Sunday, August 27, 2017

August 27 bulletin

12th Sunday after Pentecost

Matthew 16:13-20

Rev. Scott E. Schul

It was a spectacularly beautiful day as I stood there at the very edge of the Gates of Hades.  Now there’s something you don’t often hear in a sermon!  But it’s true.  The sky was bright blue and the temperature was an unseasonably warm 60 degrees, an absolutely picture perfect day for late January in Israel, about 25 miles north of the Sea of Galilee.

You see, the setting where our Gospel reading takes place greatly informs how we understand the breadth and depth of what happened there.  We believe that this particular dialogue between Jesus and Peter took place right where I and my tour group were standing, in northern Israel, in a place even today known as Caesarea Philippi.  The region got its name from Philip the Tetrarch, who ruled that portion of Palestine.  He was one of the sons of Herod the Great, and rebuilt and renamed this ancient city in tribute both to himself, and to his overseer, the Roman Emperor.

Immediately we can begin to grasp why this setting was so provocative and so theologically significant.  Caesarea Philippi was a center of the imperial cult – a place where emperors were glorified and worshiped as gods.  And yet it was here that Jesus warmly affirmed Peter’s confession and proclamation that Jesus is the Messiah, the anointed one, the very Son of the living God – titles the Emperor himself claimed.  Make no mistake: this is Jesus at his most audacious.  There, defiantly standing at a hub of imperial power, we see the carpenter’s son from Nazareth boldly proclaim that a new kingdom is coming, one based on mercy and not might; a kingdom devoted to peace and not persecution.  Jesus left no doubt that it is he, and not the Emperor, who is worthy of worship.

But there’s something even more remarkable going on here too.  You see, before this area became Caesarea Philippi, it was known as Paneas, and was dedicated to and named after the pagan god Pan.  The center of Pan’s cult was a huge stone cave atop a series of natural springs.  That cave had become a pagan altar known as – you guessed it – the Gates of Hades.

Gates of Hades

According to my tour guide in Israel, here’s how it functioned.  Disciples of Pan would hurl animals into the cave as a sacrifice to feed Pan as he rose up from the dominion of the dead.  If the underground springs subsequently ran red with blood, it meant that Pan was still hungry and wanted more flesh.  Only when they ceased seeing blood did they stop the sacrifice, which to them meant that Pan was satiated and would reward the entire village with fertility.

And so as Jesus stood there before this unholy shrine to the pagan god of the dead, Jesus made his boldest claim yet, that he – Jesus – was the master of all things – even death itself – and that not even the Gates of Hades would prevail against him, his Church, or his followers.  This is the very assurance we endeavor to proclaim from this pulpit every week and especially at funerals.  Nothing has ultimate power over Jesus and nothing – not even death itself – can separate us from his love.  That’s the astonishing promise Jesus proclaimed that day before the Gates of Hades.  It’s a timeless message of hope that we need to hear over and over again.

As I mentioned, my day in Israel before the Gates of Hades was a beautiful one, but it didn’t start out quite so well.  In fact, it was preceded by one of the lowest points on our pilgrimage, a moment that highlighted how human sin continues to conquer, divide, and demoralize us.

It all happened just a few hours earlier, in a place called Tabgha, on the northwest shore of the Sea of Galilee.  Tradition has it that the resurrected Jesus appeared to the disciples there, cooked a meal of fish for them on the shore, and three times restored and renewed the spirit of Peter, who on the eve of the crucifixion had denied Jesus three times.  Our tour group of pastors was excited because at this sacred site we were going to worship and celebrate Holy Communion together.  But our enthusiasm was dashed when the site’s custodians, members of a religious order, suddenly withdrew our permission to worship at that site.

The problem they had with us was that one of our tour group, Rev. Jessica Crist, Bishop of the Montana Synod of the ELCA, was going to preside at communion.  Evidently this was a big problem for the custodians, who do not believe that women should be ordained.  Not only did they refuse us permission to worship, but they also asked our tour guides to direct Bishop Crist to remove her stole because, in their words, her wearing that stole “offended this site.”

Frankly, I don’t think the grass, sand, and rocks cared very much.  God bless Bishop Crist – she kept right on wearing that stole and didn’t give them the satisfaction of thinking that they had gotten under her skin.  But they had gotten under my skin.  I was angry that they had treated our friend and Bishop with such disrespect.  It was a stark reminder that holy ground alone won’t create holy hearts.

And so the communion service we had planned to celebrate along the shore of the Sea of Galilee moved to a very different setting.  25 miles northward, our little group of pilgrims gathered under a tree, with a simple stone for an altar.  And with Bishop Crist presiding – stole and all – we joyfully celebrated the Lord’s Supper in the shadow of the Gates of Hades, confident that because of Jesus Christ, there is no earthly power or force of evil that can ultimately prevail against Jesus and his Church.

Now, let’s make this personal.  What are the symbolic Gates of Hades that loom over us, attempt to intimidate us, and seek to frighten and control us here in our nation, our community, and our congregation?

Columnist David Brooks recently wrote that, “we’re living in an age of anxiety…Anxiety is not so much a fear of a specific thing but a fear of everything, an unnamable dread about the future.  People will do anything to escape it.”  President Franklin D. Roosevelt said the same thing in fewer words: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

When we are anxious about our future – when we are gripped by fear – the “better angels of our nature” give way and we are easily controlled and manipulated by the forces of evil.  We look for easy answers to relieve the unrelenting pressure we feel.  We look for someone to blame.  And so we sacrificially hurl one another into our own Gates of Hades as we give-in to divisive evils like arrogance, greed, racism, sexism, ageism, homophobia, and xenophobia.  And when we burn ourselves out hating others, we then direct our hatred inward, and sink into despair, loneliness, addictions, and hopelessness, as we become convinced that we are worthless and utterly and completely unlovable, even by God.

But in the light of Jesus Christ, we can see the bitter fruits of these fears and anxieties for what they really are: human constructs that have no ultimate and lasting power over us.  Our Messiah Jesus Christ has claimed, cleansed, and liberated us from the forces of evil and death itself.  He comes to you today with the assurance that there is hope, your future is secure, you matter, and you are loved.  Friends, we really can live like the liberated people we are, and we can treat people with the same grace that Jesus uses to bless us.  Why?  Because we do not have to be afraid.  In the light of Jesus, we can see everything and everyone in a new and holy way.  In the light of Jesus, we can even see the Gates of Hades for what it really is – just an old pile of rocks.  Thanks be to God!  Amen.

