Good morning, St. Matthew. We gather on this morning in Itasca on the unceded tribal lands of the Kickapoo, Peoria, Ka-skas-kia, Potawatomi, Mya-a-mia, HoChunk, Winnebago and O-che-thi Sakowin nations, acknowledging that hard past and praying our way into a better future.
And so let us pray.
Holy Lord, you did not come to us so that we would be cemented in place or suspended in time forever. You came with a winnowing fork, a sword and a mighty Spirit to blow us out of all the foolish choices we have made to blast us into a new and redeemed future. Help to empty ourselves of all our foolishness so that we may be filled with your holiness and the desire to make your will manifest on earth as it is in heaven. Send your Spirit to grant us the courage and the strength to lay down all that holds us back from that goal. In your Holy name we pray, Amen.
Over the past 5 weeks, the sermons have been focused on DARING faith and how that translates into our lived experience. Today we finish that series and pivot toward the coming Advent season, so it is perhaps the Spirit at work that we are talking about that final letter in in DARING – G -Goals as we turn toward the manger. Throughout Advent we will be talking about what we need to lay down in order to make that journey to the manger possible – and so today, we’ll spend some time lifting up what living into those faithful goals might look like.
We have had examples of that faithful life throughout history. Deitrich Bonhoeffer was a Lutheran theologian who had the faithful mandate to live into history when Hitler and the Fascists made the choices of faith real and stark. There are some that argue we are living in a similar time – when the faith that we speak with our mouths can no longer just a vague philosophical stance but a real live get your feet on the ground and your hands dirty call to make manifest the will of God on earth. But that kind of work is not something we get particularly excited about. Bonhoeffer knew this. In his great work, “The Cost of Discipleship”, he calls out this airy fairy faith with sarcasm and disdain;
If Jesus challenged us with the command : ‘Get out of it’, we are likely to take him to mean: ‘Stay where you are, but cultivate that inner detachment.’
We are called, Bonhoeffer insisted, to live our faith, and the parable this morning should make very clear to us that Jesus is not giving us a faith concerned solely with an intellectual stance – the Lord is looking for our commitment to action to the organic change that takes place in us when we recognise that we aren’t in charge of this ride, but rather participants in a larger plan.
And the thing is that God has been telling us this since Eden! We have always had the mandate to be managers of creation and cocreators with God. We have always had laid before us that we are capable of creating a world that gives life and joy, rather than fear and poverty. Through the mouth of the prophet Joel, we are given the vision of what is possible, “… I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions. 29Even on the male and female slaves, in those days, I will pour out my spirit. “I am not ging to touch too much on the scrouge that is sexism and slavery – but I do want you to hear that even in a time when sexism and slavery were acceptable parts of the landscape, that God was making no distinctions about who would be worthy to receive and carry the Word of God. In God’s kindom – there are no fancy schmancy rules for who gets to speak, who gets to be a part of creating God’s rule on earth – we are all in on it!
Now the Pharisees get slammed on by everybody but to be fair to them, they were trying to be role models of faith in a time when Jewish identity was under attack from all sides. It was not only easier, but more expedient and, far more safe, to “go along to get along”. Rome liked to say that they allowed all people their own choice of faith, but the reality was one had to look Roman and sound Roman and think Roman in order to get ahead. Even Paul will talk about how Roman he is and how much he gets the Roman mindset, in order to increase his appeal to the Gentiles. In his 2007 article, Paul of Tarsus: A citizen of no mean city, Thomas Glyn Watkin, notes that in Acts 21:39, Paul sez “I am a Jew from Tarsus in Cilicia, a citizen of an important city; I beg you, let me speak to the people.” Paul makes this statement to the chief captain who arrests him in Jerusalem and who is surprised to hear Paul speak Greek. Paul explains his origins to the Captain and appears to take great pride in claiming his Roman affiliation. Tarsus was an important Roman city having both a vital port for trade and an important university. Ceasar Augustus himself had been educated there so Paul is giving a pretty impressive pedigree by claiming to be a Roman citizen of the city of Tarsus. This may give Paul entrée for the Gentiles – but it feels like a betrayal to the hard-pressed Jews, who are trying not to be swallowed up by the Empire.
