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Fourteenth Sunday After Pentecost: Matthew 18:1-20

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That was a long gospel—and lots of moving parts: there is the disciples asking about greatness, then there is the small child, then there are the hands and feet and eyes which you thought you needed but you don’t. Then there are all the little ones with their guardian angels, the one lost sheep with his shepherd, brothers who are willing to act like brothers, and some more brothers—just two or three—huddled together in the name of Jesus. 

So if you will allow me to simplify, what we have today is a gospel about the foolish and the small, the handicapped, the despised and the lost, the sinful and the few. We have a gospel about all our limitations, in which Jesus exposes all of the things that you, and I, would rather hide (would naturally rather not deal with or talk about or even see). 
We would rather hide the fact that we aren’t that strong or smart or driven, that we don’t actually have it all figured out, that we are jealous and selfish and foolish. Because we know, just like the disciples knew, that what everyone cares about is who is the greatest, who is limitless (bigger, faster, more clever, more generous), who has it all together. 
Now there is nothing wrong with (having things together, with) doing well, with being good at something, and certainly not with being virtuous, kind, content. But the fact is, by nature you are not these things. You are limited, sinful, not what you could be. And that (in the end) is the fact we are desperate to hide: that we are sinners and that we are less-than. And frankly, we are rather good at hiding it these days, even from ourselves. I must warn you, this is not a good thing to be good at. 

There was an article on FirstThings.com last month by J.D. Flynn. He wrote, “Last month our family realized that we were not welcome in the French Republic.” The reason, as he explains, is that the French government recently banned a television commercial about the lives of people with Down syndrome. Mr. Flynn is father to two children with Down syndrome, which—in places like France and Iceland and of course our own country—is enough of a reason to take the life of an unborn child. The French Supreme Court ruled that seeing people with Down syndrome on television may cause guilt for those who had done something which is perfectly legal, and therefore upheld the ban. 
Again, our gospel today is about all our limitations, and we all, by nature, want desperately to hide our limitations—even hide entire classes of people who’s limitations are especially obvious. Mr. Flynn closes his article with this: 
“Icelanders are right: Disabled people often do suffer. The French are right: The disabled are often a burden. Sometimes that burden feels overwhelming. Parenting disabled children is not a saccharine or sentimental experience. Neither is welcoming them into a community. The intellectually disabled are often demanding and dependent. They can be exhausting.
“But we can all be exhausting. We can all be demanding. We all must depend on someone. The difference is how well we think we hide it. The visible weaknesses of the intellectually disabled hold up a mirror to the weaknesses most of us try so hard to hide. 
So the problem with you and me, according to Mr. Flynn, what makes us do even unthinkable things, is that we are trying to hide our own limitations. We don’t wan’t to be seen as foolish or small, handicapped or lost or despised, or sinful. 

And this is where Jesus is so very, very different. I wonder if you noticed when we were reading today about the child in the midst, about the scandalized, the tempted, and the despised, that we may as well have been talking about Jesus himself. After all, Jesus’ entire mission and purpose was to become limited. The limitless God was to become a babe in a manger, and then a man of sorrows, and then even less than that, dying the death of a slave. Limited. Foolish and small; handicapped, despised, and even sinful. 
That is what he became. And all this he does out in the open, for all the world and all history to see—he doesn’t hide—so that you can be very clear that these people, the foolish, small, handicapped, despised and even sinful people are Jesus’ people. That would be you; that would be me; that would be French and Icelandic and American people and all the people who are sure he can’t possibly mean them. He does. 
And so Jesus gives a dazzling solution: don’t hide, come. Don’t hide your sins, confess them, right here, like we just did, and Jesus will take them, all of them, no matter what you’ve done, no matter who you’ve done it to (even an unborn child). And then he will pull you close and set you right in the middle of this gospel (which is about the small, the scandalized, the despised and all the sinners), so you can learn to get caught up in the life of Jesus—his limitations: his comforting word, the holy touch of his sacraments, his benediction.
That’s what he says today to all his disciples, to those he has pulled close: learn to act like a child, spending all your time looking up to Jesus. Learn to see life this way: if you have Him, you could do without anything else, even your own right arm. Learn to be dependent, like you need a guardian angel just to get through. And learn to be the sort of brother, or sister, who cannot bear to have any sin, any hurt, any grievance, come between you and any other brother or sister in the church. Learn to gather together, even if only with two or three, in the name of Jesus.
In other words, learn to embrace your limitations and learn to embrace those of others. Perhaps God simply wants you to need each other. Learn to embrace that God has given you these skills and abilities, and not those, or that he may have taken something from you, made you dependent in this or that way. Embrace that he has given you one family: your parents, your siblings, your children, your spouse. Embrace that he has limited you to this place, this church, and these brothers and sisters to gather together with and to hold on to. Learn to embrace these limitations, because in the Jesus’ kingdom—the kingdom of the Limited One—they are exactly what make you forgiven, and holy, and truly great. 

Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost:Matthew 16:21-28

I have quite an extensive art collection, mostly drawn by children. (It’s an occupational hazard.) The first thing you ask a child (when he donates his piece for your collection) is, “Oh, what is this?” And the artist always know exactly what he’s drawn, but because a child can’t yet see the world as clearly as you or I, it is hard for us to know just by looking.
And it isn’t because their eyes are deficient—they are most likely sharper than yours. It’s because a big part of seeing is actually experience, simply growing up and seeing something or someone over and over again. It is important to see something again and again, from different angles, in a different light, to actually see how it works, so that you can see it—and draw it—more clearly.

Over these last few weeks, Saint Peter has had some growing up to do. It all started three weeks ago on the water with the wind and the waves. Jesus rebuked, not the storm, but Peter—for not trusting, not seeing Jesus clearly (as he actually is). Last week Peter was praised for his great confession, but this week we see that his bold words are still lacking. He certainly sees Jesus; his eyes work just fine: his mighty works, his wisdom and compassion are unmistakable. “You are the Christ,” Peter declares. 
But what does it mean the be the Christ? What is his purpose? What is he for? It turns out that disciples, even great ones, are something like children: they can see—they’ve been shown Jesus—but they still must experience him, follow him, get to know him, so that they can see him more clearly, and trust him even when his works and his words surprise them. As Jesus says it to Peter today, they must get behind him.
When Jesus doesn’t make sense; when what you thought was best doesn’t pan out; when Jesus’ words are strange and even rather harsh, get behind him—keep following, keep looking until you can see him more clearly. 
Later on in the gospel, when Peter denies Jesus three times on the night he is betrayed, it is at least in part out of confusion. Peter simply cannot make sense of what his eyes tell him: this is a messiah in command of nature itself, full of heavenly wisdom with an authority all his own, and at the perfect moment, in the garden, he gives in. He allows himself to be taken; he allows himself to die. Peter is baffled, and he denies Jesus three times, but at least he was there, watching, looking on, trying to make sense of the picture.
Peter kept on making mistake after mistake, committed sin after sin; he doubts and rebukes and denies his Lord, but he was always there, in the place of a disciple, a follower. Jesus said, “Get behind me,” and he did. 

And all of that goes for you. As you grow in Jesus; as you mature from childhood, get behind Jesus. Experience him again and again, from different angles, in different gospel readings. See how he actually works; learn what his life, death, resurrection and ascension are actually for, so that your picture of him will become more clear.
Really that is all a divine services is. In it you experience Jesus—his sacrificial death and resurrection, his ascension and the sharing of his feast—and he says, “Get behind me.” Every single divine service is simply getting behind Jesus, following along. It begins when he calls us to confess our sins, because in that call, he is calling us to die just as he did (die to ourselves), so that he can resurrect us, just like he was. 
Then, again, he says, “Get behind me—hear my gospel, follow me through my life, my story; it’s yours too.” When we say our prayers, it is only because Jesus prays with us; when we give our offerings, and by extension ourselves (think of that: when the offerings are brought forward, that is a piece of you in the plate), it is only possible by following him. We are only able to do something like that because Jesus offers us himself.  
This is the only way to see clearly who Jesus actually is: by getting behind him, following in his steps through it all—his crucifixion and resurrection, his self-offering, his life which never ever ends. And we follow even through the parts of his divine service that we don’t completely understand, because thus we are prepared to follow in life when we don’t understand. 