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Sunday, August 20, 2017

August 20 bulletin

11th Sunday after Pentecost

Matthew 15:10-28

Vicar Ariel Williams

Grace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

I’ve gone back and forth all week on what I felt called to proclaim this morning. I mean – it’s been a heck of a couple of weeks. So much drama, violence, anger, lament, and sadness all packed into a very short span of time. Just over a week ago we all saw the protests that were taking place and getting very ugly – ugly to the point of injury and death – in Charlottesville, Virginia. I’m sure many of you were thinking the same things that I was – how is this our country? How has it come to this? How can anyone spew that much hate rhetoric? How can anyone claim that God has sanctioned and condoned words and actions such as these?  Why as humans are we so conditioned to hate one another – purely on the basis of being different. Purely because someone else is the “other”. Where is God in all of this? Where is love?

When situations like this occur scripture is often one of the first places I go for comfort and understanding… I’m not saying that I singlehandedly flip through the Bible and find the perfect passage that applies… I’m fairly biblically literate, but I’m not a perfect passage savant. Besides, I have plenty of Facebook friends who do that for me! But somehow, in some way, that is always one of the first things that happens.  This week – I didn’t actually have to look very far for that passage that spoke to me and to the situation I was praying about.  As it so often does – our Gospel story this week is prophetic in its ability to speak to our modern world and these situations today.

Jesus is teaching his disciples that true purity is a matter of the heart rather than outward religious observances. You see – they were being criticized by the religious authorities for not washing their hands before eating, and sharing meals with those members of society who were considered “unclean.” Cleanliness codes were institutionally obsessed over. The slightest wrong move could cause you to be physically, emotionally, spiritually, and/or ritually unclean. The book of Leviticus is full of all of the ways that one can potentially fall into the uncouth and shameful realm of the “unclean.”

According to the religious authorities, by not washing their hands before eating, the disciples and other followers of Jesus had defiled their food therefore defiling their inner selves by consuming said tainted food. Jesus’ response to this accusation – “well that’s just crazy talk!” “Listen – and understand: it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.” He’s then pressed to explain himself further, because the disciples are often dense, literal, and slow to pick-up on things, and most likely think when he says it’s what comes out of the mouth that defiles, that Jesus is speaking to some gross bodily function.  So, he further explains – “Whatever goes into the mouth enters the stomach, and goes out into the sewer.” (Because – we haven’t had enough bodily function imagery already in this text. Lovely. Thanks Jesus!) He then goes on to say – what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and that’s what defiles. We can externally put up a great front. Amazing external projection of ourselves. Look at me – I’m pious, I’m pure, I’m a dedicated servant. I’m a good person. It’s easy to fake the world into believing these things.

But what we harbor interally – well that’s where we find evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. And these are the things that defile a person. To eat with unwashed hands??? Nah… not so much.

As I read these words all I could think about was the angry, ugly, judgmental comments I’ve read and heard almost non-stop. From all sides and all people. Now don’t get me wrong – I will NEVER condone the words, actions, mindsets, and behaviors of White Supremacists and Neo-Nazi’s. There is nothing about what they stand for that correlates with the God that we profess to believe in. And we are called as loving Christians to speak out against oppressive forces such as these, but there are ways in which we can do so without stooping to level of those whom are acting in the role of the oppressor. And this is something that I’m sorry to say I failed to see anyone execute well.

Hatred seemed to be met with hatred. Anger with anger. Fear with fear. Judgment with judgment. We are right and you are wrong. Defiled from within. Where was God in all of the responses? Where was love?

Fortunately for all of us – we have Jesus – God and love all combined into one awesome package. And if this were ANY other story in the book of Matthew, that would come with some great life lesson or parable or human interaction where we can look to Jesus to be the model for us on how we should behave and how we should respond.

However – this week, we get the stand-out story.  The story where Jesus doesn’t come across so hot. In fact… he comes off quite poorly.  Almost immediately, after the lesson on what defiles, Jesus’ teaching is tested when a gentile woman, considered to be all kinds of unclean, approaches him for help.

This woman is said to be a Canaanite. It’s of note to know that in Mark’s version of this same story, she is identified as a Syro-Phoenician. During the time that Matthew was writing his Gospel, Canaanites were no longer a functioning independent civilization. The term “Canaanite” was basically just a dirty word, or ethnic slur, meaning Gentile. This word choice would have invoked a visceral emotional reaction similar to what we experience when we hear ethnic or racial slurs today. Only that audience would have most likely have used, accepted, and agreed with said racial slur.

The woman’s daughter is sick. Tormented by a demon. I’d imagine she has done everything she can. Exhausted every option. What loving parent wouldn’t? And here comes, as luck would have it, not just a great prophet and healer, but the Lord… son of David himself. She recognizes and acknowledges Jesus as Messiah before his disciples do! And in response – Jesus gives her the silent treatment. Completely ignores her. She is afterall – just an unclean Gentile.

She keeps on – won’t be deterred. Finally, the disciples ask Jesus to make her stop. Send her away. Shut her up! So, in an attempt to do just this, he tells her he only came to save the house of Israel. She still will not be deterred… She was warned. She was given an explanation, yet she persists. Jesus’ next argument is that it is not fair to take food from the children and throw it to the dogs.

That’s right – Jesus just called this woman a DOG. I don’t know about all of you – but I would not take terribly kindly to being referred to as a canine. (Particularly of the female persuasion.)

With what I’d imagine to be a profound amount of sass and swagger the woman responds – “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat crumbs that fall from the table.” Awww snap. Take the shame – Jesus – take the shame! Jesus responds “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter is healed. Jesus’ mission is impacted by this brave Gentile woman.

In this story we see a very human Jesus. Marilyn Salmon states “We see ourselves mirrored in Jesus’ attitude toward the woman, but not our best selves. We know very well the tendency to define and fear an “other” on the basis of skin color, nationality, class, or creed, deeply ingrained stereotypes that go back centuries. We resent being bothered by the concerns of those people… we are very good at justifying our actions rather than admitting the prejudice that persists. The story is about Jesus, and in Jesus we see the very best of human potential in relationships with others, even those we avoid and fear. We see in Jesus the possibility of perceiving common humanity where we could see only difference. And when we encounter the “other” as one who shares our humanity, we can never see them as “other” again.”

This exchange broadens Jesus’ mission in the world. At the end of Matthew when he commissions the disciples – he sends them to ALL nations, not just to Israel. Jesus heals this woman’s daughter just as Jesus heals us too. In these times of trouble and torment we are called to love our neighbors as ourselves – even those neighbors whose ideologies and mindsets we find abhorrent. This is not an easy task. Particularly while simultaneously living into our call to speak out in the face of oppression. To stand up for the metaphorical Canaanite Women of today. All we can do – is our best.

Fortunately for us, through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, we all have redemption. We all have salvation. We all receive grace and forgiveness. God is always present. Love always wins.  Amen.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

August 6 Bulletin

9th Sunday after Pentecost

Matthew 14:13-21

Rev. Steve Lynn

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord & Savior Jesus Christ Amen.

Before I read the Gospel lesson today, the feeding of the 5,000 with five loaves and two fish – most of you have heard it scores of times – I’m asking you to hear it anew. Let it wash over you and see what pops into your mind. See where God leads you. As you listen, hear what God may be saying to you. So here we go – hear the story anew.

