A Sermon about Rejection and the Persistent Love of God That Breaks Through Anyway (especially when and where we least expect it)

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Lutheran Church of the Cross, Arlington Heights
8 July 2018 + Lectionary 14B (Pentecost 7)
Mark 6.1-13


Rejection hurts.

No one likes being rejected.
Because rejection means exclusion.
And we’ve all experienced it.
Being rejected goes back as far as we have memory:
Being excluded from the “cool kids” lunch table.
Being chosen last for kickball at recess.
Getting the dreaded “no” when you finally muster up the courage to ask that special someone out.
Feeling alienated from family over differences in political views or religious beliefs.
Getting turned down for a job you were really hoping to get.

Rejection hurts.
It’s never a good thing,
and yet it’s a part of life.

Jesus knows something of what it’s like to be rejected.

We know that Jesus’s message wasn’t a hugely popular one among the authorities and the powers that be. We’re used to hearing that much: Jesus upsetting the status quo, threatening the power that “haves” had over the “have nots” in the ancient world, threatening to topple a brutal imperial regime and its oppressive social structures.

But what we don’t often remember is that Jesus was also rejected by his own family, by his own people, no longer welcome in his hometown.
Think about that for a minute—
Imagine what it’s like to be outright rejected or cut off from everyone you know and trust and grew up with and everything that’s comfortable and familiar and safe. I suspect some might not have to imagine all that much.

Rejection hurts.
And it’s a part of Jesus’s experience.
Jesus is no stranger to rejection, to exclusion, to being kicked out of his hometown, cut off from his own community. There’s a profound solidarity in that on its own.

It doesn’t take much probing to wonder what could have elicited such a strong rejection by Jesus’s own community. Earlier in Mark’s gospel, we heard the story of Jesus’s family coming after him to restrain him, accusing him of having gone out of his mind, even being possessed by a demon. His teaching and preaching and healing were all too much, too quickly. He was drawing too much attention to himself, causing too much of a scene. It’s embarrassing us, Jesus.

Even if his family and closest childhood companions were on board with his message, they knew it wasn’t going to be the most popular, that it wouldn’t end well for him. And truth be told, they were right.

There’s a resistance and a hesitancy to get fully on board with the message of the reign of God, the proclamation of God’s extravagant, boundless love for all of God’s creation. As Karoline Lewis puts it, “When we realize that this is a love over which we have no control, a love that will infiltrate the world like a persistent weed despite our best efforts to curb its spread, a love whereby we do not get to decide its objects, it seems less attractive than it did at first blush.”

Isn’t that most often the case?
Our need for control,
getting to decide who’s in and who’s out,
trying to set limits of the breadth and depth of God’s love?
The church has done it for centuries:
It’s as old as the debates over circumcision and clean and unclean foods among the early Christian church in the book of Acts.
It’s the stuff of ancient church councils that came up with the creeds we still recite today in worship.
It’s even part of the work of committees and synod and churchwide assemblies today.

Not that those things are inherently always bad, but they’re also part of our human need to contain the divine, somehow to box in what cannot be boxed in.

But that’s just the thing:
God’s love can’t be boxed in.
It can’t be controlled,
it can’t be tamed,
it can’t be pruned back…
Remember the mustard plant?
The kingdom of God is like an invasive species…
It pops up where we least expect it,
it takes over,
it threatens to choke out the status quo of injustice and fear and violence and hate,
and replace it with God’s reign of equity and love and justice-seeking peace.

But there’s a certain resistance to that, even among those of us who should know better.
It’s a popular joke that church people don’t like change, but there’s a lot of truth to that, too.

It’s too much, too quickly.
it’s drawing too much attention.
It’s causing too much of a scene.

So we reject it outright.
Not yet, or maybe after another committee meeting, or council vote, or congregational survey…
We reject change.
We resist the stirrings of the Spirit pulling us into new directions, more expansive ways of doing ministry and being the church, ever bolder, if not riskier, ways of proclaiming the boundless, limitless love of God in Christ Jesus.

But the love of God can’t be contained.
The message of Jesus can’t be boxed in.

Even amidst rejection,
even in Jesus’s hometown,
even in our own churches and denominations…

Even there, the gospel writer says, Jesus could do no deeds of power… except (did you catch it?) to lay his hands on a few sick people and cure them. Even there, Jesus could no deeds of power, except—he kind of could.

Even amidst rejection,
God’s love cannot be contained.

Even in the face of resistance, the power of God’s life-changing, world-altering, table-turning, status quo-toppling love for the sake of the life and wholeness of all cannot be stopped.

Nevertheless, God’s love persists.

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Love Is the Way: A Sermon for the Feast of the Holy Trinity

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St. Stephen Lutheran Church, Midlothian
27 May 2018 + The Holy Trinity
John 3.1-17


This is a weird day.