Every week Jesus says, “Get behind me,” so we know what to do when we encounter our crosses in our lives out there. All of this is so that, out there, when we sin, we confess it, just like we do in this place. When there is a question about Jesus, we know the story (and we can draw a clearer picture of Jesus). When prayer is needed, we know how, and with whom we pray. When our money is needed out there, we sacrifice it, just like we have here. When someone needs a resurrection—a new life—we know to whom to send them.
Our lives out there aren’t to be found in a bulletin. We, like Peter, are bound to be surprised by the things that Jesus does. Jesus surprises us to prepare us. It is easy to forget that, when Jesus tells the first disciples today to “take up there cross and follow him,” the phrase had not yet become a cliché (applicable to the littlest inconvenience). When Jesus talked to them in their day about bearing a cross, they knew immediately and exactly what he meant. He meant that following him would cost them everything. Not all at once perhaps, but in the end, they would be asked to offer themselves, even as He offered himself.
Discipleship means your life is not your own; it is an offering to God. Needless to say, this is not easy, which is why we come here each and every Sunday and practice. We practice getting behind Jesus, observing him; we contemplate again all that he has offered to us so that we can see his mercy more clearly, hear his gospel more carefully, and live out there as if our entire life is one big divine service. And also, so that when our cross comes—in our family or church, at school or work, or at the end of our earthly life—we will be able to see it clearly, and see Jesus in it, and take it up, and follow him.
 

Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost: Romans 11:33–12:8

 

Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost: Matthew 15:21-28

 

Tenth Sunday after Pentecost: Matthew 14:22-33

You might not know that our church is, among other things, an emergency site for two disaster response organizations. If a hurricane comes to the coast of Texas (as hurricanes inevitably do), we may be pressed in to service as a shelter for those displaced by the wind and waves. 
It is interesting of course that water, which we need to live, can also be so very dangerous, unpredictable, and inhospitable to us. Even in our super-charged scientific age, we have been more times to the moon than we have been to the bottom of our own ocean. The sea has always been and remains a foreign place of darkness and mystery. 
The sea represents all that we cannot control or cope with. Man was not made to walk the recesses of the deep. So when we see Jesus walking upon the waters, standing as God and Man above the stormy chaos, we should see him as one able to stand over all chaos, our as well. The disciples in the boat in the end worship him, not just for performing a neat trick of buoyancy, but for taming that which is—and still is—untamable, fundamentally chaotic and foreign.

By walking upon the sea, Jesus gives a demonstration. He is able; he is enough of a God, enough of a Man, to weather any storm and any trial. He can and he will save you, and no darkness or storm will stand in his way. But how this happens, how he saves Peter, how he saves you, is rarely as simple as we would want it to be. 
You may remember there was another storm story in Matthew’s gospel back in chapter eight. Then Jesus was in the boat with his disciples, who needed only to wake him from sleep, and watch him rebuke the wind and waves and saved them from the storm. 
This today storm is different. In the mean time, Jesus has commissioned them, sent them out (Matthew 10), called them back, taught them the mysteries of the kingdom (Matthew 13), and pressed them into service, waiting tables at the Feeding of the Five Thousand (Matthew 14). This time he sends them out on the sea alone, without him, and when the storm rises (as storms inevitably do), and the wind is set against them, they have no one to wake up to rebuke the wind for them. 
In fact we are never told today that Jesus did anything to the storm. It subsides in the end, but there is no intervening miracle to stop the storm at the perfect moment. When Peter begins to sink, Jesus doesn’t stop the storm—which probably makes this storm more like your storms, like the trials you have weathered, your heartache and temptation and fear, of which there is generally no miraculous end. 
This night, Jesus rebukes not the storm, but Peter himself. And he rebukes him for making what seems to us an obvious assumption. Peter assumes that the presence of the wind means the absence of Jesus, or at least the absent-mindedness of Jesus, that he isn't paying attention, or that he isn’t actually who he seems to be—isn’t actually God walking over the chaos of the sea. Perhaps he is a ghost after all.