Well, there it was – what did you hear? Where did your mind and heart go? What washed over you as you listened? I’ve heard this story several hundred times. I’ve preached on it at least ten times. Let me share what washed over me as I read and reread the story last week. If I were in that crowd, come lunch time, I would probably have gone home – unless Jesus was really riveting – something tells me he was. When I heard the news to sit down, they are going to feed me – I would have said to myself – sure – thousands of us – I don’t think so. I see the disciples doubting – Jesus, send them home, this is crazy. I see the disciples doubting again – Jesus, we have nothing here but five loaves and two fish. Jesus said – “Oh good, bring them to me.” I bet the disciples doubt again – as they probably said among themselves: “Jesus is out of his mind.” In John’s version of the same story – it was a little boy who had the leaves and fish for his lunch and he gave them up – gave them over to Jesus – So I think of his generosity and trust when I read this story. Also, I love to hear how Jesus had compassion on the crowd – every time I read this story – those words strike me. And he took the five loaves and two fish – looked up to heaven – blessed and broke the loaves and gave them to his disciples. What’s that remind you of? Holy Communion. And last, I am always amazed by the twelve baskets left over. What does that say? It says abundance. Jesus feeds us, cares for us, provides for us – not with scraps or with just enough – but abundantly. That says to me, that with Jesus and all our talents and time and treasure – all the resources of this earth – we have all we need for all to live abundantly – and in peace. These are the things that washed over me as I read this lesson. I wish I could hear your thoughts. Because all these thoughts and feelings and ideas that have washed over us – as we heard this Gospel – these things that come from hearing this story – these ideas, these precious nuggets we glean from the story – they are the Word of God that comes from this story. You have heard me say this before in Bible study. The Bible itself is not the Word of God. The Bible contains the Word of God; the Bible carries the Word of God.

The Bible reveals the Word of God; the Bible is the window through we see the Word of God – But the literal living Word of God is Jesus Christ himself. And the written word is all the ways the Bible points to and reveals Jesus Christ to us. The Word of God is not those stories and parables themselves. The Word of God is what those stories and parables reveal to us – what we learn and glean from them about Jesus – about what God wants – that’s the Word of God.

So, those things that washed over you when I read the miracle story – those things you visualized and felt as you were hearing it. If your thoughts and feelings were about this story – and you weren’t daydreaming, then those thoughts were the work of the Holy Spirit – revealing to you – showing you – pointing to you – the kernels of truth – the gold nuggets – the Word of God for this story. So, as I thought of all the ways God was speaking to me from this miracle story – for the rest of this sermon, I picked one. After thought and prayer, I have been led to think this and say this: When the disciples used all their resources – thinking about food for the crowd, finding some food, sharing that food with Jesus and allowing Jesus to then use those resources – when the disciples did that Jesus blessed those resources – after that, Jesus met needs abundantly. So, I believe that when we use all the earthly and human resources Jesus gives us – mind, body, blessings of the earth, wealth, talents, time – when we use those resources to love God and love neighbor – when we allow Jesus to bless and use all those resources to that end – amazing things will happen. Things like feeding 5,000 plus people with five loaves and two fish.

Let’s think of some problems that desperately need all our resources and Jesus’ blessing and his power to solve those problems. How about hungry and starving children? We all agree that’s not what should be happening. God through agriculture provides enough food. It’s a distribution and political problem. Sounds to me like someone is hoarding their five loaves and two fish for themselves – or just to keep certain populations weak for exploitation. We can do better with our five loaves and two fish. Another problem: How about people excluded – not welcomed – in our churches, our military, our clubs, our groups and other aspects of life – just because of who they are. I know that brand of prejudice. I have experienced it. Those were church people and pastors who told me I should never be a pastor – no place for a little person – my size wouldn’t permit me to do all that’s necessary – and I would be too much of a distraction to people.

That kind of thinking comes from people afraid to really hear the Gospel, afraid and insecure – afraid to use their five loaves and two fish – afraid to give them away – afraid to turn them over to Jesus so others can benefit and be loved and affirmed. Here’s another one. How about the exploitation of God’s creation for nothing more than profit. We all love our earth and our grandchildren. Let’s use our five loaves and two fish to think of ways for all of us to live and live well and still ensure God’s creation for our kids. And how about medical care? There are members of our congregation who have to choose between medicine and clothes for their children. These are not people out there who live in Baltimore or Philadelphia or Queens – they are people you know – people who are members of Grace Lutheran Church. With us turning over five loves and two fish to Jesus – with us tithing our time, talent and money, with us being an advocate for these sisters and brothers, this unacceptable situation can get better. Jesus can do amazing things with your five loaves and two fish.

Here’s what I believe the Living Word of God – Jesus Christ – wants you to hear today. I believe this is Jesus’ word to be heard by all of us. Jesus loves you. You are the apple of his eye – and so is the person sitting next to you. So is the person excluded, so is the child who doesn’t get his or her medicine. Jesus loves us and guarantees our future. I believe Jesus has given us five loaves and two fish. Grace gets loaves and fish through you. Are you and are we using all our resources – our five loaves and two fish – our brains, our creativity, our time, our money – are we bringing them to Jesus to have Jesus bless and multiply and use them? Yes we are – but in response to Jesus’ love for us – we can do much better. I know we can. Our ultimate future is good. Our penultimate future can be much better when we give Jesus our loaves and fish so Jesus can use them. You saw what he did with the little boy’s five loaves and two fish. Think of what Jesus can and will do with yours and mine. Amen.

 

Sunday, July 30, 2017

July 30 am bulletin

The 8th Sunday after Pentecost

Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

Pastor Scott E. Schul

In a rapid fire string of parables, Jesus endeavors to teach us about the kingdom of heaven.  The parable that most intrigues me is this one: “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.”  In other words, the kingdom of heaven is like buried treasure.

As a seminarian in Gettysburg, I was surrounded by historical treasures.  Each day as I walked down Seminary Ridge to class from my home at North Hall House, I was overwhelmed at the thought of the people who had walked those same steps, and the events that had unfolded there.  Robert E. Lee, John Buford, and John Reynolds were just a few of the Civil War notables who had once traveled the Ridge.  Giants of American Lutheran history like Samuel Simon Schmucker, Charles Porterfield Krauth, and Abdel Ross Wentz made their homes there too.

But of all the wonderful things I saw, felt, and experienced on Seminary Ridge, one wish remained unfulfilled during my time there.  I never found buried treasure.  My wish was modest.  I wasn’t seeking anything monumental, like General Lee’s binoculars.  I just wanted to find one single bullet there on the battlefield.  Buying a bullet from a store just wouldn’t have been the same.  I wanted to find it myself.  That’s harder than you’d think.  Generations of treasure hunters have picked the battlefield clean, and federal law protects the battlefield’s integrity by prohibiting folks from digging it up or sweeping it with metal detectors.

