READING: Luke 12:32-40
[Jesus said:] 32“Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. 33Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. 34For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
35“Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit; 36be like those who are waiting for their master to return from the wedding banquet, so that they may open the door for him as soon as he comes and knocks. 37Blessed are those slaves whom the master finds alert when he comes; truly I tell you, he will fasten his belt and have them sit down to eat, and he will come and serve them. 38If he comes during the middle of the night, or near dawn, and finds them so, blessed are those slaves.
39“But know this: if the owner of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would not have let his house be broken into. 40You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”
I am a planner. I always have been, since birth! I loved to read Nancy Drew mystery books, and when I read the Tale of the Twister, it offered a list of things to include in an “emergency kit” and I was all over it. I assembled the most complete backpack of supplies I could manage at the age of 9—water, flashlight, batteries, granola bar, duct tape, toothpaste. My brothers got a lot of mileage teasing me when I insisted on bringing the kit on a boat ride one day—until the lights on the boat went out, after dark. And, my kit, if you recall, included a flashlight, which we were able to use to aid our way home. I have rarely felt more vindicated in my passion for preparing than in that moment!
This desire to plan ahead has followed me into adulthood, and when we were heading out to be with my mother-in-law in her final days in a Wisconsin hospital and weren’t sure how long we would be gone, I made a list of over 30 things to do before we left so we would be ready for an extended absence. And, I got them done in a day!
Part of me, when I read today’s gospel about preparing for God’s coming, immediately wants to get out a piece of paper and pen and begin making my checklist of things to do! Fellow planners, back me up here, isn’t this what Jesus is telling us? To be prepared? To get everything ready, so we aren’t taken by surprise when God shows up?
As much as my check-list-making, deadline-keeping, expectation-meeting self would like to think so, I am quite certain that being perfectly prepared, having all things ready, is NOT what God has in mind for us after all! All of our readings today, rather than giving us a list of things to do to prepare or an absolute description of what is going to happen, seem to be telling us—even warning us—that whatever is coming, will be exactly the opposite of what we might expect.
Abraham and Sarah, faithful believers in God, were given a promise by God that seemed so outrageous, that both of them, at different times, laughed out loud. Two people, beyond child-bearing age, have enough family to number the stars? They believed, and they struggled to believe, until God’s promise to them was finally fulfilled in God’s own way and time. We are told in the letter to the Hebrews that faith is the assurance of things hoped for, conviction of things unknown. And Abraham and Sarah certainly modelled trusting in things that were completely unknown—their story, we are reminded, starts with them leaving everything, and setting out on a journey having no idea where they were going.
In our Gospel from Luke, which seems to tell us to prepare, prepare, prepare, in the end, Jesus shows us that no matter how much we prepare, God will always surprise us. What servants, after all, would expect their employer to come home, sit them down, and serve them a meal? Who could prepare for something so completely unexpected?
We live in a world full of beauty and hope, that is also very broken in many ways. The realities of racism, discrimination against LGBTQ people, poverty, stories of those fleeing to our borders for their very lives, damage to the earth, and so much other brokenness and even evil are present in this world. We have heard just in the last week of two more mass shootings killing almost 50 people, in El Paso and Dayton, and experience grief and anger and despair with those communities and for ourselves one more time. The fear and division we live with only seems to grow.
God is inviting us to look beyond what can be perceived today, and trust in the promises of a yet unknown future. As a denomination, we as members of the ELCA are being invited into big dreams and hopes for our future. At the ELCA’s Churchwide Assembly this week, the Assembly members and the African Descent Lutheran Association—an association of black ELCA Lutheran clergy and lay members—dared to embrace a yet unrealized dream of a church healed of the violent sin of racism. The Churchwide Assembly of one of the whitest denominations in the country presented a statement of apology for centuries of complicity in the way people of African descent have been oppressed from the beginning of slavery through the current day, fully recognizing the work yet to be done. It ends by saying, “An apology is only empty words and promises unless it is accompanied by action, which is grounded in prayer, education, and soul-searching repentance. We trust that God can make all things new.”
In his response to this statement, the president of the African Descent Lutheran Association, Reverend Lamont Wells, said, “I recommend we rush boldly to the throne of grace, and ask the Lord to help and guide us. Jesus is our North Star of Hope. In fact he is The Bright and Morning Star who is able to keep us from falling back into this bondage of sin. This apology is received because Jesus has shown us the way towards reconciliation.” Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, a conviction of things not yet perceived.
