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 for the Salted and Unsalted

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Augustana Lutheran Church
5 February 2017 + Fifth Sunday after Epiphany (Lectionary 5A)
Matthew 5.13-20


Now with video!


rhyjdghe-4pdYou are the light of the world! You are the salt of the earth! It’s almost impossible not to break into a song from Godspell when you hear these words. (It’s stuck in your head now, isn’t it?)

But for as peppy as Stephen Schwartz’s musical setting of the fifth chapter of Matthew is, I’ve also found myself asking: What happens when we don’t feel very much like the salt of the earth and the light of the world? What happens in those moments when we do indeed lose our saltiness?

I don’t think it’s much of stretch to call to mind those moments when we’re simply not feeling it, whatever “it” is: our jobs, our volunteering, our protesting, even our church-going. So when Jesus tells us, “You are the salt of the earth,” I suspect there are times when it’s easier to simply throw up our arms in despair or surrender.

Then there’s the metaphor of salt itself. Sort of an unusual choice for Jesus to pull out of thin air, isn’t it? The uses for the ubiquitous condiment that I’m guessing most, if not all, of us have in our kitchen cupboards are many. In fact, by one count, there are over 14,000 uses for salt, or so says Mark Kurlansky in his book Salt: A World History. Salt, too, he writes, even has ties to major events of world history—from the salt tax that inspired Gandhi’s movement for Indian independence to a salt shortage that helped fuel the American Revolution.

Salt, despite doctors’ and dietitians’ warnings, is also crucial for the human body to propel oxygen through our blood. Quite frankly, we simply cannot live without it. Likewise, a good chef will tell you that salt is crucial for cooking, bringing out and enhancing the other seasonings and flavors of a dish.

The ancient world, too, had an understanding of the multiple uses and connotations of salt—from sacrificial rites and a symbol of covenant faithfulness to food preservation and seasoning. Jesus’s saying would have evoked many of these layers of meaning among his listeners.

And yet, I think an equally crucial piece of this simple statement — You are the salt of the earth — is the first word: you. In translation, it’s impossible to notice, but in the original Greek of the New Testament, that you is plural (as in “you all”). And the very fact that the Greek text includes the pronoun itself is emphatic: Y’ALL are the salt of the earth.

Grammatical nuance taken together with all these layers of meaning, this passage might be rendered something like: You are all salt for each other, enhancing one another’s being, including and especially when you don’t feel very salty yourself. You are salt for each other when you carry one another’s burdens, tangibly reminding each other of God’s covenantal love for all people.

This back-and-forth of seasoning and being seasoned is part of the life of faith. Indeed, it goes without saying that life itself is full of ups and downs. Life is very rarely lived in a straight, uneventful line from point A to point B, but it probably looks a little more…chaotic. I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing—but quite the opposite.

In her latest book, Lesley Hazleton poses the question, “What is so very wrong about losing one’s way?” She compares wandering through life to a physical journey or road trip. Sure, there’s a certain sense of security in knowing exactly where you are on your GPS screen, but it also precludes any chance of meandering off the main path. In other words, to avoid the chance of getting lost also eliminates the possibility of adventure or spontaneity. In so doing, Hazleton writes, “you leave no room for the original meaning of happiness… a variant of ‘hap,’ as in fortune or chance… a matter of openness—to the fortuitous, to the unexpected, to moments of grace.”

Moments we enter feeling less than salty but which we leave having been seasoned, enhanced, carried by another. You are salt for each other.

I’ll admit that the last few months haven’t left me feeling very much like the salt of the earth. The day after the election, we opened our doors at Augustana, offering our sanctuary as a safe space for those who might be feeling scared, angry, and vulnerable with the results.

That day, difficult as it was, seems to have paled in comparison to the past couple weeks of the new administration, where executive orders have threatened the healthcare of millions, the sacred lands of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, and the safety of our refugee and immigrant populations. I didn’t feel very much like the salt of the earth this past week when one of the ESL teachers here asked me to photocopy some immigration paperwork for her students and I was suddenly confronted by the fact that the administration’s harmful new policy was affecting actual people that I see every day outside my office. It made me feel both angry and powerless.

But also this week, along with Pr. Jan and a handful of other Augustana folks and about 1500 others from across the city, we gathered on Tuesday night in Turner Park for a candlelight vigil to hear firsthand the stories of refugees and the witness of local religious leaders speaking out against unjust immigration policies and reminding us that our faith compels us to welcome the stranger. Peppered throughout the crowd were specks of light, whether from candles or cell phones, shining all the more brightly as the sun set. People literally holding light, being light.

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Candlelight vigil in Turner Park, January 31, 2016 (photo credit: Josh Evans)

It was a life-giving experience to be surrounded by that cloud of witnesses, being light and being salt for each other. And not only for each other but also as a witness for the city, for the country, for the world.

Amidst fearful times that threaten our most vulnerable communities, we hear Jesus’s words of promise that we are the salt of the earth, for the sake of each other, with the capacity to resist.