A Sermon for the Feast of St. Thomas

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This is the final sermon preached at my internship congregation, as I draw my year (how quickly it’s gone by!) to a close. I am so grateful for the privilege of being invited into so many lives over the past year, in sadness and in joy and everything in between. The people of Augustana will remain in my heart for a lifetime of ministry. Deo gratias!


Augustana Lutheran Church
2 July 2017 + St. Thomas the Apostle
John 14.1-7



Unbelievable. A word which, by definition, implies something too improbable to be believed, something extraordinary, outside the bounds of what we expect to be true.

For nearly the past century, the Ripley’s Believe It or Not! franchise, founded by its namesake, American businessman Robert Ripley, has wowed audiences with tales of people and events so bizarre and unusual that leave many scratching their heads in disbelief. Some of their claims have indeed been too dubious and called into question, like the urban legend of Frank Tower, who, they suggest, survived the sinkings of the Titanic, Empress of Ireland, and Lusitania. That claim, as my limited internet research (and a bit of common sense) tells me, has indeed been debunked.

Outside of bizarre events and persons that may or may not fall under the category of #alternativefacts, the unbelievable also permeates the natural world with spectacular and breath-taking vistas — from the Grand Canyon to the Pacific and Atlantic coasts to our own picturesque, pastoral landscapes here in Nebraska, many of which I have been able to see for myself over the past year.

Unbelievable, too, that my time among you this past year as your vicar officially draws to a close this morning. It seems like only yesterday that I was pulling a U-Haul westward down I-80, through the surprisingly hilly landscape of Iowa, across the Missouri River, and into midtown Omaha.

It seems appropriate, then, that this morning we commemorate St. Thomas, one of Jesus’s twelve disciples, who gets rather a bad reputation for his own unbelieving. A picture I stumbled across last year when I preached on “doubting Thomas” shows an image of the apostle that poses the question, “Thomas, do you think Christians will ever appreciate that you were actually a person of great faith?” At the bottom of that image, we read his fictitious reply: “I doubt it.”

It hardly seems fair that this is how we remember Thomas — as a doubter — but I also don’t think it’s very accurate. Indeed, his three direct appearances in John’s gospel suggest a far more dynamic, nuanced picture of this disciple. In chapter 11, after Jesus has learned that Lazarus his friend has died, it is Thomas who boldly insists the disciples join their teacher on his journey to visit the bereaved family, a journey that would also begin Jesus’s path to Jerusalem and the events of Holy Week: “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”

Several chapters later, after Jesus has been raised from the dead, Thomas’s infamous episode of disbelief is not necessarily a sign of complete skepticism or unwillingness to believe. Instead, I suspect his doubts come from a place of deep concern. In the Easter gospel, his disbelief could easily be attributed to his life experience, especially over the past few days: His rabbi had been arrested, tortured, and killed at the hands of a powerful empire, like so many others who dared to question the empire’s authority before him. Execution, period, was the ending to be expected. In other words, nothing about Thomas’s experience would have led him to think any good news could possibly come from this.

Then in today’s gospel, we hear Thomas’s words: “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Situated in the context of Jesus’s “farewell discourse” to his disciples, after the raising of Lazarus and of course before his crucifixion and resurrection, Thomas’s deep concern and anguish over the events that were about to unfold are clear. One can imagine the questions on his mind: What’s going to happen to Jesus? What’s going to happen to us?

In contrast to popular perception, in these few verses from John’s gospel Thomas would actually appear to be an exemplar of faith — a faith which includes doubt and questions and anxiety and fear, a faith which is by no means perfect.

Thomas, I suspect, has much to teach us about the life of faith. For starters, faith is far more than pure, unquestioning subscription to a particular belief or doctrine, let alone denominational loyalty. Because, shocker, sometimes the church gets it wrong, like how the church got human sexuality wrong for many years and until only recently made it impossible for someone like me to follow my calling, serve this internship, and stand before you today.

Anne Lamott has famously written, “The opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty.” To take that one step further, I would assert that as soon as we think we are certain about our beliefs, faith is dead. Instead, questions and doubt along the way are not only expected but welcomed, and likewise, imperfection is guaranteed along our life’s journey. No life of faith is lived in a linear fashion, and any example that suggests otherwise should be held with deep suspicion.

This is why I think Thomas is such a perfect example of a faithful disciple, not in spite of but because of his imperfection.