A lot closer to home, you, Bethel family, and I, are invited to trust in the promise of God as we continue to discern where God is leading you, me, us. And here’s the really good news, in all our scriptures for today: God will surprise us, as we journey. That is guaranteed. We don’t know what to expect, or how God’s promises will be revealed, because just as the servants in Jesus’ story were surprised when their employer served them, our expectations are likely to fall far short of the abundance God has in store for us.
What would it look like if we lived as if God’s promises to us were guaranteed to come true? What decisions might we each make, if we trusted that not only is God with us on our journeys, and not only will God provide for us, but that—like Jesus tells his disciples in our Gospel today—it is God’s GOOD PLEASURE to give us the kingdom?
Today, we are invited to claim the promises of God, both those we have experienced already, and those yet to come. We can claim a world in which racism no longer exists—and because of that, have the courage to speak boldly with love and hope God’s truth that all people have value and are worthy of love. We can believe and trust that a world in which no one will ever again die in a mass shooting in our country is possible—and not be afraid to do what we can in this moment to contribute to that reality, even when it seems as if it will never happen.
What promise from God do you want to claim today? For the world, for our country, for this community, for your own life? How will you live, claiming that promise that is yet unrealized? Be not afraid, little flock. It is God’s good pleasure to give us the kin-dom. Thanks be to God!
reading: Luke 10:38-42
38Now as [Jesus and his disciples] went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. 39She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. 40But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” 41But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; 42there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”
Who else here has ever felt “worried or distracted by many things?” I remember being responsible for setting up the registration area for an event, complete with typewriters to use for name badges (yes, this was a few years ago!) I was just at the point of congratulating myself because everything was in perfect order, totally under control, when I realized with horror that I had forgotten to bring the extension cords. I can still remember the sinking feeling in my stomach, the heat of shame flooding my face, as I spiraled from confidence to disaster in about 6 seconds. No typewriters, no badges. No badges, no attendees. No attendees, no event. And it was all. My. Fault. And everyone would know it.
Illogical, I know, but in that moment, it made perfect sense to me. It is so easy, isn’t it, to get focused on the details of a project or event or situation, to the point where we completely forget why we are doing it in the first place. Thankfully, THAT TIME, my worry and distraction was short-lived. For one thing, we quickly found that we could borrow extension cords from the facility. (And in retrospect, the fact that there was a hardware store 5 minutes away, or that people could have hand-written their nametags, feels rather significant, although it never dawned on me at the time!)
More importantly, I had friends with me that day. “What is our purpose?” They asked me. “To have inspiring speakers and workshops, and opportunity for people to connect and learn and have fun together,” I answered, not quite convinced that this was actually relevant to the catastrophe unfolding in front of me. “Is not having the extension cords going to prevent that from happening?” “No, I guess not.” “Well, then, it’s all good!” Slowly, what they said sank in, and worry and distraction began to dissipate.
The simple wisdom of that question, “what is our purpose,” has stayed with me through many years of projects and workshops and events, up to and including Jessica and Jason’s wedding yesterday. There have been times over the years when I have been able to share what I learned that day with others. And there have been times when I have been humbled when someone I had shared that story with repeated that question to me years later, when I was, one more time, collapsing under the weight of distraction and worry over a small detail gone wrong in a much larger picture.
There is a little book in recovery circles called “When I Got Busy, I Got Better.” It talks about the importance of giving to others, of being of service, and how when we find ways to reach out we do better all the way around. Which has been very true for me. And, I remember hearing someone talk about that book once, and they shared that when they got busy, they got bitter, as they allowed the details and minutia to distract them and weigh them down!
It seems, as we enter into our Gospel today, that maybe Martha could have benefited from the second title, as she wrestles with feeling taken advantage of by Mary as she focuses all of her attention on the kitchen duties while Mary “does nothing!”
All too often, the story of Mary and Martha is taken as an either/or tale, an affirmation of one way of serving God at the expense of another. Lifting up Mary for taking the “better part,” sitting and listening to Jesus, while Martha is gently chided for not being so wise. But if we remember that just last week we read the story of the Good Samaritan, which affirmed the Samaritan for doing “something” while the others did nothing to help the man in the ditch, we have to realize that, like so many other stories in scripture, it is not quite so simple.
Really, I think what Jesus is trying to do is to help Martha understand that her problem is not so much that Mary isn’t helping, as that Martha herself has forgotten why she is busy in the first place. Jesus is asking Martha to refocus her attention on the most important thing—why is she serving? What is our purpose?
