Thursday, October 29, 2015

Blind Bart and the Luther Rose

Julie Monnard, Zion Lutheran Church
Mark 10:46-52, Reformation Sunday B, October 25, 2015
Grace and peace be unto you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen.

In Seminary, I studied this text about blind Bartimaeus for a final project. In addition to the paper, I also had to create some sort of integrative project. I knew that crocheting would take too long, so I decided to paint my learning. 

When Bart cried out, "Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!" he was using loaded terms. By calling Jesus "Son of David," he was confessing that he believed all that was told about him in the Old Testament. More specifically, he may have been referencing Psalm 110:1 which is quoted in Mark 12. So, that is what I painted in the speech bubble.

Now, here's the truth: I am not proud of this painting. I wasn't then and I am not now. I don't even want to hang this up in the privacy of my own home.
Where's Jesus
A wise pastor friend once taught me that once a canvas has served its purpose, it is time to wipe it clean and start fresh. Some art is not meant to last forever! So, this past week, I did just that. I took this bad painting of blind Bart, painted it white, and started fresh.

As I considered what to paint, I thought about blind Bart's confession of faith. If I had to visually confess my faith, what would I use? Well, on this Reformation Day, of course I would use a Luther Rose. Luther put some careful thought into this symbol, and I still stand behind all that it represents. The background is the liturgical calendar. 

Now, I'm still a bad painter. I had more fun figuring out the math of how to get each of the 52 wedges the same size than I did painting it in. I even had to trace the Rose and the Heart! 
This represents for me the cycles of faith and how I experience God in the Lutheran tradition. 
If you had to represent your faith in visual terms, what would you create?

Of camels and needles

Mark 10:17-31, 20th Sunday after Pentecost B, October 11, 2015

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

If you don’t feel convicted after listening to this lesson, then you weren’t paying attention. Jesus is speaking some hard words directly to us. Because, let’s be honest, even if you are struggling financially, you are still richer than most of those in this world. Jesus is telling us to sell everything that makes us comfortable and give the money to the poor. 

It is impossible for a rich person to enter heaven just as it is impossible for a camel to fit through the eye of a needle. This statement has made people so uncomfortable over the ages that scholars, pastors, and lay people alike have explained it away. Some have spiritualized it by saying that we don’t really need to sell our possessions. Instead, we need to purge our bad thoughts! When we make this about what goes on inside the individual, then we can easily ignore our homeless brothers and sisters.

Others turned away from spiritualizing the comment. Instead, they want to find a way to get a camel through the eye of a needle. Jesus is using a metaphor to make a statement, so why not make either the camel or the needle metaphorical? For example, some Christians built a small gate in the wall of Jerusalem and called it the eye of a needle. A camel could get through this gate if it was stripped of the loads of stuff it was carrying. Therefore, we don’t need to get rid of all our wealth, just that which is a burden.

More recently, I found a political cartoon on a Google image search which quotes this verse. It shows a camel stuck halfway through a very large needle. A rich man in a top hat watching this distressed camel says, “It’s simple. We’ll buy a bigger needle!” He is hoping to buy his way out of this metaphor and thus completely subverts the point!

Of course, there is the artist who created camels so small that not one but nine camels fit into the eye of a sewing needle. For centuries, rich people have tried to prove Jesus wrong. With each of these examples, it is like we are saying, “Look Jesus! A camel can fit through the eye of a needle. Can I enter heaven now?” I can only imagine Jesus facepalming. 

We don’t get it! Jesus is telling us that it is impossible for us to enter heaven by our own good will. We can’t buy our way into heaven, although the rich man certainly wanted to. Did you notice that in his question? He said, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” First, he is asking what he can do, implying that he has any authority to earn his way in. Essentially, he thinks God has some massive spreadsheet where God keeps track of everyone’s good and bad deeds. Jesus shows us this isn’t true. 