In our current social and political environment, there has indeed been much to be anxious about. The feelings that Thomas and his fellow disciples would have experienced are our feelings: fear, uncertainty, doubt, worry, lament, questioning. And these things are a natural, even permissible, part of the life of faith.

“You know the way… I am the way,” are the words of promise Jesus offers Thomas. Because the disciples knew Jesus in the flesh, they could know God and experience God’s unfailing presence.

Amid and in spite of doubt and fear, Jesus reassures Thomas that he knows the Father because he has known Jesus. So too, we are also promised Christ’s very presence in tangible signs: in the waters of baptism, in the Word of God proclaimed, in the grape and grain of the eucharist, in this very community whenever and wherever we gather. If you know me through these things, we can hear Jesus saying, you know God and you know God’s presence. These are the places where God promises to meet us in our life of faith, whether in its ups or in its downs, and these are the places in which we can take refuge.

Thanks be to God.


Hymn of the Day: “Faith Full of Doubt”
Dedicated to the people of Augustana

1) Faith full of doubt and full of fear,
faith is far more than believing.
Discord and violence all we hear
give way to worry and grieving,
asking “How long, O Lord, how long?”
pleading for God to right the wrong.
To you we cry, Lord, have mercy!

2) Thomas the twin, true sign of faith,
knew not his own life’s fulfilling.
To Bethany the path he’d trace,
to go with Christ was he willing:
“Let us go too with him to die!”
in faithful loyalty replied.
To you he cried, Lord, have mercy!

3) Among his friends one last repast,
Christ his farewell to them making.
Thomas alone was bold to ask,
e’en as his heárt was breaking:
“How can we know the place you go,
if the way there we do not know?”
Still was his cry, Lord, have mercy!

4) When the apostles saw the Lord,
risen in glorious splendor,
Thomas could not believe their word;
all his experience rendered:
“This is too much, this cannot be!
Impossible unless I see!”
To you he cried, Lord, have mercy!

5) Like Thomas we well understand
journey implies imperfection.
Certainty faith does not demand;
doubt and lament are expected.
When all around is cause to fear,
hope is resigned, hope disappeared:
The cry of faith, Lord, have mercy!

6) Claimed as God’s own in wat’ry bath,
marked on our brows the sign tracing;
ever with Christ to walk the path,
rest in God’s gracious embracing.
Let not your hearts be troubled here!
In bread, wine, water God draws near!
To you we sing, Hallelujah!

Text: Josh Evans, b. 1989
Music: KIRKEN DEN ER ET GAMMELT HUS, Ludvig M. Lindeman, 1812-1887
Text: © 2017 Josh Evans. All rights reserved; used by permission.
Music: Public Domain

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A Sermon for Ordinary Time (again!) in Which I Quote Lady Gaga

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Augustana Lutheran Church
18 June 2017 + Lectionary 11A
Matthew 9.35–10.8-23


[Video/audio unavailable due to ornery technology. Also, a generally delayed posting due to an overworked vicar at the end of his tenure.]


Our gospel text this morning comes on the heels of Jesus’s famous Sermon on the Mount, and as any good preacher will tell you, there are often more than enough ideas and unique angles and interesting illustrations that come up during the sermon writing process than one could or should ever try to pack into a ten-minute message. Now, I’m not sure if that makes Jesus a bad preacher, but the Sermon on the Mount does go on for three whole chapters. (Just sayin’…) And it includes such doozies as:

Blessed are those who mourn.

Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.

Do not resist an evildoer.

Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.

The gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it.

Not exactly the kind of nice little maxims you’d want to cross-stitch on a throw pillow. To quote a recent song from that great theologian Lady Gaga, “You’re giving me a million reasons to let you go…” To put myself in the place of one of Jesus’s newly minted disciples hearing this stuff, Gaga’s words sound like an apt response: Blessed are those who what?! I’m sorry, love who exactly?! Oh, hell no.

Indeed, a million reasons to let it all go, right then and there. But, Gaga’s refrain pleads, “I’ve got a hundred million reasons to walk away, but baby, I just need to one good one to stay.”

The gospel’s gotta get better, right? I mean, it’s literally the good news. On the heels of his great sermon, Jesus summons the disciples, “Proclaim the good news… cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons.” Alright, it’s daunting, but I can get on board with that. “Take no gold, or silver…” Sounds risky, but sure, let’s go with it. “I am sending you out like sheep in the midst of wolves…” Hold up!