Putting the story of the Good Samaritan and the story of Martha and Mary side by side, as they are in Luke’s Gospel, is profoundly important to understanding the wisdom that Jesus is trying to share with us. Turning away from someone—anyone—who is oppressed or wounded, as the priest and Levite do in the story of the Good Samaritan, perhaps especially when we claim we have a moral or ethical basis for doing so, is completely contrary to who we are called to be as children of God. And, as Martha learns, being busy, so busy that we forget what is really important, can be equally problematic.
Putting these stories together, we are reminded that what matters is not believing the right thing or being part of the right group. We cannot earn God’s grace and mercy and love, and it is not our place to judge whether those around us are worthy or not. Jesus is telling the lawyer, and Martha, and us, to keep our eye not on whether another person is following the law or the commandments or fulfilling our expectations of them. Instead, we can hear Jesus gently calling us keep our eyes on him. When we serve, why are we serving? When we listen, to whom are we listening?
Martha, and the priest and Levite, and we, can be so easily distracted and worried by many things that we forget. Especially these days, it can be easy to be so frantically busy and so invested in the outcomes of our work that we lose sight of who we are called to be, and who we are serving with our busy-ness. Or, to be so paralyzed, or burned out, or overwhelmed, by the work there is to do, that we fail to do anything at all. Or, to be so committed to the way we are serving, the rules and criteria we feel are right, that those rules and criteria become more important than the Christ in the person in front of us. We miss Christ present with us, longing to show us the love and mercy of our God who knows no such limits.
Jesus is asking Martha, and us, to remember what our purpose is. Calling us to choose anew the “better part.” Jesus is reminding us that in everything we do, everywhere we go, Christ is present, and being present to God and those around us is our purpose. We are called to see the face of God in our neighbor the immigrant seeking safety and life, our neighbor the soldier standing for justice and peace, our neighbor the person living on the street, our neighbor who stood up for us when we were being rejected, our neighbor who is ill and has asked for help with yard work or meals. When we serve, we serve Christ. When we listen, we listen to Christ.
We all get distracted and worried by many things at times. At times, we all need reminding. What is our purpose, what is the better part? When we stick together and help each other remember, the answer become much more clear. Thanks be to God!
READING: Luke 8:26-39
26Then [Jesus and his disciples] arrived at the country of the Gerasenes, which is opposite Galilee. 27As he stepped out on land, a man of the city who had demons met him. For a long time he had worn no clothes, and he did not live in a house but in the tombs. 28When he saw Jesus, he fell down before him and shouted at the top of his voice, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me”—29for Jesus had commanded the unclean spirit to come out of the man. (For many times it had seized him; he was kept under guard and bound with chains and shackles, but he would break the bonds and be driven by the demon into the wilds.) 30Jesus then asked him, “What is your name?” He said, “Legion”; for many demons had entered him. 31They begged him not to order them to go back into the abyss.
32Now there on the hillside a large herd of swine was feeding; and the demons begged Jesus to let them enter these. So he gave them permission. 33Then the demons came out of the man and entered the swine, and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and was drowned.
34When the swineherds saw what had happened, they ran off and told it in the city and in the country. 35Then people came out to see what had happened, and when they came to Jesus, they found the man from whom the demons had gone sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind. And they were afraid. 36Those who had seen it told them how the one who had been possessed by demons had been healed. 37Then all the people of the surrounding country of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them; for they were seized with great fear. So he got into the boat and returned. 38The man from whom the demons had gone begged that he might be with him; but Jesus sent him away, saying, 39“Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.” So he went away, proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him.
On the surface, the story of the Gerasene man possessed by demons seems pretty simple. The man, whose name is never told, has been possessed for years, not by just one demon, but many. He has been kept in chains, cast out from the community, lived in the wilds. When we read this description, it sounds like this person, this child of God, looked and acted—and was treated—more like an animal than a human being. And then, Jesus comes to town, and the man is released from the demons. A miracle has occurred, and everything has changed! After so many years of bondage, the man is free.
On the surface, the story of the end of slavery with the Emancipation Proclamation also seems pretty simple. Millions of people, children of God, had been kept in chains, abused, worked and sold for profit, treated for generations more like animals than human beings. And then, January 1, 1863, President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, and the slaves, at least legally speaking, were released from their chains. A miracle had occurred, and everything changed! After centuries of bondage, the people of African descent were free.
When we look closer, neither the story of the release of the Gerasene demoniac, nor the story of the freeing of millions of people who had lived in slavery, is as simple as it seems. Both stories warrant a little attention, especially this week, as we remember the 4th anniversary of the execution of 9 black people in Bible Study at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston South Carolina, by a young white supremacist who was born and raised in the ELCA. From both of these stories, we learn that freedom, healing, transformation, are not simple, one-time, individual events, but communal experiences of growth and change that can take years, generations, to be fully realized.