Still, I wished that I could find just one bullet.  I wasn’t willing to risk committing a federal crime to get it, so I dreamed up another idea.  All it required was convincing the Seminary to sell North Hall House to me and draining my savings to buy that rundown, old building.  That way it’d be perfectly legal for me, as the owner, to dig the grounds to my heart’s content until I uncovered the old bullet I longed to possess.  Fortunately, I did come to my senses.  It would’ve been foolish to sacrifice everything to buy an old dilapidated house just so I could dig up the yard to find battlefield bullets.  No buried treasure is worth that kind of sacrifice, right?

And yet Jesus offers us a parable, advocating that very course of action: “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.”  Is there something – anything – that is so special that you’d sell everything you own and sacrifice everything you possess just to have or experience that one thing?  Is there really anything that important and that precious that you’d surrender everything to have it?

For example, would you give up everything just to have one more day with a dear loved one who has died?  Would you sacrifice all of your money and all of your possessions in exchange for a cure for a terrible disease or the end of a war?  Would you sign over everything you have just to ensure that your kids get a good education and good jobs?

We could sit here all day and come up with worthy causes that might justify that kind of sacrifice and that kind of commitment.  But let’s be honest.  Actually doing this would be really hard.  Imagine giving up everything you possess for just one thing.  No matter how great or meritorious that one thing might be, it would be so hard to part with everything else we have.  Buried treasure seems so alluring, so inviting, so necessary and so important… But when we look at the true price of obtaining it, we hesitate, we hold back, and then we walk away, unable and unwilling to make the sacrifice… because it costs too much.

Jesus said, “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.”

Do me a favor.  Take a look at your hands.  Think for a moment about all the things that pass through those hands.  Those are the things we really hang onto.  Those hands hold calendars filled with work deadlines, social events, family obligations, and a nearly endless parade of things that consume our time.  Those hands hold smartphones that demand our attention.  Those hands pilot the TV remote that captivates our eyes and imaginations.  Those hands hold money and credit cards that give us access to all manner of stuff that we have to have.  Those hands hold on tightly to the things we really treasure.  What, if anything, are we willing to let go of so that we can hold on instead to the treasure that is Jesus?

Our society is full of so many enticing things that compete with Jesus for our attention.  Are we willing to sacrifice a little sleep, a social event, a weekend away, or a sporting event so we can experience the treasure of encountering Jesus Christ here on Sunday mornings?  Are we willing to sacrifice a little time so that we can actively serve our neighbors and participate more fully in the life of the church?  Are we willing to sacrifice a little money so we can support the ministries of this congregation?  What’s God calling us to let go of so that we can cling to Jesus and the kingdom of heaven?  Or is that not really our treasure?  Jesus said, “the kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.”

We’ve been spending most of our time today thinking about what we might sacrifice and surrender in order to experience the kingdom of heaven in joyful fullness.  But as I hope you’ve heard me say before: in matters of faith, it’s not about us – it’s always about Jesus.  So let’s consider this parable from a fresh angle, by focusing on Jesus.  You see, we’ve been assuming that the person who found the treasure is us.  But what if that person is Jesus?  And what if we are his buried treasure?  Oh, I know we aren’t literally buried underground, but as Pastor Lynn said last Sunday, we are all a little “weedy.”  We are spiritually dead because of sin.  We have buried ourselves with our selfishness, our self-centeredness, our faithlessness, and our greed.  We are as good as dead if getting to heaven depends upon our righteousness.  And besides, there will come a day when each of us will take a final breath, and shortly thereafter, we will be committed to our final resting place: earth-to-earth, ashes-to-ashes, dust-to-dust.  As our remains enter the columbarium or the backhoe pours the dirt upon our casket, is that the end of our story?

The answer from Jesus Christ is a resounding “NO!”  Whether we are metaphorically buried in sin or literally buried in dirt we remain his beloved treasure, and that will never change!  This world may discount, devalue, and diminish us, BUT despite our brokenness, our stubbornness, and our faithlessness Jesus never will.  We are treasure in a field, but treasure that has become captive to sin, treasure the evil one desires to seize.

What would it take to rescue, redeem, and liberate us?  Everything.  Jesus looked at the cross and knew full well the price.  But he never hesitated, he never held back, and he didn’t walk away.  He was willing to sacrifice everything he had: his possessions, his dignity, his comfort, his status, his blood, and even his life because no cost was too dear when it came to us.  With his final breath, his purchase was complete.  The treasure was his.  And in his emergence from the tomb he joyfully claimed us, unearthed us, and continues to mercifully lift us back up whenever we fall to the ground.  Why?  It’s not complicated.  Jesus loves us.  We are his treasure.  And he is our Savior.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

 

Sunday, July 23, 2017

July 23 bulletin

The Seventh Sunday after Pentecost

Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

Pastor Steve Lynn

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord & Savior Jesus Christ Amen.

The first paying job I ever had was working for my grandfather. I was nine years old in the early summer of 1963 – and my grandfather hired me for 25 cents per hour – to pull weeds and hoe his garden. At that time, Pap was retired from the Pennsylvania Railroad. Pap always had a big garden – when he retired it got bigger. But in late May that year, Pap fell off a ladder and broke his arm. That‟s why he hired me to hoe and weed. The garden was already planted when he broke his arm, but the seed vegetables weren‟t up yet. But I was anxious to get working – I wanted that 25 cents. So I would go down to the garden and look for things to pull. One day, I saw some green breaking through the soil – Good! I started to pull. Pap was there – he was always there when I was – smart man – and he said – “Wait Steve, don„t pull those. Wait awhile – give them a chance to grow, let‟s see what happens.” In today‟s parable, the farmer said, “No, don‟t pull the weeds, you may accidentally pull some of the wheat. The farmer didn‟t want to damage the future harvest just because weeds were growing there too. So the farmer asked for patience, and a “Let‟s allow everything to grow, and see what happens,” attitude.

Jesus’s parables are artful pictures. In this parable, like most of his parables, Jesus was drawing a “word picture of God‟s grace and mercy for us. God doesn‟t go out and chop weeds with a machete, God waits and sees what happens. In the same way, God has patience and mercy with us, allowing us free will to do and choose and hopefully make a good response to his love and mercy.

