woodcuts reached an audience that Luther’s writings could not. Cranach displayed Luther’s theology in simply profound ways.
Lucas Cranach may have been a small character in the reformation, yet he had an important role in the creation of the Lutheran church. New history was made this week as our current presiding bishop, Rev. Mark Hanson, was not elected to a third term.

Bishop Hanson spent the past twelve years leading the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. He helped to bring us through some of the toughest times in our church’s short twenty-five year history. Through disagreements over sexuality and interpretation of scripture and through rough budget cuts, Bishop Hanson was considerate, graceful, and bold.
With every natural and national disaster, Bishop Hanson created You Tube videos to give us hope amidst tragedy. He always upheld the Gospel as he did the work of God. He worked with leaders of the faith around the world to foster ecumenical agreements. Bishop Hanson’s bold leadership brought our church to a place where we could move afresh under new leadership.

The theme for the Churchwide Assembly that happened this week is “Always Being Made New.” Indeed, this is the theme for the entire 25th anniversary celebration. So, as we are always being made new, the Churchwide Assembly considered new leadership for this church. And the delegates spoke.

They voted for a new Presiding Bishop, the Rev. Elizabeth Eaton, who currently serves as the bishop of the Northeastern Ohio Synod. In the interviews leading up to the fifth ballot, Bishop Eaton spoke about returning to our Lutheran heritage so that we are not “generic Protestants.” She spoke about the diversity around us and our need to move forward. Bishop Eaton’s deadpan humor brightened the room.
In the news conference following her election, she said, “We don’t agree on everything in this church, but we do agree on the cross of Christ, and we do agree that we are going to stick together to have that conversation.” On multiple occasions, she said that we will need to get out of the way so that God can do God’s work through us. Most of all, “People want a place where they hear the gospel. They want a place where they are valued, made new in Jesus Christ.” (

Yes, we yearn to hear the gospel. In our world filled with tragedy and despair, we need to hear words of hope and healing. In this place, in this congregation, and in this church, we are valued as important people in the “great cloud of witnesses.” In our own special ways as we work together, we are heroes of the faith. As we minister to the hungry, to the poor, and to the young and old, we are making a difference.

God is working through us to make the world a better place. We can do all of this because Christ went before us. Christ is the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who “for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.” Now let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us. Amen.           

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Abram's Faith

Genesis 15:1-6, Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost C, August 11, 2013

            Grace and peace be unto you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen.
            Here are a few interesting definitions that I found online:
DISCONFECT (dis kon fekt’) verb. To sterilize the piece of candy you dropped on the floor by blowing on it, somehow assuming this will ‘remove’ all the germs.
PEPPIER (pehp ee ay’) noun. The waiter at a fancy restaurant whose sole
purpose seems to be walking around asking diners if they want ground pepper.
PHONESIA (fo nee’ zhuh) noun. The affliction of dialing a phone number and forgetting whom you were calling just as they answer.
CARPERPETUATION (kar’ pur pet u a shun) noun. The act, when vacuuming, of running over a string or a piece of lint at least a dozen times, reaching over and picking it up, examining it, then putting it back down to give the vacuum one more chance.
            Definitions can make words come alive – whether they are for fun fake words or for theology-dependent words.  Word studies for biblical terms develop a beautiful complexity of meaning, showing how one word can be rich and deep. All of the nuances of the word make it a living term. Some of these beautiful theological words can be found in the first and second lesson today, including righteousness and faith. In the NRSV translation read today, the Greek noun pistis is translated as “faith,” and the verb pisteuo is translated as “believed.”
            We each have our own understandings of what faith is, how it works for us, and how God is involved in it.  Faith is a gift from God. Without God’s influence in our lives, we would not believe. God is so big, so loving, and so confusing that believing in God can be a challenge.
            Yet faith is so much more than believing in God. Accepting church teachings as fact is only a very small part of faith. In fact, some call the acceptance of doctrine “dead faith.” Faith is a richer, deeper concept than intellectual understanding of God.
            Our faith is alive because God is alive. God is working in and through us every day, inspiring us to do better and be better. Living faith is our relationship with God, fueled by prayer, worship, and Bible study. Our faith is grounded in the love of God, and it is that love that inspires Abram to believe God’s outrageous promise that he is going to have a son, even in his old age.