There are many in our day who would agree, and even for us, when obeying Jesus’ voice seems not to be working out, when it is difficult or inconveniences us, or we find ourselves in a place we cannot control or cope with, the mind reels. Is Jesus paying any attention at all? Does he understand, or is he even who he claims to be in the first place? Can all we have been told be true—that Jesus is enough of a God and Man to weather any storm and save us?
Our temptation, as it was Peter’s, will be to think that the storm is evidence against the love of Jesus, against his care, against his wisdom or power—proof that either he cannot save us or, worse, that he does not care to. But we have our gospel today to show us another possibility.
Jesus rebukes Peter and not the storm because he wants Peter to have, not quiet seas, but a quiet spirit; he wants Peter to trust him. Jesus is ruler of wind and wave, and what he wants is disciples who are rulers as well—able to stand with him, not only in the calm, but also and especially over the chaos.

Jesus’s own chaos, his suffering, death and resurrection, does not mean that you will not suffer; or even that you will not die. The crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus mean that you have a savior and a captain who knows the way through the chaos, through suffering and through death.
When you were baptized, you entered with Jesus into the water. It is interesting of course that that water, which you need to live, can also be so uncomfortable, unpredictable, even fearful—the life of the baptized is not promised to be easy or always peaceful. But in those waters you were joined to Christ; he reached out and caught you, as he did Peter and every one of the disciples. 
There would be storms ahead for all of them. He would send them out to the ends of the world; they would be foreigners, ill-equipped to deal with all they would face. But when those days came, the difference would be that they walked through those storms joined to Jesus. They had been with him through his crucifixion and resurrection, and had learned to trust him—not just in spite of the storm—but because of the storm. Wherever there was a storm, they knew that was exactly where Jesus would be; and wherever Jesus would be, there would be his Church. 
Wherever you find a church in this world, it is only ever because there is a storm (in fact you will notice around the world that it is where there are too few storms—too few trials and too much calm—that the churches falter); but wherever you do find a church, it is because there are people there who need a shelter—and a Savior who isn’t always in the business of calming storms, but who is worth following right through them.

Ninth Sunday after Pentecost: Matthew 14:13-21

 

Sixth Sunday after Pentecost: Matthew 13:1-23

One of the best reasons for coming to church is that, when you hear the words of Jesus,   they change you, and make you new. The word of Jesus never changes; it changes you. When Jesus speaks, he calls you close and tells you the truth (which is a rare enough thing in this world), the truth about himself, about you, but not only that. His word is meant to change you, to produce fruit in you, and it will. His word shall not return to him empty, but it…shall succeed in the thing for which he sends it. (Isaiah 55)

 

Our sower, when we find him in Jesus’ parable today, doesn’t seem to be successful. His seed isn’t accomplishing much of anything at first. He is sowing seed in all the wrong places, and without anything to show for it. He sows along the road, among the rocks and the thorns, with predictable results: the seed is devoured, scorched and choked, and there is no fruit.

And it is at this moment, when what we hear from Jesus seems mysterious, discouraging (perhaps familiar), difficult to accept, that we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard. We must press in, come closer. We must do exactly what the disciples do. You may have noticed there is an eight-verse gap in our gospel reading today. In the gap, the disciples come to Jesus with a question: “Why do you speak to them (that is, to the crowds) in parables?” 