Botanically speaking, if I plant a sunflower seed, I‟ll get a sunflower plant. A tomato seed – a tomato plant will emerge. But what is not possible in the world of seeds, often occurs in the world of human beings. Though a bad seed cannot change, an evil-behaviored person might. Though a daisy seed will always produce a daisy plant, a woman named Daisy, who is behaving badly might change behaviors. A seed is a seed. Seeds do not change. But people are God‟s children and with the power of God‟s Holy Spirit around and with other good behaviors as examples and being treated with love and justice, people can change. Though a good gardener, like my Pap, can judge between carrots and weeds – even early, as they break ground, it is not fair to judge how a person will end up as you look at them during their life stages. Throughout the Bible, the people God used to accomplish God‟s mission – sometimes looked pretty weedy, until they grew a little bit and blossomed into flowers in God‟s garden. Look at Moses. He killed a man. Consider a man named Saul. He rounded up Christians to have them killed. But one day Saul encountered a blinding, life changing light and soon Paul was the most fervent missionary Christianity ever saw. Thankfully God did not pull Moses and Paul early in their growth development because they didn‟t look promising. God didn‟t pull them because God can take weedy behavior and transform it, change it into beautiful flower behavior. In our world, we are called to resist evil. But doing that is not always clear cut. People don‟t wear signs identifying themselves as weedy or evil. And that person who looks weedy to you, may end up producing some beautiful fruit if given love, patience and justice.

For as I see it, from my almost 64 years of living, all of us are pretty weedy – right? All of us do and say things that aren‟t good. But how does God deal with us? God is patient with us, feeding us with Word and Sacrament, drawing us in through prayer, helping us as we relate to and love each other, and patiently waiting for us to come home – much like the prodigal son‟s father waited for him. The power of God‟s love and forgiveness and grace can change people. The love of God can change all of us from weedy behavior to flower and fruit behavior. Because all of us are sinners, all of us fall far short of what God expects, all of us are weedy – so that means all of us could be pulled and thrown into the fire; but thanks be to God for Jesus and forgiveness and love and grace. I thank God, that early on, he didn‟t pull me – how about you? I‟m glad God didn‟t pull you too.

Back to my Pap‟s garden and the greedy grandson who coveted that 25 cents per hour. Remember the “weeds” I started to pull? They grew into healthy-looking green rows of plants. One day in August, Pap said: “Hey Steve, now you can pull that row of weeds you wanted to pull a few months ago. OK! Things to do – 25 cents to be made, so I grabbed and pulled. Do you know what came out? Nice, orange, healthy carrots. I‟m glad my Pap told me to wait.

I‟m real glad God loves us and waits for us, even when we never develop into all God wants us to be – Even then, God still loves us and gives us grace and mercy, and God still can and does use us, weeds and all – for good purposes.
The Gospel today is a word about God‟s love and patience; and it does have a strong element of judgment in it. And, I can get into that. Sometimes I think in my mind – God, throw that weedy person into the fire. I want to hear their teeth gnashing. But this lesson clearly tells us – we have no authority to do that. God is the judge – not me – not you. It is not my job to judge someone else into damnation. And what does that even mean? I think it means – that when I try to do that – then in my mind I have judged that person as worthless. It‟s not that I don‟t like them, that‟s too tame. I have judged them to be useless – with no value. And that truly kills them in my mind. That is the judgment I have no right to make! Neither do you.

What does the last line of the Gospel lesson say? It says: “Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the Kingdom of God.” OK. What „s that mean? Well, who is righteous? Am I righteous? No! I‟m pretty weedy, Are you righteous? Sorry – No, you‟re pretty weedy too! So, who is righteous? No one!

That‟s the point. We are all weedy. We are all made righteous through the cross. That‟s how we become righteous. This righteousness is free to us. It wasn‟t free to Jesus but it is to us. It‟s a gift. It‟s grace. So we, who are weedy, have been given grace and love and forgiveness – and we are made righteous. So, what now? All we can do as weedy, righteous people – is respond. Respond to God‟s love. Respond to God‟s patience and mercy with us. Respond to God not pulling us. And we do that best by trying to produce a pretty flower or an edible fruit – and we do that best by not judging but by caring about and loving our weedy neighbors.

Happy Gardening! Amen.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

July 16 bulletin

Sixth Sunday after Pentecost

Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

Pastor Scott E. Schul

A path visited by birds that gobbled up all the seed… Rocky ground with no depth of soil… Thorns that surround and choke anything that tries to grow in their midst… and lastly, good productive soil that yields a bumper crop.  This is the setting Jesus constructs for his parable about the power of God’s Word.  It’s a classic example of Jesus as the master teacher, who uses vibrant, accessible imagery about agriculture and subsistence farming that is guaranteed to be understood by the people he taught, people living in rural Galilee who don’t have the luxury of going to Wegman’s for their food but who, instead, have to scratch out a living from the ground… Ground that might be good soil… but soil which also might be a path where all the birds eat the seed… rocky ground where nothing grows for long… or untamable ground filled with thorns.

On the Schul side of my family, I come from a long line of Kansas farmers.  I have many fond childhood memories of driving across country, visiting those classic family farms.  It’s there that I developed my love of tractors, and there that I enjoyed the unforgettable experience of being in the back of a dump truck as a combine rode alongside us, harvesting wheat and pouring that golden grain over our legs as we laughed and laughed in the bright Kansas sunshine.

That romanticized, rose-colored view of the farming life stuck with me long after Grandpa died and the farm was sold.  It resurfaced with a vengeance when I was practicing law.  As a lawyer, I spent most days frustrated by the drudgery of thick, mind-numbing books of statutory regulations, the unrelenting pressure of billable hours, the challenge of high-maintenance clients, and the perpetual atmosphere of conflict created by combative partners.  I longed for a better and simpler life.  And so I’d come home after a long day and say to my wife, “I’ve had it!  No more lawyering!  I just want to be a farmer, ride on my tractor all day, and not have to deal with this nonsense!”

Eventually though I came to my senses.  I had a nice indoor job with a desk, air conditioning, and no heavy lifting.  Even I could see that the farmer’s life was nowhere near the paradise I’d falsely formed in my imagination.  Farming is a tough life, filled with the unpredictability of weather, the unreliability of soil, the likelihood of equipment break downs, and the reality of rigged commodity markets.  In the face of so many obstacles, it’s a wonder to me that we have any family farms at all.

A path where all the birds eat the seed, rocky ground where nothing grows for long, and untamable ground filled with thorns… Jesus of course wasn’t merely describing the challenges of farm life.  He was really talking about the challenge of the Christian life.  The seed in his parable is the word of God, and I bet that as you heard the parable today, you couldn’t resist evaluating how that seed is doing in the ground of your faith.

Perhaps you became uneasy as you convicted yourself for having faith soil that’s a well-worn path where the seeds of God’s word land for only a few moments before they are carried away by disinterest or temptation.  Or maybe you grew a little despondent as you assessed your faith soil as rocky ground that willingly receives God’s word but is too shallow for that word to root and thrive, and is easily dislodged by adversity.  Or perhaps you saw yourself in Jesus’s description of the thorny soil.  That’s the faith soil where the word is quickly choked off by the distractions, cares, and amusements of the world.