            From the beginning, Abram and God had an intriguing relationship. Abram was able to talk to God in prayer in ways that few since have dared to do, and God pushed Abram in kind. Near the beginning of Abram’s story in Genesis, God tells Abram to gather his entire household, including everyone and everything that he had, and leave. God tells them to go to “a land I will show you.” Abram did so, completely trusting God to show him the way.
            At times along the way, Abram wondered if God would keep God’s promises. These promises, that God would give Abram a son, that God would give them land, and that God would make Abram’s name great, were so outrageous that Abram couldn’t help but wonder. Certainly, Abram had to wait many, many years before all of these promises were fulfilled.
            During the passage read this morning, the Lord says in a vision to Abram, “Do not be afraid, Abram, for I will protect you, and your reward will be great." Feisty as ever, Abram pushes back. “How can my reward be great,” Abram prays, “if I don’t have a son to pass on my legacy? I only have a servant as my heir!” And the Lord rebuts in kind, “This servant is not your heir! You will have a son! Look at the stars in the sky. They are too many to count, yet your family will be as many as these.” As crazy as it sounded, Abram believed the Lord, and the Lord treated his faith as righteousness.
            The fact that Abram believed the promises that the Lord gave him did not help these blessings to come true any sooner. Abram and Sarai had to wait many years before Isaac came along. When he did, they rejoiced! They loved that little boy and watched him grow into adulthood. They lived a simple, happy life together, trusting that the Lord would provide.
            This Abram, whom God later renamed Abraham, continued to be an inspiration to believers long after his death. His story as recorded in scripture has become a model for living the life of faith.

            The biblical book of Hebrews takes this to heart. In the 11th chapter of Hebrews, the author outlines the history of Israel by describing how believers throughout history trusted God to lead them on the right path. The author writes, “Faith is the confidence that what we hope for will actually happen; it gives us assurance about things we cannot see. Through their faith, the people in days of old earned a good reputation. By faith we understand that the entire universe was formed at God's command, that what we now see did not come from anything that can be seen.” (Heb. 11:13)
            The text continues to describe how Abraham believed in God and trusted God each step of the way. Every time that God gave Abraham a command, he followed through. Although sometimes impatient, Abraham never faltered in his faith. And because of his faith in God, his descendants are as numerous as the stars.
            The author of Hebrews uses the faith of Abraham as an example for us because Abraham trusted that God would fulfill God's promises despite Abraham’s situation.  God made Abraham the head of the faithful family of Jews and Gentiles because of Abraham's simple yet living faith.
            So, here are a few new definitions:
            ABRAHAM Proper Noun.  The biological father of the Jews and the spiritual father of all believers in the one God.  This man received promises from God that extend to all of God's chosen people.
            RIGHTEOUSNESS Noun.  The integrity of God that is passed to humanity so that we might be eligible for heavenly eternal life. 

            FAITH Noun.  Belief in the one true God that extends beyond mere thoughts and ideas into a meaningful relationship with God.  God’s gift of faith is one of our greatest blessings. Amen.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Stinky Pigs!

Luke 12:13-21, Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost C, August 4, 2013

            Grace and peace be unto you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen.

            I will be honest with you – I don’t know much about farming. I grew up in the suburbs of Chicago, so the only time that I saw livestock was when I went to a petting zoo. In third grade, my class incubated some chicken eggs, but as soon as the eggs hatched, they went back to the farm. We went as a class to visit the farm where the chicks went, but that was all that farms were for me growing up – field trips.