And Jesus answers, “To you (to you disciples) it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given.” Jesus uses parables to reveal and conceal his kingdom. With a parable, one can, at the same time, see and not see; one can hear and not understand. That is why Jesus speaks in parables. Jesus preaches one word, like the sower sows one seed. And this one word is not coercive; it is a gracious word. Some receive it—they have a root within them, they ‘understand’—and others do not. 

Jesus isn't playing games with the crowds, or speaking over their heads, so that only the clever ones can follow along. The word ‘understanding’ here isn’t referring to a mental ability; it means realizing that what Jesus has to say has to do with you. It is a spiritual understanding which admits that Jesus is speaking about your heart, your life—your sins and your only hope.

What makes a disciple is not being clever, or having Jesus all figured out (no disciple ever has). What makes a disciple is following Jesus, listening to Jesus, and coming to him again and again with your questions, with what doesn’t make sense, with all the things that trouble you. Because, like the disciples in (the gap in) our gospel today, he will be waiting for you. Jesus knows he will have to explain himself—his parables and his kingdom—(he knows he will have to keep on preaching, and explaining, until the end of the world). What makes a disciple is simply being there to hear him when he does. 

 

In the Parable of the Sower we hear a difficult truth. There will be those who receive the word of Jesus, but prefer the cares of the world or are afraid of what the word might cost them. The effect of the Word is always mixed. As we heard two weeks ago: Jesus has not come to bring peace on earth. Some come to Jesus, some do not. 

Our reaction to this, one would hope, mirrors the reaction of Jesus. He is mercy incarnate; he comes to this world because he so loved this world, and when he does, he comes like a sower. He goes right on his way, sowing his seed everywhere he can (in Israel, out of Israel, to the godly, to the ungodly); continuing to tell the truth—about himself and about us. He spreads good news to those who are receptive and sympathetic (his friends) and he spreads good news to those who discount him or oppose him. 

He is like a sower who went out to sow along the path, over the rocks and among the thrones even before sowing on any good ground. He plays no favorites; he spends no more of his time among those who love (and agree with) him than he does among those who hate (and vehemently disagree with) him. (That’s quite something.)

(And so is this:) For all the kindness he shows his detractors, you do not see him tippy-toeing around the fields. You don’t find Jesus fretting over how his word is received. (This may be noticeable only to a farm type, but) The sower only uses one sort of seed. He doesn’t have one that is drought resistant and another that is roundup-ready, one that caters to these and one that caters to those. He has one sort of seed and the thinks that is good enough: one word, one message that does not change, and this word is for every single person, wherever and whoever he may be. 

And notice how free this makes the sower. He isn’t seen fretting about what to sow in this or that soil. He is seen sowing far and wide, wherever he pleases—seemingly, wherever he happens to find himself. He is free because he only has this one seed. He only has this one message, this one word, which endureth forever.

So don’t think you can do it any better than Jesus, that you can get better results or show more mercy by fretting over what to sow (which word to use). Jesus is mercy incarnate. Mercy is defined by Jesus—what he does and says—and apparently mercy means this: giving the same seed (the same gracious word) in every season, in every place, to whomever we may find, and then being there for them—to hear them out, to listen to their questions, what doesn’t make sense to them, what troubles them. 

After all, that is what Jesus has done for you. You know where to find him, where to hear him, and when Jesus speaks, he calls you close and tells you the truth. It will not change; you will not find Jesus saying one thing today and another tomorrow. Because this word is meant to change you, to produce fruit in you, and it will: some a hundredfold, some sixty and some thirty. It teaches you to trust him, and not only you. The fact that you are here, that the Church is here, means Jesus is still preaching his word, still working, still sowing his seed, and it will not return to him empty.