The second part of the question is specifically about money. The rich man asks about inheriting eternal life. Here, he is referencing the fact that landowners often became wealthy by exploiting the nearby poor landowners. When the poor couldn’t pay back loans tot he wealthy, then the rich could take the poor’s property. It was a way to “inherit” without being a next of kin. This rich man doesn’t just want to earn his way into eternal life, but he wants to buy his way in. How is Jesus supposed to respond to a question that is so off key?

Knowing that this man isn’t ready to hear the truth right away, he eases him in by talking through the commandments. Notice, Jesus never directly states that following the commandments is a prerequisite into eternal life. But they are a way to get closer to God. By following God’s law, this rich man is closer to accepting the good news Jesus has to give.

There is one more step! Clearly, this rich man is relying on his wealth instead of God to get him through life. So, Jesus tells him to sell his possessions and give the money to those in need. That would enable this man to take his focus off himself and put it on another. This is not good news for the rich man, so he went away grieving. He couldn’t bear to stay any longer! He left before he heard the whole story.

I think it is important to note why Jesus said this. Last week, the Pharisees were trying to trick Jesus, so Jesus responded truthfully but harshly. Here, the text says that Jesus loved the rich man. The rich man isn’t trying to trick Jesus; instead he is asking an honest question. Jesus is trying to carefully point this man in the right direction. When he puts his trust in God instead of wealth, then he will be ready to hear the good news. 

When we hear this passage, we often respond either like the people of old who explained away the tough message here, or we also walk away sad and unwilling to hand over our wealth. But not everyone. 

Shane Claiborne is the author of The Irresistible Revolution. In it, he tells of his journey to Calcutta to spend a summer with Mother Teresa. He spent that time helping the sick and homeless have a little dignity in their desperation. He wasn’t the only one serving there, though. He wrote of a man named Andy who worked with him. Shane learned that he used to be a wealthy German businessman until he became a Christian. He took Jesus’ words quite literally. He sold all of his possessions and gave much of it to the poor. Having offered his money to the poor, now he is offering his time and talents. This man made a commitment to the Lord when he agreed to live and work in Calcutta. 

Another example of this was shared at the Why Christian? Conference. Tiffany Thomas is a Baptist pastor in Charlotte, NC. Although she once was on staff at a wealthy congregation, she now serves two poor congregations. Her members live in systemic poverty and face crisis after crisis. Their lives are a mess, yet they always come on Sunday. They need to hear the good news. Offerings at one congregation are only about $200 a week. 

One fall, a local newspaper was interviewing Tiffany. She was talking about the homeless in her neighborhood when she blurted out that her church would be open every night the temperature got below 20. She hadn’t passed that by anybody in her church. She had no plan for how to staff her church to care for these homeless.

Then her janitor stepped up. That entire winter, he slept at the church and let in any homeless who needed a warm place to sleep. That janitor sacrificed so much for the poor.

These are extreme examples, yet I hope you might be inspired to do something extraordinary to follow Jesus’ teaching. Yet even selling everything and giving your money to the poor won’t earn you a place in heaven. Following the commandments won’t earn you eternal life. Even baptism isn’t a free ticket.

So what is Jesus’ good news? He says, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”(v. 27) There is nothing that we can do to earn our way into heaven. Nothing. Eternal life is beyond our reach on our own. The good news is that God gifts us with eternal life. God, through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, brings us into eternal life. No amount of money, brownie points, or prerequisites can get us there. Only God.

This is the good news. There is nothing that we can do to earn eternal. That is a gift, a gift that we do not deserve, yet a gift that we willingly receive. All that we do is a way to return thanks to God for all that Jesus has done for us. We serve the Lord cheerfully for the grace that Jesus gives to us. Amen.

Divorce wasn't part of God's plan

Mark 10:2-16, 19th Sunday after Pentecost B, October 4, 2015

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

I recently read the young adult novel Divergent by Veronica Roth. The main character, Tris, took a test as a teenager to determine what faction she would live in for the rest of her life. The leaders of her city wanted her to fit neatly into their box, yet she didn’t. Her test results showed that she could have fit into multiple factions, marking her Divergent. 