            I have always been a city girl; this was most evident to me once I moved away from home. When I was at Wartburg College, sometimes the wind would blow a certain way and we could smell the nearby farms. My friends would say that it smelled like money, but I just thought it smelled like stinky pigs. I rarely have grown anything from the seed, so I’m not sure that I truly appreciate today’s gospel lesson.
            In the parable, there is this farmer. He has worked really hard all season long, and he is blessed with a great crop. He is so excited that he has a bumper crop, even though he has nowhere to put the extra grain! He decides that he needs a bigger barn to hold his goods, so he plans to tear down his current barn and build a bigger one. From his perspective, he didn’t do anything wrong.
            And here is where my lack of farming experience comes in. I don’t know how much work this man did to grow his crops. I don’t know how much land he owned or if he had any help on the farm. I don’t know how the other farmers around him fared that harvest season.
            I may not know much about modern farming, and I certainly have never done any farming myself, but I do know my Bible. In the early biblical period, meaning before King David, the early Israelites wrote a lot of laws about living on a farm. This agrarian lifestyle was crucial to their survival. Each farmer didn’t have much, so what they did have they valued greatly.
The laws in Deuteronomy and Leviticus are severe. An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth go for livestock as well. If an animal mauls a neighbor’s animal, then the one farmer must give the other a replacement animal – and often more than that. For some farmers, losing an animal may mean losing an income.
            The Bible also shows us that these poor farmers were expected to tithe their crops. They were expected to give the first ten percent of their crops as an offering to the Lord, returning thanks for how God had blessed them.
Then the church would use these foodstuffs to help feed the widows, the orphans, and the aliens, people who could not provide for themselves. These subsistence farmers who could barely survive on the food that they made gave ten percent of their crops to the church because they knew that there were always others who were poorer and hungrier than they.
            That seems to be the problem with the rich farmer in this parable. He doesn’t consider who may be in more need than he. He doesn’t return thanks to God through prayer, sacrifice, or donation. This rich farmer’s first reaction is to build a bigger barn. This man wants to save his bumper crop until later when it may become more valuable. Yes, this rich farmer is a profitable man, but in being so he also is a selfish one.
            This man is so conceited that he doesn’t even talk to anyone about it. He talks to himself. He says, “Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years. Relax, eat, drink, and be merry.” This may be the worst part. He is so confident in this one year’s crop that he thinks that he can retire early. Or at least he plans to take a long vacation. Yet, if I have learned anything about farming, it is that the work never ends. This man truly is a fool.
            This man is so selfish that God directly reprimands him. God says to this rich farmer, “You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” In these few short words, God shows this rich man his folly. In the process of becoming a shrewd businessman, the rich farmer ruins the economy of those around him. Other people will suffer because this man decided to keep it all to himself.
            Unlike other passages of scripture, this passage is NOT saying that you should sell everything and give it all to the poor. This passage is NOT saying that you should suffer so that others don’t have to. Luke IS saying that we should give thanks to God for all that God has blessed us. In addition to prayer and praise, giving thanks can look like tithing of your income, your work time, or your profit.
            The problem with wealth is that it causes people to think that they are self-sufficient. The money and the success are not the issue at all. But when the money and the success stir the people to forget all those who helped them become successful, that is the problem. The rich man didn’t realize that he had a great crop because his forebears taught him how to farm. The weather must have been excellent that season. He had all of the tools that he needed to harvest the crop. Most of all, the rich farmer was successful because God blessed him so.
            Yet this farmer neglected to thank the Lord. The rich farmer neglected to serve his neighbors. He only had himself in mind. We don’t have to make the same mistakes of this shrewd farmer. When we put the Lord at the center of our lives, everything will fall into place. Then we can see all that God has blessed us. Then we can return thanks for our blessings. And in returning thanks, we can make a difference among those who have not been as richly blessed.

            So, next time that the wind blows in your direction and you smell a nearby farm, don’t think “Money!” or even “Stinky pigs!” Instead, think “God’s blessings!” and say a prayer of gratitude for that farm. Amen.