And more: “Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death.” Well, happy Fathers’ Day to you too!

Not exactly the most compelling reason to stay, if you ask me.

Behind these words is the irrefutable fact that the work of discipleship is hard, but it is of utmost importance. At the start of our reading, we get a snapshot summary of Jesus’s ministry of healing and liberation, but it’s in the next verse that we get his key motivation: “When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless” — or more literally, “oppressed and thrown to the ground.” It’s out of compassion — the willingness to suffer with as the root meaning of that word suggests — for their social situation that propels Jesus’s ministry among them, and it’s out of that same compassion that he recognizes the need in his context is so great that he can’t manage it all on his own and so sends his disciples to do the same.

Out of compassion Jesus cures every disease and every sickness, and out of compassion Jesus gives the same instructions to his disciples. These acts are the hallmarks of the coming of the reign of God — the new way of life rooted in healing and liberation. Which is all well and good, but what does that have to do with our time and place? When was the last time you saw a pastor walk into a hospital room and instantly cure a patient? And last I checked, The Exorcist was just a movie.

Maybe it’s not the acts themselves, then, but what they mean. After all, disease or demonic possession in the ancient world was viewed as a physical manifestation of sin, so healing someone of these ailments would have been viewed as a dramatically subversive act, upsetting the status quo and proclaiming liberation in the midst of oppression.

While these acts of healing and exorcism might be unfamiliar or irrelevant to us, the meaning behind them isn’t. To heal the sick is to advocate for health care justice. To proclaim the good news is to say that immigrants and refugees are welcome in this country and in our city. To cast out demons is to pursue equality for LGBTQ+ persons by exorcising from our society discriminatory laws and in their place championing anti-bullying measures to protect vulnerable youth.

Wherever a message of healing and liberation from oppression is proclaimed, there is the reign of God, subversive in and of itself because it pushes back against the status quo and upends all our expectations, subversive because it is rooted in grace — the unmerited, undeserved, unrelenting love of God in Christ that, so freely offered to us in our need, compels us to share it with a world in need.

If it still sounds like a daunting task, consider the original disciples sent to proclaim this message of healing and liberation. These are persons that are the least likely candidates for such a mission: Matthew is a tax collector, and Judas is named as Jesus’s future betrayer. Beyond the surface of the text, we also know that Simon the Cananaean was a zealot (a violent revolutionary) and that the other Simon, aka Peter, would one day deny ever knowing Jesus. Imperfect as they are, these are those whom Jesus sends, together. Imperfect together, they don’t have to do this work alone.

There is a movement in the gospel from Jesus’s teachings to his mission, from Jesus’s acts of compassion to his disciples’ commission to do likewise. This is a movement that includes us as well, as the church moves out of the times and seasons that trace Jesus’s life and ministry, death and resurrection, from Advent through Easter, now into Ordinary Time.

This is a time for discipleship together. As we remember whose we are and the grace shown to us, we remember for what we are claimed and sent so that that grace might also be shown through us.

A Sermon about Stories and Baptism (or, Who says Snapchat is a frivolous waste of time?)

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Augustana Lutheran Church
8 January 2017 + Baptism of Our Lord
Matthew 3.13-17



I confess that, as of late, I have become obsessed with Snapchat. I normally consider myself to be pretty tech- and social media-savvy, but it was only a few months ago that a friend introduced me to this app. I have quickly become something of an expert.

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If you’re not familiar with Snapchat, it’s essentially designed to share photos and short videos with friends, but the content shared only lasts for up to ten seconds before disappearing. I think it’s a brilliant concept. Suddenly I can post all the selfies, pictures of food, or feline photo shoots I want—with no lasting evidence to suggest that I might be a self-absorbed, gluttonous, crazy cat person.

While “snaps,” as the messages are called, can be sent to particular friends, you can also post them to a feature of the app called “My Story,” which anyone can view for up to 24 hours—the idea being that your “Story” would capture your day over a handful of individual moments.

As a preacher, I can’t help but imagine the idea of stories through a theological lens. In pastoral care classes in seminary and one-on-one conversations with many of you, I have come to greatly value stories as windows into what makes a person who they are and what motivates them to do what they do.

Stories are crucial to human existence. They’re the ways we order and make sense of our lives. We tell stories about when we were born, where we grew up, when we fall in love, when loved ones die. We tell stories to understand our origins and to give us a sense of meaning and purpose.