Each time that someone asked her about her test results, she answered truthfully yet differently. When her brother asked right after the test, she said that she wasn’t allowed to talk about it - which is true. Later, after she moved to another faction, her mother found her and asked her test results. Then she said that her results were inconclusive (meaning Divergent), which is true. Towards the end of the book, when the woman hunting Divergents asked of her test results, she said that her result was for her home faction, which is what was manually recorded.

Each time, Tris answered truthfully yet differently. I think that is what Jesus is doing here. The Pharisees are trying to trick Jesus - they want to figure out which faction of Jews he fits into. Jesus can see through their question about divorce, and he answers in a way that does not fit him into a box. Instead of answering directly whether divorce is legal or not, Jesus turns the question on its head. 

Jesus takes a question that is about law and makes it about relationships. Jesus does not state whether a certificate of divorce is legal or not. He does state that God’s original plan was for man and woman to be together forever. Divorce was not part of God’s plan, neither was adultery or homosexuality.

But sin entered the world, so now divorce is a sad reality. The sins that we commit break relationships apart. They separate us from God, and sometimes they force husbands and wives to separate too. Divorce is a sad reality, yet Jesus reminds us of the love that God has for us, from the beginning of creation to today...

Monday, October 19, 2015

Finding Good Christian Resources

When I was learning how to preach in seminary, my professor encouraged us to ask ourselves the question, “Did Jesus have to die for this sermon to be preached?” That means, “Did I proclaim Christ crucified in my sermon? Was my preaching reflective of the theology of the cross?”

These are good questions for us to ask of sermons, yet they also are important to ask when looking for Christian materials. If you are looking for something to read, watch, or listen to that reflects your Lutheran Christian beliefs, you face a steep challenge.

There are Christian resources all over the place, yet most do not reflect our specific beliefs about Christ. Walking through the Christian Family Bookstore or looking at, you will most likely find a lot of evangelical resources. Instead of proclaiming that ONLY CHRIST can save us, many of these other resources say that we can influence our own salvation. Instead of upholding the Bible and the Sacraments as the best ways to experience God, these proclaim personal revelations. Instead of encouraging communal experiences of faith, these almost always emphasize personal relationships.

So, here are some suggestions that I have for finding good Lutheran (or at least mainline) Christian resources:
  • Check out resources from the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America:
  • Borrow from Pastor Julie’s personal library. As long as I know what you have borrowed, you are welcome to borrow anything. Beware, I love to write in my books! Here are some of my favorite authors:
    • Nadia Bolz-Weber. She preaches the gospel in a fresh yet authentically Lutheran way.
    • Rachel Held Evans. She is an Evangelical turned Episcopal; she writes in a light tone as she describes her faith struggles.
    • Rob Bell - A speaker and writer, he has a beautifully simple way of writing about faith.
    • Barbara Brown Taylor - She describes finding faith outside as well as inside the church.
    • Frederick Buechner - He is a theologian and a writer; his prose is poetic in its detail.
    • C. S. Lewis - The author of The Chronicles of Narnia, he also has many Christian books for adults.
    • Henri Nouwen - His simple, short books are pieces of art.
  • To be honest, I am not inspired by most specifically Christian movies available. I find that they do not have the depth of content as more mainstream movies. There are plenty of movies out that have great messages, even if they don't talk about God.
  • I also don't listen to Christian radio. I love storytelling podcasts, including:
There is plenty of other excellent content out there that I haven't seen yet. Let me know what you enjoy!

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Esther and Why Christian?