Even if you heard today’s Gospel and celebrated your faith soil as good ground that yields an abundant and holy harvest, you aren’t immune from concern… because you run the risk of becoming complacent and taking undue credit for that soil and that harvest… because it is in fact God’s work in our lives that produces such a sacred abundance.

Whatever you think your soil might be at this very moment, don’t get too conceited if it’s good, or too despondent if it needs some work.  Truth is, soil is a dynamic thing.  I’m no farmer, and the closest I’ve ever come to owning a tractor was a John Deere riding lawnmower… but if you know me at all you know I baby the lavender plants in my yard.  I carefully weed them, water them, and protect them from hard rains and stifling snows.  Bad ground can be improved.  Rocks can be excavated.  Topsoil can be replenished, fertilized, and watered.  Thorns can be pulled.

Our faith soil is just as dynamic as real soil.  There are times in our lives when we are receptive to God’s word and feel intense and heartwarming closeness to Jesus.  But there are other times when we are consumed with other concerns, distracted by our work and our hobbies, and sidetracked by worries and anxieties.  As one simple example, how many times have we resolved on January 1 to carve out intentional time for prayer every day, only to reach July 16 and discover that our good intentions have fallen by the wayside?  Some days we are good soil, and some days we are bad soil.  Most days we’re a little bit of both; one minute we find ourselves fidgeting in worship and resistant to God’s word, and the next we feel inspired to treat a stranger with kindness.  We all want to have good faith soil, but some days are harder than others.

But please, don’t give up hope.  No matter how bad your soil may seem, it doesn’t have to remain that way.  People change.  Our faith soil changes.  If you don’t believe that, just grab an old high school yearbook off the shelf.  You don’t dress the same as you did back then, and you don’t have all of the same dreams now that you had then.  We continue to develop, mature, and evolve as humans in all facets of our lives.  I think that’s especially true of our faith lives.

My faith journey, just like yours, is a work in progress – one that will continue to unfold throughout the rest of my life.  But as I take stock of where I am at this moment in time, I can see how, thanks to God’s grace and mercy, even a stubborn old Swede like me has grown and matured.  There was a time when I would’ve heard today’s Gospel and, in a frantic fit of self-criticism and worry, would’ve absolutely worn myself out trying to improve my faith soil.  I would have struggled and strained to do some things with greater vigor, and cease doing other things, all in a vain effort to rescue myself by impressing God with the perfection of my faith soil.  Now, I don’t want to dissuade any of you from wanting to deepen your relationship with Jesus through more prayer, greater engagement with scripture, and acts of loving service to your neighbor.  These are essential ways for living out our faith.  But if we’re not careful, those things can become false idols and works aimed at glorifying ourselves rather than God.  Moreover, it’s just a fact that we aren’t perfect.  We are sinners.  Our faith soil regularly needs tending that exceeds our capabilities.

But in our imperfection, we can still live joyfully, knowing that Jesus loves us perfectly and unrelentingly.  He won’t stop scattering seed in our direction, because the very purpose of his life, death, and resurrection was to create the conditions for us to bloom.  As we heard in our reading from Isaiah, we have a promise that God’s word shall accomplish everything God intends; and what God intends is an eternal relationship with us.  What a blessing that Jesus is tending and preparing our soil even as I speak these words.  Seed is taking root, not because our soil is perfect, but because the sower is.  An abundant harvest is coming.  By God’s grace, we can bloom, my friends. We can bloom.  Amen.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

July 9 bulletin

The Fifth Sunday after Pentecost

Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

Pastor Steve Lynn

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord & Savior Jesus Christ Amen.

No matter what I do, you’re not happy. I fast and pray, but you say I am possessed with a demon. I eat and drink and you say I am a glutton. What do you want from me? What do I have to do? Jesus was having one of those days. That’s where Jesus was in the beginning of our Gospel lesson.

So in the middle of one of those days, when nothing was going right, Jesus gave us an example of what to do – Jesus prayed. What Jesus knew Jesus wanted all of us to hear and know. All of us who are having “one of those days.” This familiar and comforting invitation that came at the end of Jesus’ prayer is an invitation to you – when you are tired and weary and have no peace. So here it is again: “Come to me, all you who are weary and heavy laden and I will give you rest. Take my yoke and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” For all of us who are tired and weary and fed up – Peace, Rest. Jesus invited you to discover and know the same refreshment which enabled him to bear up under the strain of “one of those days.” Take my yoke, for it is easy and my burden is light.”

 But when we are tired and weary, even the toke of Christ does not sound appealing. It will help at this point to understand more about the yoke Jesus was talking about. One of the wonderful legends that was handed down concerning the years of Jesus, before his public ministry, has to do with his years as a carpenter. The legend has it that Jesus was a master yoke-maker. It was told that people would come from miles away for a yoke – hand carved and crafted by Jesus, son of Joseph. As a yoke-maker, Jesus would spend hours measuring the team of oxen – their height, the width of their shoulders, and the space between them. In a week, the oxen team would come again. Jesus would place the newly made yoke over their shoulders – watching and checking for rough places, smoothing them out and fitting the yoke perfectly to that particular team of oxen. That’s the yoke Jesus wants us to take.

 The word easy is misleading for its root word in Greek speaks directly to the tailor-made yokes: They were “well fitting” – not easy – but “well fitting.” So, the yoke Jesus invites you to take, the yoke that can actually bring rest and peace to your weary souls, is one that is precisely and exactly made for you – exactly the one to fit your heart and mind and body – to fit your life. The yoke of Jesus. Jesus’ yoke fits you perfectly. It does not rub or chafe. And, Jesus’ yokes were always designed for two. And our yoke partner is none other than Jesus himself. For me, that gives me great comfort every day to know that Jesus is in the yoke with me – moving me forward, leaning me into the right direction, holding me up and allowing me to rest.

Our daily routines, our jobs, our relationships, our finances – all can be life-giving, and they can be life draining. The stress we feel, more than ever, regarding political issues around us and state of our country – worries us. North Korea being extremely reckless and insecure scares us, the sovereignty of our nation under attack threatens us. And on a more personal level – our family members suffering from severe illnesses, good friends dying with hope at a premium. We’ve had four funerals here in six weeks. Our “peace” is often replaced by – our crying “How long O Lord, how long?”

And being a Christian doesn’t take one bit of that away. But hearing Jesus’ invitation, “Come to me all you who are burdened and weary – and I will give you rest.” Our rest and peace can come when we take Jesus’ offer to be toked to and with him. Being yoked to Christ restores a proper balance and perspective about life and what is really important. Being yoked with Jesus also keeps us on the right track, preventing us from harmful and wasteful sideways energy. Being yoked to and with Jesus can bring a silent but strong confidence – that whatever kind of day we have – ultimately all will be well with our souls – because nothing can break the yoke that connects Jesus with us.