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Scripture too is full of stories. Whether  or not these stories are literal accounts of history doesn’t make them any less true—true in the sense of what Marcus Borg has called their “more-than-literal” meaning. In other words, the stories of our faith are  essentially metaphors that convey some truth about who God is and who we are.

There’s the story of creation, fall, and promise that shows us a God who yearns to be in relationship with human beings, whatever the cost. Or the story of the exodus, that speaks of God’s desire to liberate those who suffer oppression.

More recently in our church year, we heard the story of the nativity, the moment when God became one of us in Jesus of Nazareth, as an act of solidarity with human beings.

Regrettably, the gospels offer us precious little in the way of the childhood stories of Jesus, aside from his circumcision and that unfortunate episode where Mary and Joseph lose their pre-teen son in downtown Jerusalem.

Instead, in the gospel of Matthew, we go immediately from Jesus’s birth and John the Baptist’s preaching to the first story of an adult Jesus, just before he begins his public ministry: his baptism.

Wait a minute, though: Wasn’t the whole point of John’s ministry of offering baptism to his followers for the sake of repentance and the forgiveness of sin? It’s no wonder, then, that we get this skirmish between John and Jesus. I need to be baptized by you, John begins, and do you come to me? It seems a little backwards, doesn’t it?

Let it be so now, or perhaps truer to the original Greek text: Permit it at this specific time, for this specific purpose.

Like the other stories of our faith tradition recorded in the pages of scripture, this episode too tells us something more-than-literal. Of course, Jesus is not in need of forgiveness, but he comes to John “to fulfill all righteousness,” righteousness as an act of discipleship, a way of participating in the unfolding of the reign of God and the message that Jesus came to share.

So Jesus’s baptism is at once drastically unlike our own baptisms—I don’t remember any doves or voices from heaven at mine—but it also tells us something familiar about the life of faith. To paraphrase biblical scholar Karoline Lewis, baptism assumes wilderness.

Immediately after his baptism follows the other familiar story of Jesus’s temptation in the wilderness. When Lewis suggests that baptism assumes wilderness, she reminds  us that being in the wilderness is part of what it means to be God’s people (just look at the ancient Israelites in the desert!). But I would even go so far as to say that wilderness is part of what it means to be human.

After all, there seems to be plenty of wilderness to journey through in this life. I was sitting in the chapel at Trinity Cathedral just this Friday when my phone buzzed with a news alert of yet another mass shooting at the airport in Fort Lauderdale.

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Wilderness, though, is often a lot more personal: grieving the death of a loved one, coping with the aftermath of a breakup or divorce, living in the uncertainty of unemployment or underemployment. Wilderness assumes that there will be ups and downs and more downs in the life of faith, but wilderness also assumes company.

There’s a reason that baptism takes place in the midst of the Sunday assembly. In turn, the pastor asks parents, sponsors, and the whole congregation if they promise to help, nurture, and support the baptized as they grow in the Christian faith and life.

Yes, in baptism, we are named and claimed as God’s own, but we are also incorporated into the body of Christ, made visible in our local congregations. Baptism assumes wilderness, but it also means that we never have to go through that wilderness alone.

viewer-23g97nmIn just over a week, we as a congregation will embark on a book study, exploring together the meaning of our faith in order to be better equipped at telling our stories—our stories which begin in baptism but continue to unfold over our lives as people of God. Telling our stories offers us the chance not only to reflect on our own lives but also to offer strength and presence to others. It’s an act of discipleship and of community, as we live out God’s reign of love and justice.

Like the stories of scripture, our own stories are also sacred, revealing the ways that God continues to speak through us to a broken world.

A Sermon about Listening and What It Means to Be a Disciple

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augustana pulpit.cropped

photo credit: Alex Witt

 

 

 

This is the first sermon preached at my internship site. Click here and here to learn more about the congregation I will be serving for the next year in the city of Omaha, Nebraska.


Augustana Lutheran Church
17 July 2016 + Lectionary 16C
Luke 10.38-42



It’s been a hard couple of weeks. I’ve found that one of the ways I cope with tragedies is by showing up to vigils and protests to stand and to grieve and to be angry in solidarity with the community. Last Friday, I was able to join demonstrators at the corner of 120th and Center in what was an overwhelmingly peaceful protest in response to the shootings in Baton Rouge, St. Paul, and Dallas. Many of those gathered carried signs:

“Black lives matter.”