Esther, 18th Sunday after Pentecost B, September 26, 2015

Grace and peace be unto you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen.
Esther is a bold woman of faith. She literally saved the lives of her people, standing up for them when no one else could. She used her political position as Queen of Persia to convince the king that Haman did wrong. Esther is a role model.
Not only were her actions dangerous and honorable, but her words were as well. There are few women in scripture who have more words recorded than Esther. Even the fact that the book is named after her is extraordinary.
Few women throughout religious history have risen to such high esteem. Yet few Jewish or Christian women have become queen without revealing their identity. Esther is a rare case, yet it is the ordinary women who face such large obstacles who are more noteworthy. Most women do not have the power of Queen Esther, yet they also break secular systems to enact justice.
It is stories like these that I heard about last week at the Why Christian? conference. I went because it was hosted by two of my most favorite Christian public figures, Nadia Bolz-Weber and Rachel Held Evans. Yet it was the eleven other speakers who took my breath away. These speakers were vulnerable as they told their stories. They wove their past struggles with deeply held beliefs about God.
These female speakers gave a voice to gay, transgender, black, Asian, and Indian Christians. Most were clergy of various traditions, and a few were laity. Each shared bold stories of faith. Many of them faced situations that were just as life threatening as Queen Esther. Many felt like foreigners in their own churches.
What was so powerful for me was to hear their stories firsthand. I could not do justice to their stories telling them secondhand, so I won’t. At least not yet. Instead, I think it is more important that I respond to the same question that they answered. Which is,
“Why Christian? Why, in the wake of centuries of corruption, hypocrisy, crusades, televangelists, and puppet ministries do we continue to follow Jesus? Why, amidst all the challenges and disappointments, do we still have skin in the game?”
This question is intentionally not, “Why Jesus?” The question is not why do we intellectually believe in God. The question is why we choose to have a relationship with Jesus and the church. Why do we continue to live in Christian community even if the possibility of getting hurt is great?
Well, for me, I haven’t been hurt too much by the church. Yes, I thought I might have to leave my internship site because of problem makers. And yes, I have faced other difficult people in other churches. But the fact of the matter is that I have never been turned away from the church.
Nobody has ever told me that I can't be a pastor because I am a woman. Sure, my young age has been a challenge at times, but you have all grown to respect me. 
So, why do I need the church? Because the church and her institutions are where I get inspired. Nature is nice, but that is not where I experience God. Sometimes, even worship is not where I get inspired. It is the classroom. 
I have been a Lutheran my whole life, but I didn’t learn to love the Bible until college. I didn’t learn to love liturgy until seminary. As each inspiration happens, my challenge is to take the old and make it new. I must take Bible passages, understand them in their original context, and then relate them to our modern lives. 
I am often amazed at how Jesus’ words, though 2,000 years old, still are as countercultural today as they were then. I love studying Old Testament women like Esther and celebrate how they break cultural stereotypes. I also grieve that so many women in the Old Testament are victims of violence.
Even the basic structure of our liturgy goes back to the beginning of the church. Since the beginning of Christianity, worship has used Gathering, Word, Meal, and Sending as the pattern. Yet my challenge is to take these ancient words and make them relevant to you. 
You know that I enjoy taking old things and reviving them for a new generation. I do this with tatting. I take hundred year old patterns, use bright thread and add some beads. Then old boring edgings become vibrant jewelry. Recreating brings me joy, be it with scripture, liturgy, or tatting.
I may not feel like I need Jesus as much as the Why Christian? speakers do, but the fact of the matter is that I want God. I want the Old Testament stories to ring truth today. I want to follow Jesus' teaching. I want to feel God's presence in the classroom and in the sanctuary. I want it all enough that eventually, I do need it to be true. I don't need to have a dark, convoluted past to need Christ. 
This is a messy world that we live in. We are surrounded by violence, hatred, and despair. We see it in the news and on the streets. We hear of family suffering from cancer and fighting losing battles. We know friends struggling with financial crises. With so much to bring us down, only Christ can bring us up.

Only Christ can give us hope that there is something more to look forward to after this life. Only Christ could offer himself to die to show us how to live. Only Christ could love those rejected by society. Only Christ. Amen.