And, when we are yoked with Jesus – he invites us – with him to take on and shoulder the loads of others – who for whatever reason – cannot bear their own loads. When we take on another’s load, we will have the restful peace that comes from helping a sister or brother – and I know we will make our yoked partner smile. During the early days of the Civil Rights movement, an elderly black woman walked daily from her home to work – a distance her family thought was way too far. But she was working in one of the local offices of Martin Luther King, Jr. – and she believed in the cause, so she walked those miles every work day. When her family put more pressure on her to quit, she said to them: You are right – my feet are tired and they ache – but my soul has never been more rested. That’s the rest – that’s the peace – that’s the security of what it means to be yoked to and with Jesus. “Come to me. Take my yoke – and you will find rest for your souls.” That’s what it means.

Are you tired, frayed, weary, disgusted, discouraged, hopeless? We need peace. Real peace. And according to our Gospel lesson, and it’s kind of a paradox – we need to live more, learn more, walk more into that yoke that Jesus carved for us individually in our baptisms. Jesus loves you. Jesus is saying to you right now – “Come to me, all you that are weary, carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, learn from me for I am gentle and humble of heart – and you will find rest – peace for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden light. For my yoke is fitted especially for you.” Amen.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

July 2 bulletin

The Fourth Sunday after Pentecost

Matthew 10:40-42

Pastor Steve Lynn

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord & Savior Jesus Christ Amen.

Receiving Jesus – Welcoming Jesus – Hospitality. In today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus reminds us of a very profound privilege, and along with that a tremendous responsibility. Jesus said – we represent him to others, and the reverse is true, others represent Jesus to us. What a privilege and responsibility that is. What a challenge! What a joy and blessing! Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, in his book, The Cost of Discipleship, “The bearers of Jesus’ word receive a blessing as they minister and as they welcome in Jesus name – As we do that, we are like him.” Thus said Bonhoeffer – “We are to meet others as if they were Christ himself.” When People are welcomed into our congregation, Jesus is welcomed with them. When anyone is excluded from a congregation because of who or what they are, we are excluding Jesus. We bring Jesus, and that means we bring forgiveness, salvation, peace and joy to others. Isn’t it a joy to know we are bringing the gift of Jesus Christ to others? And truly you can say, every bit of love and service shown to another is love and service shown to Jesus. We, who are Christian, are bearers of Christ to people in our homes, congregation, work, grocery store, soccer fields, driving, in our card clubs, on Facebook, chat rooms – wherever we find ourselves – Jesus wants us to be bearers of his love and mercy and justice. I was thinking about this, and I believe that the meaning of Jesus’ hospitality is to share Jesus’ love with everyone, but sharing that love takes on special significance when that someone is one who cannot repay you. Someone who cannot in anyway benefit you. Then the concept of receiving someone in Christ’s name takes on a very Christ-related meaning.

Jesus is the hospitality of God to us. Jesus invites all of us – from all languages, races, genders, sexual orientations, even all religions into his love and grace and forgiveness – which no one can repay. That’s the radical idea of Christian hospitality. Our Lutheran World Disaster Response that shows up everywhere there is a humanitarian crisis, our Lutheran World Hunger that feeds all people, our Lutheran World Relief that warms people everywhere with our quilts and helps school children everywhere with our school kits, the five missionaries we support, our Medical mission trips to Nicaragua, our Helping Hands trips to New Jersey, and right here – the Food Bank, Centre Volunteers in Medicine, Interfaith Human Services, Pennsylvania Interfaith Power and Light, our housing people in Out of the Cold – I think that’s what Jesus is talking about. That kind of giving – with no expectations in return – all point to Jesus – who is the hospitality of God.

Next weekend, Scott Vaughan, a large church consultant, and one who works with many ELCA congregations, is coming here. Our council has approved this. His expertise is in welcoming – church hospitality – and in church communications. Next Saturday evening, July 8, at 6 o’clock in Harkins Hall, we will have a light supper, then he will speak to us about hospitality and communications. I have invited all ushers, greeters and welcome center hosts, staff and our communications people – and any of you who want to come – to hear him and then ask questions. He has many ideas – many new to us – about how we can welcome people and extend the hospitality of Jesus to others. Then on Sunday – a week from now, he will attend all our services including 6 o’clock and watch us as we do extend Jesus’ love and hospitality. On Sunday afternoon, I would like him to meet with our council and coordinators who can come and any people invited Saturday evening who couldn’t make it. Then on Monday, Mr. Vaughan will attend our staff meeting and then meet with all our communications people.

I think we do a good job of welcoming people – we receive our share of new members, but I want us to do even better. I think we do a fine job with our bulletins, and Grace Notes and E Notes. But I want to do even better . After all, this is Jesus we represent. We do a decent job with our web site – but I know we can do better there and we will – and Mr. Vaughan will offer suggestions. Please come next weekend. It is certainly targeted for our front line welcomers – ushers – greeters, Welcome Center hosts and communications staff (people who publish stuff for us) and our council and coordinators – but all of you are welcome next Saturday at 6 in Harkins Hall. I know it’s summer with vacations, but please try to come if you can.

We need to be a congregation that lives by this principle – God offers us radical, free hospitality, so we need to offer it to others. No one should be a stranger here. All of us are sisters and brothers in Christ. When we see someone we don’t know, they are just brothers and sisters we haven’t met yet.

To be faithful apostles (people sent in Jesus’ name) we must push the boundaries of what we find comfortable and easy. It’s hard for many of us to extend hospitality to those unfamiliar to us. But please remember, it is not our love and hospitality we are giving. It is Jesus’ love and hospitality we are sharing; so because it’s his, it is not up to us to determine who deserves it. If it was only our love, then we would have the right to determine who receives it, we do that all the time and that’s okay. But you are sharing Jesus’ love with others, and Jesus is telling you (and me) to give his love away – to everyone. So Jesus is the one who makes that judgment about his love – we should not make that judgment. And Jesus already made the judgment that all of us – everyone – are in need and because of the cross – we are deemed worthy of his love. So everyone should receive it. So regarding the love of God – there are no judgments for us to make. To be faithful to Jesus – to respond to his radical hospitality to us – we need to push our boundaries and offer it to everyone.

Barbara Brame, a faithful member of Grace Lutheran church for decades died and her funeral was here on Friday. Barbara pushed me to be welcoming and hospitable. It was Barbara who convinced us to bring coffee to our new upstairs commons in 2011. It was Barbara who came in on Saturday and got everything ready so all we had to do was pub it in on Sunday morning. Barbara wanted everyone to feel welcome and at home here. (George and Kay Weigand continued that so they got everything ready in the upstairs commons on Saturday after Barbara couldn’t do it anymore.) Our upstairs commons is a welcoming place on Sunday mornings, as is Harkins Hall at 10 a.m. with our coffee hour and many thanks to the Coffee Hour hosts who make Harkins Hall a welcoming place. And I’d like to think that if someone you don’t know, even someone unkempt and unclean and smelly – if they came for a cup of coffee and sat by you – that you would welcome them and talk to them. You never know – it could be an angel or even Jesus. And even if it is only a smelly person, then you be Jesus to them, because you may be the only Jesus they ever meet.