“No justice, no peace.”

“Racism kills.”

And one particularly poignant sign held by a young Black woman: “I am Sandra Bland.”

That rally Friday night reminded me of another. It was November 24, 2014, and I was in Chicago. It was the night that St. Louis County Prosecutor Robert McCulloch would announce that the grand jury had decided not to indict Officer Darren Wilson in the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson earlier that year. What I remember most about that night is all of the waiting for those of us gathered in vigil outside of police headquarters — and then the silent, and nervous, listening as we huddled around a radio to hear McCulloch’s announcement.

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outside Chicago police headquarters, November 24, 2014


Listening has indeed been on my mind since I began reading the gospel text for this week. Mary, Luke tells us, “sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying.” But Martha, left by herself to coordinate her sudden out-of-town guests, is understandably upset and tries to get Jesus to tell her sister to help. But Jesus instead commends Mary for listening.

Is Jesus suggesting that Martha’s acts of hospitality toward him are unwelcome? Is he being a bad guest? To read it that way, and understandably so, we might come to the conclusion that Jesus is placing a higher value on one sister’s expression of love over the other.

But, in a blog post this week, Karoline Lewis warns us against falling into the trap of comparing these two sisters and assigning value to their actions. Instead, she suggests that this is a text about discipleship and about who gets to be called a disciple of Jesus.

Consider last week: The Samaritan, a foreigner despised by the Jews for his ethnic identity, is the one who shows us what it means to love our neighbor. And now: Mary, a woman, takes the place of a male disciple, transgressing social boundaries to show us what it means be devoted to God’s Word. Representatives of two marginalized groups that Jesus lifts up as the model for discipleship — a discipleship that means being attentive to God’s Word and to the needs of others. Being and doing.

But again, it’s not about choosing Mary over Martha. The kind of hospitality that Martha shows is indeed important: that much Luke makes clear. But it is a matter of from where her actions flow:

Martha does what she does because it’s what society has told and conditioned her to do. It serves to maintain the status quo — in this case, trying to keep Martha distracted from claiming her place as a disciple by virtue of her gender.

But Mary chooses to disregard those social boundaries. She recognizes that loving God and being attentive to God’s Word take precedence, and Jesus commends her for this — essentially putting his seal of approval on an act of “civil disobedience.”

And then Luke helps us connect the dots: Together, the parable of the good Samaritan and the story about Martha and Mary highlight what it means to be a disciple — to “hear the Word of God and do it.” Devotion and service. Both are important, but one will naturally flow from the other.


Jesus’s commendation highlights the first of these: listening. Because it is what is being listened to that is important. And that, namely, is God’s Word — the good news, as Paul reminds us, that “through Christ God was pleased to reconcile to God’s self all things” (Colossians 1.20). That, dear people, is the bedrock of our faith, and it is only that we are freed from sin that we are also freed for the service of our neighbor. Doing flows from being.

Luther puts in this way in a letter to the pope in 1520:

“This is a truly Christian life. Here faith is truly active through love, that is, it finds expression in works of the freest service, cheerfully and lovingly done, with which a [person] willingly serves another without hope of reward… Although the Christian is thus free from all works, [we] ought in this liberty to empty [ourselves], take upon [ourselves] the form of a servant, be made in the likeness of [humankind], be found in human form, and to serve, help, and in every way deal with [our] neighbor as we see that God through Christ has dealt and still deals with [us].” [1]

Faith active in love is the gentle corrective Jesus offers to Martha, and to us, in his commendation of Mary’s devotion. Faith active in love is what it looks like when we combine Mary’s devotion and Martha’s service. Faith active in love is another way of saying that we are a public church — a church beyond the four walls of a sanctuary, immersed in service to our community.

wordsacramentBut we are also still, above all, church, rooted in Word and Sacrament. Emily Heath, a UCC pastor in New Hampshire, writes this:

“I am sometimes worried that we in the progressive church put the cart before the horse when it comes to social justice. It’s not that I believe we are advocating for the wrong things; it’s that I believe we sometimes advocate for the wrong reasons, acting first and then wedging theological meaning in later.” [2]

What we need to reclaim, says Heath, is discipleship. Indeed, she even goes so far as to call it “the next big thing” she envisions for the church.