In the first place, it’s the day before Memorial Day — but that’s not the weird part. It’s weird because Memorial Day always feels like a strange weekend in the church, often marked by a noticeable dip in church attendance…that usually doesn’t rebound until early September.

It’s also a weird day because it feels like the end of a long marathon that began late last year with Advent and Christmas, continuing through Epiphany, and into Lent, Holy Week, and Easter. It’s like the church’s last “hurrah!” before entering the long green season of Sundays of “ordinary time,” Sundays marked only by what numbered week they fall after Pentecost. It can, frankly, seem like uneventful time after all we’ve experienced in our liturgies together these past several months.

Maybe the weirdest of all about today is simply that it’s Trinity Sunday — the only Sunday in the entire church year to commemorate a doctrine. Never mind that that’s kind of mind-numbingly boring, it’s also downright unusual. Every other major feast and season of the church year has to do with some event: Christmas is about the birth of Jesus; Epiphany, the visit of the Magi; Holy Week and Easter, the death and resurrection of Jesus; and just last week, Pentecost, the coming of the Holy Spirit. But there’s no single biblical event or story that can be tied to the celebration of Trinity Sunday.

It’s a weird day about a weird thing that no one really understands or can ever fully explain. The idea of the Trinity defies all logic and reason, and yet: It is foundational to who we are as church. When we recite the creeds, we confess what we believe about each person of the Trinity. When we are baptized, we invoke the presence and blessing of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Many churches, including my home congregation, take their name after the Trinity, and symbols for the Trinity abound in our sanctuaries. We even began today’s service with a shared greeting: the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit.

The Trinity is so much a part of who are as a church, and yet it is also so difficult to grasp and comprehend. But maybe that’s the point: The Trinity is not something meant to be understood. The Trinity has to be experienced.

Centuries of faithful Christians have tried their best to explain the mystery of the Trinity, deeply desiring to describe the different ways God relates to us and the different ways we experience God. For them, and for us, the Trinity is about the way God is in relationship with us.

At first glance, it’s easy to overlook any mention of the Trinity in the late-night conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus. It’s such a famous passage that most of us could recite it in our sleep. But, if we really pay attention, we notice that Jesus is telling Nicodemus about the ways God relates to God’s creation: God the Creator is the one who so loves the world God has made that God sends the Son to redeem the world, a world which is reborn through water and the Spirit. There’s an intricate interweaving here, almost like a dance, drawing attention to all the ways God relates to God’s creation.

But it’s God’s rationale and end-game in all of this that is most remarkable: that God loved the world… that the world might be saved through the one God has sent. Love is beginning and the end of the activity of God in the world! Love is the chief concern for the writer of John’s gospel, mentioning love language more than forty times. Love, for John, is motivated by the salvation, the health and healing and wholeness and liberation, of the entire creation.

Love has indeed been in the air this past week, surrounding the Royal Wedding — maybe you’ve heard something about it? For all the pomp and circumstance of the ceremony itself, it was Episcopal Presiding Bishop Michael Curry’s sermon that stole the show for me. Bishop Curry invited us to consider the power of love and a world where love is the way:

When love is the way, unselfish, sacrificial, redemptive.
When love is the way, then no child would go to bed hungry in this world ever again.
When love is the way, we will let justice roll down like a mighty stream and righteousness like an ever-flowing brook.
When love is the way, poverty would become history.
When love is the way, the earth will be a sanctuary.
When love is the way, we will lay down our swords and shields down by the riverside to study war no more.
When love is the way, there’s plenty good room. Plenty good room. For all of God’s children.
And when love is the way, we actually treat each other – well, like we’re actually family.
When love is the way, we know that God is the source of us all, and we are brothers and sisters. Children of God.

Love is the way of the Trinity, the way of God. As an alternative to “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,” St. Augustine has even referred to the Trinity as “Lover, Beloved, and Love.” Love is the way of the Trinity. Under the cover of night, Nicodemus comes to Jesus and gets to glimpse a vision of the God of love beyond anything he could comprehend as a teacher of Israel. So too in our night — and doesn’t this world so often feel like one, long night lately? — we are in need of that God of love more than ever:

A God who so loves us and refuses to give up on us,
a God who becomes one of us in the flesh and offers healing and wholeness and salvation to all of creation,
a God who continually invites us into the work of love and healing through rebirth—baptism!—by water and the Spirit.

God is Trinity, and God is love. Extravagant love, incomprehensible love, powerful love, earth-changing love, invitational love.

For we, dearly beloved children and friends of God, who abide in God and God in us, that love is both promise and hope, relationship and invitation.

God who has been,
is still,
and ever will be with us
sweeps us into the work of love, the way of love, for the sake of the whole world.


Image Credit: “The Trinity” by Kelly Latimore