When the Emancipation Proclamation was issued, it certainly meant the legal end of slavery, but it was far from the end of the story. For those living in chains, AND for those whose whole lives had been formed in a world built on the institution of slavery, this declaration of freedom turned upside down the only world any of them every knew! It required transformation at almost every level—financial, social, practical, physical, political, for everyone in the nation.
The change would take generations. It certainly started with the signing of the Proclamation over 150 years ago, but what many of us don’t realize is that it would be two and a half years before the last of the slaves knew of its passing. On June 19, 1965, General Gordon Granger of the Union Army finally reached Galveston, Texas, where his first order of business was to read the Emancipation Proclamation to the slaves still being held there. In the midst of the wide ranging reactions to the news, celebrations broke out, which are continued today each June 19th in a celebration known as Juneteenth. On the website Juneteenth.com, it says, "Juneteenth is a day on which honor and respect is paid for the sufferings of slavery. It is a day on which we acknowledge the evils of slavery and its aftermath. On Juneteenth we talk about our history and realize because of it, there will forever be a bond between us. On Juneteenth we think about that moment in time when the enslaved in Galveston, Texas received word of their freedom. We imagine the depth of their emotions, their jubilant dance and their fear of the unknown."
The signing of the Emancipation Proclamation was only the beginning. The bringing of the good news to Galveston on Juneteenth was another step in the process—in order for freedom to come, the word needed to be spread! And that transformation continues. When we consider that the events of the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s was only about 60 years ago, and when we remember the nine lives lost to white supremacy at Emanuel AME just 4 years ago June 17th, we know there is still work to do for all of us in our nation to fully live into and embrace the good news of the Emancipation Proclamation.
The Gerasene demoniac and his neighbors also needed time to absorb the transformation once Jesus had sent the demons into the swine. The demoniac himself wasn’t sure how this was going to work out! Once cleaned up, and dressed, and fed, his first desire is to follow Jesus to other lands, leaving behind his home and his community. And his neighbors probably wouldn’t have minded if he had left—seeing this change in the person they only knew as possessed, seeing him free and in his right mind, did not bring them joy, but fear! They knew what to do when he was possessed, they had lived with him for as long as they could remember. What on earth are they to do with him now? I think of how often families who have lived with addiction for generations struggle when the alcoholic finally achieves sobriety. How easy it is to cling to what is familiar, even if we have dreamt and worked and fought our whole lives for something new!
Our story today ends with a Biblical proclamation. As much as the man healed of possession by many demons wanted to go with Jesus and leave everyone behind, he instead stays, Luke says, “proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him.” Given that his neighbors wanted Jesus to leave because of the fear they felt about what had happened, I can’t imagine that this was an easy thing to do. It is one thing to be liberated from bondage. It is another thing entirely to tell boldly of freedom and grace and healing to those who might be more comfortable if nothing had changed! It is perhaps not at all a coincidence that the demoniac calls himself Legion—the same word used for the Roman army, the empire in power who in so many ways held the people captive. Transformation takes time, sometimes generations, and the first step, as Jesus tells us, is to spread the good news!
Who is routinely marginalized and cast out today? Who is looked at as “other?” Who is, in fact, demonized, in need of liberation and healing from whatever it is that holds them bound? Who, in our community, our neighborhood, our state, our country, needs to hear the good news of freedom?
This week, as we remember at once the experience of the slaves in Galveston Texas as they learned of their freedom over 150 year ago, and the tragedy of the death of 9 black people at the hands of white supremacist just 9 years ago, the message Jesus gives to the man healed of demons is for us to. A miracle has happened! We are free. All of God’s people are fully human, beloved, healed, free. Go, and declare how much God has done for you!
READING: John 16:12-15
[Jesus said,] 12“I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. 13When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. 14He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you. 15All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.”
"I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.” I remember very clearly events that took time for me to grasp. One that stands out for me happened many years ago. I was driving from LaCrescent in southern Minnesota up to the Twin Cities with a college friend, and another driver pulled in front of me and then hit their brakes. I immediately tried to slow down, but I knew it was no use. We hit the other car from behind, and came to an abrupt stop.
My first reaction was to apologize, profusely, to my friend for the colorful language that had come out of my mouth as I watched the accident unfold. As we got out of the car and began to assess the damage, the reality of what had happened began to slowly seep in. I looked at the front of the car, now pushed into itself, accordion-like. “This doesn’t look good.” I noted the broken head lights, the glass and plastic scattered on the ground. “No, not good at all.” Then I saw fluids seeping out from under the car, and the peculiar angle of the tires. “I’m not sure I can drive this home.” The liquid began to pool, the colors blending together. “No, I don’t think I can drive my car home.” Then, it dawned on me that we were two hours from home. And no cell phone. And no extra car in my pocket.