It’s when we lose sight of “the church’s one foundation,” as the hymn puts it, that we become just another public advocacy group. Because when the church is reduced to a public advocacy group, then the church has nothing to say:

when an unarmed Black man is shot to death by police;

or even when an armed Black man is shot for trying to tell police he had a legal concealed weapon on his person when he’s just trying to reach for his ID;

or when a truck plows through a crowd in France and kills dozens, including at least ten children, celebrating a national holiday.

But the church does have something to say. The church has a message worth listening t0 — and worth proclaiming.

The church proclaims Christ crucified for the sake of the world.

The church gathers to confess its sin and trust in the promise of God’s forgiveness.

The church listens to the Word that promises a God who has been, is, and ever shall be with her peoples to wipe away every tear from their eyes.

The church attends to the mysteries at table and font.

And certainly not least of all, the church, so filled with these things, is sent into the world to strive for justice and peace.

In other words, the bedrock of our faith — the gospel of Jesus Christ — comes first. And upon that foundation, like a garden of fertile soil, spring forth the fruits of peace and justice. Doing flows from being.

The disciples of the church of Christ — you and me — hear the Word of God and do it. It starts with hearing, really listening, for when we listen to the gospel, we hear a message of God’s extravagant grace for us and for the whole world.


[1] Martin Luther, “The Freedom of a Christian,” in Martin Luther: Selections from His Writings, ed. John Dillenberger (New York: Anchor Books, 1962), 74-75.

[2] https://emilycheath.com/2014/09/16/the-next-big-thing-for-the-progressive-church-putting-the-horse-before-the-cart/

What’s the Catch? A Sermon About Costly Grace, Discipleship, and (of course) Threading Needles with Camels

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Grace Lutheran Church
11 October 2015 + Pentecost 20B
Mark 10.17-31


What’s the catch? It’s the question we ask when things just seem too good to be true. After four years of college and almost two years of seminary, I know that the surest way to attract poor students to your event is to offer free food. I’ve certainly taken advantage of my share of those opportunities—but always wondering: So what do I have to sit through, or sign up for, or commit to? What’s the catch?

It’s a question that I imagine was also on the mind of the man we meet in our gospel text today. Surely he had caught wind of Jesus’s rapidly spreading ministry—the healings, the exorcisms, the miracles, the resuscitations. And we know he’s intentionally seeking Jesus out. When he sees Jesus with the crowds and the children, he goes out of his way, distracted from his journey. There’s a sense of urgency and sincerity to his inquiry: he runs up to Jesus and kneels before him. “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” It’s a fair question, and he’s genuinely curious. What do I have to do to get in on this? Is it too good to be true? What’s the catch?

In response, Jesus is direct. Like a good Jew, he recites to him Torah, God’s law, and specifically the Ten Commandments. Do these things. That’s the catch. And like a good Jew, the man responds, “I have kept all these since my youth.” Check, check, and check! And then Jesus pauses and looks at him, lovingly, before continuing, as if to say, “You really don’t get it, do you? Let me try again.”

See, Jesus didn’t recite back all of the commandments, or even a random assortment. You might recall from the days of confirmation class that there are two “tables,” or subsets, of the Ten Commandments: the first table deals with our relationship to God, and the second deals with our relationship to other people. It’s this second set that Jesus highlights. You might also recall the famous passage a couple chapters later in Mark’s gospel where Jesus is asked which commandment is the first of all and he responds: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with your mind, and with all your strength… [and] you shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Mk 12.30-31). Jesus effectively summarizes the two tables of the commandments, which is to say that in today’s passage, he effectively tells the rich man, “Love your neighbor.”

Jesus doesn’t discount this man’s keeping of the commandments, but he does tell him he is missing something. What Jesus is getting at is the difference between what we might call following “the letter of the law” versus “the spirit of the law.” In other words, the point is not following the commandments for their own sake but for the sake of communal justice. It’s not enough, for instance, to refrain from outright stealing from our neighbor, but, “Go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor… then come, follow me.” Jesus makes looking out for our neighbor a prerequisite to discipleship, as if to say, “There’s your catch.” Love your neighbor. Take care of them. Then you’ll know what it means to follow me. But the man is shocked at this and goes away grieving.

image unashamedly stolen from Paul Eldred’s blog, whose excellent sermon on the same text you should also read

Then, following the pattern from last week’s reading, the conversation moves from the public sphere to the private circle of the disciples, where Jesus elaborates: “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” But the disciples don’t get it either, so he says it again and even adds an intentionally absurd comparison, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” And still they don’t get it.