So the Pharisees, who were dedicated to preserving Judaism and its unique footprint under this overwhelming Roman onslaught, often made themselves models of faithful living – and therefore targets to Roman rulers – by dressing in traditional Jewish attire and by following with careful precision ALL the Jewish laws. We might recognise this in the defiant cultural assertion of many around us today, who really truly do NOT want things to change, and who are loudly and proudly becoming Pharisees of cultural traditions that they fear to lose. Being a Pharisee is a tough job. You have to forever be vigilant to follow every jot and tittle of the law – cuz you can’t be sure which one, if left behind, will make the whole thing fall apart.
Jesus comes into that moment to affirm that what makes us God’s children is not dependent on us but based in God’s love for us. So, the law and the traditions are not what make the believer a true believer – we aren’t building our ladder to God. Rather God has come to us – God stands right in front of us and opens their arms and says “lay all that down. Your striving is not bringing me to you – I am here already.”
But we still fall into thinking there is a right way to be a faithful person. One of my colleagues in his sermon prep for today talked about how this Pharisee with all his concern for, and pride in, doing the “right” thing reminded him of Dana Carvey’s character of the Church Lady. If you aren’t old enough to recall that character, she was an older woman, dressed in flowered dresses and conservative sweaters, with her single strand pearl necklace, her cat’s-eye glasses and her 1950s styled grey hair. Her tag line was “Isn’t that special?”, uttered every time she disapproved of something – which was a lot. Like the Pharisee, she carried her faith in very specific way, and any variation of that way was just, well, wrong. Her heart was so crammed with the rules and the regulations that there was very little room for the love of God to get in there.
So today the question comes to us: How do we live our faith? What are the goals of our faith here at St. Matthew? What does the church want to carry forward so that we can be part of the love of God? What do we need to lay down to fill our community with God’s love rather than things? God never calls us to places that are cemented by human hands – rather we are called to the dreams and visions of the Spirit’s leading – and that’s pretty terrifying! We are ALL used to faith looking a certain way and sounding a certain way and being practised a certain way. Next week is Reformation and for 500 plus years, we have been singing “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God”. It is a great touchstone and a connection to the ancestors – and trust me I ain’t touching it! – but we have to remind ourselves that there was first time it was sung, a moment when 1500 years of Christian history changed. Luther wanted the faith to be freed from the culture of Rome that had come to define it, so that it could proclaim again the joy of grace filled salvation. And that goal of making sure the eternal faith speaks to the current moment – means that we will be praying, allowing God to empty us of the past so that we can meet the future.
God calls us to awareness of what we must lay down in order to embrace that evolving changing future – now we won’t lose the witness of the ancestors but we ARE called back to that Eden mandate of growth and caretaking – of saying to the Spirit, we will trust those dream and visions given to us even if we are laying down the old expressions of faith. As Lutherans, as people of the Reformation, as a nation constructed on the principle of e pluribus unum – out of many, one – we know that we are able to survive being reshaped, rebuilt and regrown in that reform – because we have the witness of the ancestors telling us that if we empty ourselves, we can trust God to refill us.
The goal of our DARING faith then, as we enter into the coming Advent season, is to empty ourselves and allow Jesus to fill us with the Spirit to step into that creative, creating, God blessed kindom where all are given the space to dream dreams, and to speak visions. In that kindom, no one will be untouched – we will all be poured out as a libation, to become the real-life tangible witness that manifests God’s reign on earth as it is in heaven. Are you ready? Let’s lay it down, let’s receive our blessing and let’s roll up our sleeves – let’s live our DARING faith!