 

Fifth Sunday after Pentecost: Matthew 11:25-30

Fourth Sunday after Pentecost: Matthew 10:34-42

To begin with today, I would like you to imagine what it would have been like to be the world’s very first surgeon—that first person (however many thousand years ago) to think to heal someone, to fix them, by cutting them open. Then imagine trying to convince the world’s first patient that this is a good idea.
Surgery is, of course, a remarkable blessing, but also a rather strange one: in order to fix a person, to heal him and make him whole again, the surgeon decides he is first going to cut him open. This, at first blush, seems to be the worst idea ever. It causes more pain, and introduces a hundred other complications. Why hurt someone who is already in pain? Why cut someone open when they are broken already, and so many other things could go wrong?
But, of course, mostly we accept (and rejoice) that this is how the world works. What seems to be destructive can actually be creative—restorative. It has the potential to make a person whole again (able to stand or walk or breathe again). The surgeon’s knife, strangely, painfully, but beautifully, can heal you. The sword of a physician, it turns out, may be just the thing for putting someone back together again. 

Jesus, the Great Physician, comes to his disciples in the gospel today, sword in hand. “I have not come to bring peace,” he tells them, “but a sword.” Jesus has come to perform surgery in Israel, and many within her, the Pharisees for instance, are behaving like nervous patients. Pharisees behave this way because they do not trust Jesus. They feel sure that he will not cure but destroy them.
They see Jesus proclaiming a new kingdom, healing diseases, casting out demons and sending out his disciples with the sharp sword of his word, and they are nervous. They are afraid it will incite the Romans, or destabilize the people, and they don’t believe that God works in this way: that he is a great physician who creates and recreates even by dividing, and perhaps especially by dividing. 
They should have known. The Old Testament has a beautiful history of God working in just this way. In the very beginning, when God sets himself to creating the κόσμος the thing he keeps on doing is dividing. He separates the light from the darkness, making day and night; he separates the waters below from the waters above, making the heavens and the earth. Finally God, the first surgeon, cuts Adam open and takes one of his ribs from his side to create woman, and the first family. 
And from there he keeps right on going. When he wants to create a new, faithful people in the midst of the sinful world, he takes Abram and cuts him away from everything he ever knew (his people, family, way of life). He does the same thing with Jacob and Joseph and Moses, and with his people Israel, whom he sets apart from all other nations. And even her, Israel, the apple of his eye whom he loves for no reason at all except for her own sake, even her he allows to be divided—into north and south, tribe against tribe and son against father. 
Imagine being the very first surgeon, and trying to convince the patient (Adam, Abram, Moses, the people of Israel) that all of this is a good idea. How would you do it? Or, how would you be convinced, yourself? How can you be sure that, somewhere in all these sharp words from Jesus, you can still find life (something that is life-giving)? Jesus’ word is his sword, and we can, in our sins, easily convince ourselves that it is dangerous to us. But what we truly need is surgery—a new heart. 
We need Jesus to recreate and heal us, even if it means surgery, which means we are going to need to trust him. And he does it in a way we might not have thought of: by putting the sword to himself first. As we have come through the life of Jesus so far this year: Christmas, Good Friday, Easter, Ascension, Pentecost; Jesus shows us this way. He, like Adam before him, is pierced in his side, that he might create a new family. Like Abram and Israel before him, he wanders in our wilderness with nowhere to lay his head, and he wanders all the way to a cross. 

One of the things that happens at each baptism is the naming. “How is this child named?” or, “How are you named?” Traditionally that is the moment for a child to receive her ‘Christian’ name. When she is born she receives her father’s name, her family’s name, but when she is baptized, she receives her Christian name, and above all, she receives the name of God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. 
When a child is baptized, she goes home with her parents, and the birth certificate stays the same, but the relationship has changed. From then on, she has a higher name that Johnson, or Jones. From then on, her true father is God himself and her true family is this one: the Holy Christian Church. There has been a division because Jesus has created a new family and has made you part of it. 
So, your life is now hidden safely in his life, along with any ever to bear his holy name; your crosses, and your family’s crosses, are now hidden in his cross. Just like Israel before us, our story is actually God’s story. And just like Israel’s history ended, after all manner of division, with the coming of Jesus and the uniting of heaven with earth—God keeping his promise through it all—so our future, our life, finds its completion in his return, when he will at last put all things back together again. 

The Augsburg Confession: Matthew 10:5a, 21-33

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