Echoing back to the rich man’s question, the disciples ask, “Then who can be saved?” What’s the catch? And pausing and looking at them in the same way, Jesus says, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.” What? Another catch?

Perhaps it’s understandable then when Peter, exasperated, declares, “Look, we have left everything and followed you.” What more do you want, Jesus? And then Jesus finally lets in on what his movement is all about: “The first will be last, and the last will be first.” This message that Jesus is proclaiming is going to turn things upside-down and inside-out. It’s getting back to the heart of God’s law that is concerned about justice, and it insists on removing those things, like wealth and greed, that get in the way.


So how do we inherit eternal life? What’s the catch? As good Lutherans, we know that there is no catch. Grace alone, right? Well, yes and no. And before you run to Pr. Kevin and accuse the seminary intern of heresy, let me be perfectly clear: We are indeed saved by grace through faith for Christ’s sake apart from works. (Did I get that right?) It’s what our Lutheran faith is all about, and for good measure, lest we forget, it’s even posted on a sign on one of our bulletin boards here. But it’s also much more than that.

Lutheran pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was executed in a Nazi concentration camp during World War II, famously wrote about the “cost of discipleship.” With a fierce commitment to peace and social justice, Bonhoeffer offered a prophetic critique of the church of his day which had been sold out and corrupted by the Nazi regime, often openly endorsing Hitler’s politics to preserve itself. It ignored state-sanctioned tyranny and the violence being done against the Jews and other minorities at the expense of the gospel they were supposed to be preaching.

For the church of Bonhoeffer’s day, “grace alone” had turned into an excuse to ignore social sin, resulting in a failure to resist injustice. In other words, “grace alone” had turned into “cheap grace,” as Bonhoeffer writes:

Grace alone does everything, they say, and so everything can remain as it was before… Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship. [1]

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, 1906-1945

Cheap grace is a misunderstanding, Bonhoeffer claims, of what Luther had in mind when he said we are saved by grace alone. Cheap grace ignores the fact that Luther’s discovery of grace thrust him from the cloister to the world. For Luther, being saved by grace was only half of the point, and its necessary corollary was rooted in the obligation of discipleship. Put plainly: Grace is indeed a welcome word of good news to the sinner, but grace doesn’t just let us sit back in idleness as before, as though nothing has changed. Because of grace and the inbreaking of God’s new reality, everything has changed. The sick are healed, the dead are raised, the poor are lifted up, the outcast are welcomed in, the first are last, the last are first, the humanly impossible is divinely possible.

Costly grace, far from a “one-and-done” occurrence, is a living reality. Costly grace calls us to follow Jesus, like the rich man and the disciples. Costly grace beckons a life of discipleship, which Bonhoeffer knew all too well. Costly grace drove him from the confines of his comfortable career in academia to the confines of a concentration camp. Bonhoeffer risked his own life for being bold enough to speak out against the gross injustice and corruption he saw going on, and it ultimately cost him his life. Cheap grace lets us acquiesce in the face of injustice; costly grace demands that we call it out.

The life of discipleship to which Jesus invites the rich man and to which he calls each of us is not about following rules for the sake of following rules but for the sake of our neighbor. Like Bonhoeffer knew, discipleship means questioning the status quo when it contradicts God’s will for justice. It means standing in solidarity with the poor and the oppressed. It means removing all those obstacles that get in the way. It even means practicing civil disobedience—or is it divine obedience?—when our state’s budget crisis threatens our most vulnerable populations, as our own local Lutheran bishop and countless other people of faith have done in a series of demonstrations this past summer.

faith leaders, with a camel, at a “Moral Monday” rally this summer in protest of the Illinois state budget cuts (photo credit: Tom Gaulke)

So what’s the catch? How do we enter the kingdom of God? Again, let me be perfectly clear: we are saved by grace through faith because of what God in Christ has freely done for us. But because of Christ’s redeeming work, we are freed to love and serve our neighbor. It’s not that we’re earning grace, but rather that we’re living in response to it. The kingdom of God is all about justice, and it’s a work in progress to which each of us is called to participate.


[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “The Cost of Discipleship,” in A Testament to Freedom: The Essential Writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, ed. Geffrey B. Kelly and F. Burton Nelson (New York: HarperCollins, 1995), 308.