Giving and Receiving a cup of cold water is the best gift when it represents the very presence of Jesus himself. Jesus gives you his hospitality and graciousness by forgiving your sins and promising you salvation and loving you. Jesus loves you. So, share that love with someone else. Jesus said: “Whoever welcomes you, welcomes me.” And when you welcome someone, you are welcoming Jesus. Amen.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

June 25 bulletin

The Third Sunday after Pentecost

Matthew 10:24-39

Pastor Scott E. Schul

As my daughter prepared to leave home for her freshman year of college, I tried my best to prepare her with advice concerning things she needed to take, things she should leave behind, and things she should do in order to maximize her college experience.  Here are some examples:

  • Take lots of warm clothes. It gets really cold in Greenville, PA.
  • Shop around for the best deals on textbooks, and rent them if you don’t plan to keep them.
  • Always read the course syllabus. It contains essential wisdom.
  • Keep up on your assignments because if you fall behind, it’s hard to dig back out.
  • If something in class isn’t making sense, contact your professor. He or she won’t mind. They’ll be grateful that you care.
  • And finally, find your passion. Don’t stick with a major that makes you miserable.  It’s ok to change your mind and your major.

Of course, no amount of advice from me could prepare her for everything she’d face in college.  Some things were beyond my ability to predict, like the time her toaster oven spontaneously burst into flames, smoked out her whole building, and earned her a visit from the local fire department.  And I knew there were many other challenging aspects about college that she wasn’t quite ready to hear at this point, such as the likelihood of quarreling roommates; the misery of 8 am classes on windy, wintery days; the reality of bad cafeteria food; and that sinking feeling of being overwhelmed as midterms and finals approach.

All of this came to mind as I studied today’s Gospel reading.  It picks up where we left off last Sunday, with Jesus commissioning his disciples and sending them out into the world to share the Good News.  Just as I tried to prepare my daughter for college, Jesus tried his best to prepare his followers for the missionary life.  His instructions fill all of Chapter 10 of Matthew’s Gospel.  There he counseled his newly minted apostles on what to carry, what to leave behind, what to say, and what to do.  But there were other things about being a follower of Jesus in a broken world that they weren’t quite ready to hear.

For example, Jesus was regularly labeled and demonized by his opponents as a heretic, a threat to public safety, a radical revolutionary, an embarrassing failure, a criminal, an awful son, tragically misguided, a fraud, a liar, evil, and crazy.  If the Son of God was ridiculed like this, how much more likely it was that his apostles would be cursed and called names too.

Jesus also spoke bluntly with his followers about the threats, torture, and humiliating death he would suffer.  He wanted to make sure his apostles knew that if he wasn’t above all that, then neither would they be.  Jesus was similarly honest about the harsh reality of life.  He often found himself in imperfect, hypocritical, and even hostile communities, surrounded by imperfect, hypocritical, and even hostile people.  It’s not a perfect world, and he wanted to make sure his apostles knew that this very flawed reality would be their reality too.

And lastly, Jesus wanted his apostles to know that our faith life sometimes forces us to make difficult choices.  One example Jesus lifted up concerns the family.  There are times when our call as Christians to love God and love neighbor might put us in conflict with our family.  Even the family can become an idol if we place it above God.  In his faithful service to the Gospel, Jesus had to endure family conflict.  He wanted his apostles to know that they might have to endure it too.  And so, in the face of so much potential adversity, what would his apostles do?

More to the point, what would you do?  After all, these instructions were not intended only for the Peter, James, Matthew, and the rest of the apostles.  At some level we all have been called by Jesus to go out into this hurting world of ours to proclaim his love, mercy, grace and forgiveness.  And that renders us open and vulnerable, which can be very, very scary.

And so Jesus told his apostles – and all of us – something critically important.  Have no fear.  These might be the three most important words you hear this week.  Have no fear!  This blessed and life-giving counsel can be found throughout the New Testament.  When Joseph doubted Mary’s faithfulness, an angel said “Have no fear.”  When Mary was perplexed by the enormity of her call to bear the Son of God, the angel said, “Have no fear.”  When the shepherds shook in terror at seeing the army of heaven arrayed in their field at the birth of Jesus, an angel invited them to come and worship, saying, “Have no fear.”  When Simon Peter doubted his worthiness to follow Jesus’s call to become a disciple, Jesus said “Have no fear.”  When the disciples were overwhelmed and intimidated by the immense power, holiness, and glory of Jesus as he walked on water and underwent a mountaintop transfiguration, Jesus gently drew them closer, saying “Have no fear.”  And when the women at the tomb reacted to the resurrected Christ with fright, he blessed them to share the Good News of his resurrection with others by telling them to “have no fear.”

Why is fear such a big deal?  Because, as scripture says, “God is love,” and fear is the greatest single enemy to love.  Remember what Pastor Lynn said last Sunday?  Jesus calls us to do two things: love God and love our neighbor.  And so the adversary’s soundest strategy is to try to destroy love by making us afraid.  It’s a brilliant strategy: simple, inexpensive, and adaptable to all times, places, and cultures.  You’ve heard those voices; they tell you to be afraid of God because God is angry, vengeful, unforgiving, and unapproachable for the likes of you.  Be afraid, and you’ll soon discover that as your love diminishes, you begin distancing yourself from God.  Those same voices tell you to fear your neighbors, because they will reject you, exploit you, criticize you, hate you, and maybe even hurt you.  Be afraid, and you’ll soon discover that as your love grows cold, so does your relationship with your neighbors.

In response to these old tricks, Jesus offers a timeless antidote: Do not fear!  We can live with confidence, assurance, and peace because Jesus Christ is with us, and his work of uniting, saving, uplifting, blessing, and transforming cannot be stopped.  He is drawing the whole world into his loving embrace, and he invites us to be part of his grace-filled way.

And so as Jesus calls you to heightened participation in the life and ministry of this congregation, have no fear!  As Jesus calls you to be more generous in how you share your time, treasure, and talents, have no fear!  As Jesus calls you to deepen your prayer life, have no fear!  As Jesus calls you to surrender your will to his, have no fear!  As Jesus calls you to share your faith with others, have no fear!  And as Jesus calls you to love and serve your neighbor – especially those least like you – have no fear!

In a few months, my daughter will head back to college for her junior year.  I can’t even imagine the further adventures that await her.  Hopefully none of them will include a toaster oven.  But I know that she can handle just about anything that comes her way as long as she doesn’t let fear rule her life.  Isn’t it the same for us?  Jesus has saved us from sin, death, and the devil.  He didn’t do all that just so we could be afraid.  He did it so that we could love God and love our neighbor.  God is love, and love always triumphs.  So have no fear!  Amen.