It sounds pretty quick laying it out like that, but the embarrassing truth is, to my recollection, it took nearly half an hour to figure all that out. I couldn’t bear the full picture of what had happened all at once! "I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.”
We can probably all think of times when something happened that took a long time to “sink in.” Some of them may be painful or traumatic things, like accidents. Or diagnoses. Or losing a job. Or the death of a loved one. Painful things happen, and it can take a while to process and settle in to new realities that are not what we anticipated or hoped for.
Some of them may be joyful things. Like the birth of a healthy child. Falling in love, or getting married. Even times of joy can be overwhelming. "I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.”
On this Trinity Sunday, we understand in a profound way that we have a God who meets us where we are, who desires an ongoing and ever deepening relationship with us. In Romans, Paul writes that the grace of God is available to us through Jesus. God’s love is poured out on us, and relationship between us and God is built, through Jesus, God-in-flesh. And Jesus tells us that, although we cannot hear everything he has to tell us right now, the Holy Spirit will guide us into all truth, sharing with us, in time, all that we cannot yet bear.
In the Trinity, we know that God is all about relationship, all about love. God’s identity, three-in-one, is fully grounded in being a community of love. And God has given us one another as companions on this journey.
Revealed in the Trinity, our God is all things for us. God is majesty and power as shown in our psalm today—Lord of the Universe, deserving of glory, before whom none of us, truth be told, are quite ready to stand. The full majesty of God, the awesomeness of creation, makes us quake in our boots, at least a little bit. The power of God revealed in waves crashing on the ocean, in the flashes and crashes of powerful storms, in the silent formidable presence of enormous trees centuries old. God’s majesty surrounds us, overwhelms us, and although it touches us, we can’t quite bear to touch it.
Through Jesus, God is also fellow traveler and companion intimately acquainted with our human experience. God loves us enough to give us God’s very self, to be in relationship with us, to meet us where we are. Because of the death and resurrection of Jesus, our brokenness is redeemed, and our joy is made complete. God enters fully into our suffering, as well as our joy. God-in-flesh embraces our grief at the death of a loved one, and shows us through the resurrection that death will not be the final word. God enters our joy at the birth of a child, revels with us in the beauty of creation. God sits with us, eats with us, laughs with us, cries with us. Because God revealed Godself to us in Jesus, we know that God is not only majesty and splendor and power, but intimately involved in our everyday life. Because God became fully human, we know we are never alone. We have a God who understands what it is to be human!
And finally, the Holy Spirit, who continually reveals truth to us and empowers us to witness to the world. The Spirit is perhaps the most difficult to understand. It’s like trying to capture . . . well, the wind! The Spirit empowers us to recognize who we are as children of God, and it is only through the Spirit that we call God Abba, Father. The Spirit in breath brings life to dry bones in the desert, anoints and calls the apostles in fire at Pentecost, calls Jews and Gentiles alike to baptism in the days of the early church.
There are three persons in our one God. And when these persons come together in that one God, something happens that goes far beyond simple division of labor, each person fulfilling their appointed role. This reality cannot be adequately captured in any one metaphor, although it didn’t stop St Patrick from trying with his image of the clover leaf. And I am sure you can imagine that it doesn’t stop me from trying!
In Quest for the Living God, theologian Elizabeth Johnson describes the Trinity as three people in a dance that never ends. “The three circling around in a mutual dynamic movement of love, God is not a static being, but a plentitude of self-giving love, a saving mystery that overflows into the world of sin and death to heal, redeem, and liberate.” The Triune God is a God of constant movement, changing, circling, over-flowing. As hard as we may try to neatly define the persons in the Trinity and understand it, God will not be contained.
This is an image of God in relationship with Godself, equal, fully grounded in love. Love and joy are God’s core reason for being—and God created us to be in loving relationship with God and the rest of creation, and with one another. Today, we celebrate the God who is with us, forever, in ways we cannot begin to understand. We know a God who meets us where we are, and never gives up on us, no matter how long it might take us to understand. We are invited into relationship with a God of love, energy, creativity, who is constantly making things new. Through the Trinity, we are invited into partnership with God, and with one another, knowing that no matter where we go, as the Spirit guides us as people of God into truth, we will never be alone.
Thanks be to God!
Meagan McLaughlin, SAM at Bethel Lutheran Church
Meagan is our interim SAM. Please enjoy her blog on her sermons.